Reminiscences of the ’56 Whiffenpoofs

By Marty “Popocatepetl” Fenton


It is springtime in New Haven… there is new energy in the Yale community; students, having survived the cold, raw, icy winter are looking forward to sunny spring days outside, and, soon thereafter, a summer free of studies and term papers.
But this evening there is singing on the campus… the Whiffenpoofs are traipsing from one college to another and pause at specific entryways to sing one of their songs while their leader, the Popocatepetl, goes into the entry and then to a room to ask one of the residents if they would like to be part of next year’s group, the Whiffenpoofs of 1956.

The Whiffenpoofs, founded in 1905 by a group of ‘gentlemen songsters,’ have become part of the fabric of Yale and are emblematic of the singing tradition that has burgeoned throughout the University. Today there are men’s groups, women’s groups, the Yale Glee Club and others, less well known, that give students the opportunity to sing and possibly to mature and become picked to be a member of the better known groups… or even the Whiffs?

This Whiffenpoof selection process is a traditional spring ritual… Their singing echoes through the residential colleges that they visit and theirs is a happy intrusion in the evening for those whom are selected, but it is a sorrowful one for those who might have been worthy, but were not chosen.

This year, however, there is a surprise… The Whiffs come to Davenport College and draft two roommates, both of whom have excellent credentials having sung for years in other singing groups. Surprisingly, the singers continue to the lower court of Davenport and stop at an entryway where there are rooms in which there are no members of other singing groups or even the Yale Glee Club… although in one room there was one ex-athlete who sang in the ‘second string’ Glee Club after being injured and no longer able to play hockey.

In that room, the four roommates are speculating as to who, why and how when all of a sudden their door opens and the 1955 Popo bursts in and asks one of them to join as Popocatepetl for 1956. And almost as an afterthought, he asks the stunned roommate: “You do sing first tenor . . . don’t you?”

This surprising election was subsequently explained by the 1955 Popo as being an effort to insure that the 1956 group would become a close, congenial group and not simply a collection of superb voices. The 1955 Whiffs had several uniquely talented individuals, but the group had never really bonded.

As it happened, the 1956 Whiffs became, individually and collectively, great friends and developed a bond that often seemed sensed by audiences. And in retrospect it is interesting to note that the enduring mantra of the Class of 1956 became… “Friendship Lasts.”

Musically, the Whiffenpoofs of 1956 were fortunate to have a graduate student as their ‘Pitchpipe,’ their leader whose job it was to understand the talents of each of the other eleven and then to choose a repertoire of songs appropriate to those talents. Dick Gregory was just such a man and somehow or another he managed to persuade us that we were talented as a group.

He succeeded brilliantly and wrote, and or rearranged, several songs that became, over time, the ‘de facto’ trademarks of the group.

Thomas “And Away He” Flugstad silenced noisy audiences when he sang “Scarlet Ribbons, a haunting and plaintive serenade. Counterpoint to this song was George “Two By” Forker as he smoothly offered the up tempo, “We’ll Have Manhattan.” Or there was the lusty “Strike Up the Band,” a tribute to sailors everywhere or the close harmony of “Down by the Old Cherry Orchard.” The entire group developed an extensive repertoire of classic Yale Whiffenpoof standards as well as new verses to “Tear It Down” ”by Donald “Kinder” Gordon. And then there was the “Saloon” solo by Hollinshead “Fly By” Knight who went on to become a clergyman.

Interestingly enough Tom Flugstad also went to Divinity School; three members, James “Apple Pan” Downey, Ernest “Ol Cherry O” Richards and Forker became doctors. Gordon and “Pitchpipe” Gregory became teachers whereas the others had a variety of business careers.

Charles “Catas” Durfee spent years in the field of nuclear energy. Robert “Fruit” Markert was a lifer in telecommunications. Charles “Casu” Allee was first a lawyer and ultimately a banker and Jim “Yours For The As” Kingsbury spent his career as an investment banker.

