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How hundreds of Lancaster teens came together to sing their way through the late 60s [photos, video]

  • 9 min to read
Sing-Out Lancaster 3.jpg

The cast of Sing-Out Lancaster performs at McCaskey High School on Sunday, April 30, 1967.

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They arrived onstage in a frenzy, running and singing and clapping into formation.

Dozens of squeaky-clean teenagers clad in matching jumpers and blazers performed nearly 40 songs in the span of two hours, songs with titles such as “Freedom Isn’t Free” and “You Can’t Live Crooked and Think Straight.”

Sing-Out Lancaster arrived with a shout in 1966 and ended with a whimper in 1970, a stretch of time marked nationally by increasing opposition to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.

As “hippies” and “beatniks” took to the streets, corporate America searched for a way to present an opposing view through the guise of popular music, one of the essential ways of reaching youth in the ’60s.

For those who did not want to sit in, they could Sing-Out. At the height of its success, the local group performed for 32,000 people at Long’s Park on Aug. 4, 1968.

Cheryl Alleman was 15 when a family friend who worked at Schick Electric Co. on Hempstead Road mentioned to her that the national Sing-Out group would be performing at Long’s Park on Aug. 6, 1966. At the end of the performance, a representative of Sing-Out announced that anyone who would like to join a local chapter could meet at the Schick cafeteria the following Monday.

Alleman was one of 24,000 Lancaster residents to attend the performance and one of 179 to heed the group’s call. A week later, the group was loaded onto seven buses to perform with the national cast at the 1966 Allentown Fair, singing three songs.

“It was the best times of our lives back then,” Alleman, now 68, said. “I was all about it from day one, and then it was my life.”

Patti Parmer, another initial member of Sing-Out Lancaster, added, “It was very patriotic, very positive, it was up with people. My parents were so patriotic, so we all went to the [national cast performance]. And it just floored you.”

With Schick Electric Co. sponsoring national Sing-Out efforts, it made sense that the Lancaster hub of Schick would serve as a meeting and rehearsal space, as well as an initial financial benefactor for the local group.


More than music

Students from every school district in Lancaster County arrived at Schick with a varying degree of musical talent. Some, such as Parmer, already had years of singing and piano experience. Others, such as drummer Doug Flurry and vocalist David Kirk, saw Sing-Out Lancaster as a way to hone their chops for a future in music. Still others, like Gail Burnaford, were just enthusiastic to participate.

“It wasn’t just about the music,” Burnaford, 66, explained. “They wanted to create a group that was receptive to each other.”

Though the group was enthusiastic about the potential to travel and perform, the political bent of the songs was not as apparent to everyone.

“When you’re 15, you’re sort of oblivious to things in the world,” Burnaford said. “It was a big tent, so you could be patriotic, but you had to include everyone.”

Appearances in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania cities became frequent as the group performed nearly every weekend, and some weekdays.

“We were like Energizer bunnies,” Alleman said. “We’d sing all the way to shows on the bus, do a two-hour performance, and then sing all the way back home.”

In charge of corralling the small army of teenagers was musical director Mildred Lilley, who retired early from her job as a music teacher at Conestoga Valley School District to work with Sing-Out.

“I always wished I was at Mrs. Lilley’s school,” Alleman said. “She had such patience to work with a group that big. Nobody was made to feel like they didn’t have a voice.”

Indeed, musical skills were not a prerequisite. Members of Sing-Out Lancaster recalled Lilley gently placing the more tone-deaf among them off to the side — but never out — of the chorus. In a July 1967 interview with the Intelligencer Journal, Lilley says, “I could pick a handful of above average voices, but together, somehow, it comes out great!”

Nearly all of Sing-Out Lancaster’s musical output was composed of the national cast’s songbook, the most famous of which later provided the national organization’s name after a reorganization in 1969 — “Up With People.”

Even after Sing-Out nationally became Up With People, local groups continued under the “Sing-Out” banner.

Each song featured its own bit of choreography, which was handled by David Gress. Gress came to the cast as the most distinguished in the world of performing – as a child, Gress had served as an understudy to the actors portraying Kurt and Friedrich Von Trapp in the original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music.” Later, he performed with Katharine Hepburn in a production of “Twelfth Night” at the American Shakespeare Theater in Connecticut. Gress died in 1991 at the age of 46.

“[Gress] was particularly gung-ho and very invested in the quality that we put forward,” says Burnaford. “He knew a lot about stage prep and keeping things fresh.”

Adds Parmer, “I don’t recall the choreography being that hard to learn. Of course, when you’re a teenager, you can just roll with it.”


Up With People

Sing-Out Lancaster closed out 1967 performing in venues of every size, from AMVETS buildings and PTA meetings to county and state fairs across Pennsylvania. The group also recorded its first half-hour special for WGAL.

One of the literal show-stopping numbers for the WGAL performance was a rendition of “Joan of Arc,” featuring Burnaford on solo vocal. As the story goes, an ingenious camera operator lit a match and held it in front of the camera, superimposing the glow on a young Burnaford of Arc.

“I caught a glimpse of the monitor with me burning on it, and I gasped and forgot to sing,” Burnaford remembers today with a laugh. “I thought, ‘I don’t feel warm, I don’t think I’m burning.’ They had to re-tape it and told me not to look at the monitor.”

Sing-Out Lancaster continued into the tumultuous months of 1968, but one person who did not stick around for long was David Kirk  — though not because of a weariness with the material. In fact, Kirk sang the solo in “Keep Young At Heart” and wanted more.

That summer, Kirk visited the national Sing-Out conference at David’s Island, New York, where Up with People had purchased the then-dilapidated military base of Fort Slocum and turned it into a sleepaway camp. Kirk remembers studying the ins and outs of singing with voice coach Rea Zimmerman, who had written the book on the subject — “Sing Out Like Never Before: A Handbook on Voice Production.”

After one call to his parents and the purchase of a new suitcase with S&H Green Stamps from the Food Fair, Kirk was off to Naperville, Illinois, to begin his journey. Because he had not yet learned the national group’s material, Kirk was forced to sit and watch from his hotel room while his compatriots performed on the first night of his initial national tour. It’s probably for the best he missed it — the group was performing at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which was infamously beset by rioting and mayhem.

Further dates of this tour were in the deep South in 1968, where venues still displayed “Whites Only” signs over bathrooms and water fountains.

“Up With People was picketed almost everywhere we went,” Kirk, who now lives in Arizona, recalled. “Here we were as the white-bread American bunch, essentially ignoring American apartheid. We’d go into these venues, and our stage crew would cover those signs.”


Record crowd

With enough practice of the national cast’s repertoire behind them, Sing-Out Lancaster members were encouraged to write their own songs. Parmer recalls writing the plaintive “Let’s Start Now,” in a single afternoon with songwriting partner Barbara Kopp. Inspired by the national cast’s inclusion of an instrumental number to the show, drummer Flurry and vocalist Jeff Stadden co-wrote the song “Movin.’”

“It was very derivative,” Flurry, who continues to play music in the Lancaster area, said. “There’s several songs with the same melody and chord progression. Whatever. We put it together, and they liked it.”

The members of Sing-Out Lancaster spent the initial months of their second full year raising funds via car washes and hoagie sales. Though Schick still provided a meeting ground for the group, its burgeoning success meant additional funds for lighting, make-up, risers and other professional touches.

The money was saved in anticipation of a second anniversary show at Long’s Park, aimed to top the previous year’s blowout.

For this grand performance, some musical numbers were beefed up with interesting costume changes. For example, Diane Gearhart and Marty Summer, the replacements for Kirk on “Keep Young at Heart” at this point, were costumed and made up to look like elderly folks to send the song’s message home.

For Parmer, it was just about seeing where to take her next step.

“We weren’t allowed to perform onstage with glasses on, and since contacts weren’t a thing yet, my mother sewed a pocket in the front of my jumper, so I could run onstage and then put my glasses away,” Parmer said. When it came time for her and partner Nan Thomas to sing a duet, stage fright didn’t come into play at all.