A year spent in the Whiffenpoofs was a major time commitment… in late August 1955, the troupe of singers met in the Adirondacks for two weeks of rehearsals to build a repertoire for performances that began in earnest as soon as college opened.

Not all the time was spent singing; there was ample time for those who were not already friends to spend time together. The camp where they stayed was on a lake and during a summer-ending Labor Day water sports event, put forth the “Beef Trust,” a group of paddlers, to win a hotly contested war canoe race.

The evenings saw the first of our concerts, initially for family, but gradually for friends and then an expanding, curious group who wanted a preview of the 1956 Whiffenpoofs.

And, of course, the more they sang, the more comfortable they became with each other. The closeness that began to evolve in the Adirondacks became ever more important as their year evolved.

Eleven of the 12 were also members of the Yale Glee Club… in fact “Apple Pan” Downey was the President and “Yours for the As” Kingsbury was the manager. The Glee Club’s schedule was significant: 20 concerts during the school year, a Christmas Tour to six eastern cities before Christmas and then a western tour after the end of the school year. At every Glee Club concert the Whiffs sang as a group following the intermission and were often, to the disappointment of some purists, the high point of that event. When the school year began, the pace quickened… every Monday night the group showed up for dinner at “the tables down at Mory’s” to sing for their supper and for anyone else that might show up. Actually their first unofficial concert had been in the prior spring when they were asked to assemble at Mory’s to sing for the 1955 Whiffs.

Rehearsals were ongoing… usually twice a week in the late afternoon… by year’s end the group had learned as many as fifty songs of which 20-30 were ‘go-to’ standards. “Pitchpipe” Gregory was a stern taskmaster… a veteran performer with an excellent sense of matching the songs that were sung to the tastes of the listening audience. Rightfully so, as the group usually sang Friday and Saturday of each week in addition to their Mory’s and Glee Club responsibilities.

The range of audiences was broad… trips to women’s colleges were universally popular, groups of alumni were enthusiastic audiences and a highlight of the year was a trip to Puerto Rico to sing at a Navy League Ball. There was also the traditional trip for spring vacation to Bermuda and the Castle Harbor Hotel, a festival week to celebrate the end of a cold, raw, rainy/snowy winter in the northeast. And there were times when one was hard pressed to remember that college was in session… in addition to all the singing, the rehearsals and the travel, there were classes to attend, homework to be done and papers to be written. For after all these were Yale College seniors who were to graduate in June; several were reminded of that fact when the grades for the first semester were issued. Those who had failing grades for that period received a companion note from the Dean with an admonition to improve their grade as failure to do so might mean the individual could not graduate. Thus each individual had to learn to manage these many activities and to balance the increasing demands on their time.

Another lesson for several was how to deal with the adulation of their audiences… that one was a Whiffenpoof was special; soloists were accorded attention at first, but each of them shared in the limelight of the group.

And then there were the girls… all of the members had attended single-sex schools in high school and, of course, Yale. And now their talents had put them in demand; it was a heady experience. Wherever the Whiffs sang, they were the center of attention, the talent… the stars.

And it was justifiably so… the music they sang evoked a full range of emotions and the settings in which they sang were intimate… fraternities, living rooms… venues in which they were almost a part of the gathering. However, two of the members had long time girl friends dating back to high school days… they were affectionately known as “Whiff widows,” but got married soon after graduation.

Two others married girls they had met, and courted, over the year; the others basked in the reflected glory of being a “Whiffenpoof.” For them it was a unique and exciting experience, one that, even then, they knew that they would remember all their lives.

The universe of ‘a capella’ singing was not a large one, but it was significant throughout the east and the Ivy League universities. Singing in four-part harmony requires that the individual singer subordinate his voice such that it blends into the group sound. However, as it often is in such disparate circumstances, there were lessons to be learned that they would carry forward as they moved into more schools, the armed services or industry. They were a team, comprised of individuals from different backgrounds; they were disciplined and managed to balance their lives of singing and of being seniors who were preparing for graduation.