“All I could really see was splotches of color,” Parmer said. “Certainly not all those people.”

Though most of the show included songs the group had been performing for almost two years at that point, the emotional climax of the night came near the end. Representatives from Sing-Out asked the record crowd of 32,000 to light a match in honor of two recently deceased leaders — Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated April 4, and Sen. Robert Kennedy, assassinated June 6. Thousands of small, flickering flames shot up around Long’s Park as Sing-Out tore through “We Shall Overcome” and “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.”

Instead of applause, the large crowd stayed silent for a full minute before Sing-Out broke into a rousing rendition of “Up With People” to close the historic show, according to the New Era.

“That was a truly thrilling night,” Burnaford said. “You never saw anything like that in your life.”


Quiet ending

By 1969, the cast of Sing-Out Lancaster had almost completely turned over from its origins in 1966, because of members graduating from high school, changing priorities or simply just growing tired of the group’s schtick.

Flurry, for example, graduated high school to tour and play in rock bands. Alleman, unfortunately, suffered from an inflamed appendix on a Sing-Out bus ride and was rushed to a nearby hospital for an emergency appendectomy procedure.

“We were on our way to performing at the House of Representatives in Harrisburg,” Alleman says with a laugh. “It was a big show!”

Sing-Out Lancaster’s local influence spread to neighboring towns and counties, with “Sing-Out Berks County,” “Sing-Out Greater Harrisburg” and “Sing-Out Lebanon” all popping up in this time period.

Midway through the year, Schick pulled its support, citing a lack of adult volunteers willing to give their time.  

Despite new numbers and former successes at the amphitheater, Sing-Out Lancaster’s third anniversary performance at Long's Park was its last. According to stories leading up to the show, the reduced cast of 85 people performed at least half a dozen new songs under the appropriate theme “The Sing-Out Sound Explodes.” Crowd numbers for this performance went unrecorded in the press.

As the decade ended, Sing-Out Lancaster performed at two final events as participants called for “past, present and future members” to support the group, though these calls went unheeded.

The group’s final funds, $1,300, were delivered to the local chapter of United Way.

After Sing-Out Lancaster ended, the group’s beloved instructor, Lilley, returned to teaching music. Lilley died at 78 in 2003.

As with any class of students in high school, once Sing-Out Lancaster ended, its members scattered to the wind. Patti Parmer’s “hippie” tendencies finally led her out of the group, with singing partner Nan Thomas in tow. The duo wrote several folk songs together throughout 1970 and 1971, before Thomas died as a passenger in a car crash.

“We were working at the stage of being able to travel and perform, and that was going to be our life,” Parmer said. “I didn’t touch a guitar again for a number of years (after her death).”

Parmer’s father, William, encouraged her to keep in contact with George Syder, an African American member of the Sing-Out stage crew who had been drafted to Vietnam. Though she didn’t know him well, Parmer kept correspondence with the soldier for 2 1/2 years.

When he returned home, he asked to visit her. Syder pulled up on his motorcycle, the two exchanged a few pleasantries, and then he left. When Parmer went back inside, her parents were apoplectic.

“I will never forget what my mother said. ‘He can’t come over here! People will throw bricks through our windows!’ ” Parmer recalled. “I was so angry and hurt with them. I’m thinking, ‘You taught me that there’s no differences in people!’ One of our songs was called ‘What Color is God’s Skin?’ you know?”

Parmer, now 68, stayed active musically, performing at churches in Lancaster and becoming a florist.

Asked if a local group on the scale of Sing-Out Lancaster could exist in 2019, most former members interviewed gave a resounding “no.” Reasons include a lack of youth enthusiasm and an inability for people to live the messages of the songs.

While Gail Burnaford agreed the fervor for such a large undertaking is hard to find today, her memories of Sing-Out Lancaster have not faded in the half-century since the group’s existence.

“Now that I think about it all these years later, I think there was an intentionality to the positive spirit of Sing-Out,” Burnaford said. “It was OK to be patriotic and still find fault with your country. And that’s how I’ve lived my life.”