On a recent Tuesday, just like every Tuesday, more than a dozen members of the Duluth-Superior Harbormasters Chorus gathered in the lobby of Kenwood Lutheran Church — mostly to sing, but also to rib each other and enjoy a mid-rehearsal break with banana bread.
It was the long-running group’s second-to-last rehearsal before its biggest fundraiser of the year: singing valentines.
For $39, a barbershop quartet will show up at an assigned place in the Twin Ports — whether it's a home, office, restaurant — and serenade a sweetie with old timey four-part tunes, such as “Sweet and Lovely (That’s What You Are To Me),” “Honey Little Eyes,” “Heart of My Hearts” and more.
At the group’s apex, late in the 1990s, they delivered about 115 sing-outs to the unsuspecting valentines. This year's schedule is a little leaner. Still: “It’s almost always a surprise,” said Jim Barschdorf, president and a member of the group’s quartet Pickup Fore — a nod to the fact that they all played golf.
Enough of a surprise, he reported, that once on a singing job at a rural Wisconsin residence, they sang for the keepers of a day care center and more than a dozen kiddos.
“We were all dressed in our dude clothes, our suits,” he said. “(Afterward, they said) ‘We thought you were government inspectors.’”
‘Let’s sing a song’
The late Don “Curly” Erickson is credited with being a founding member of the group that formed in 1953. The tenor-turned-baritone answered a newspaper ad calling for singers, according to a News Tribune story from 2000.
He was reportedly drawn by the signature four-part harmony style of barber-shopping — an old-school style without musical accompaniment. There were barbershop groups from here to Superior to Cloquet and back, in those days. Eventually, they all came together as the Duluth-Superior group.
Valentine’s Day is the group’s moneymaker, but they also have concerts, play funerals, perform in variety shows or entertain during National Night Out.
Chubber Gimpel has been in the Harbormasters for 65 years, longer than any other current member. He doesn’t always want to go to rehearsal, he admitted last week, but: “I’m always happy on the way home,” he added. He had spent part of his day listening to comedy quartet records.
Gimpel didn’t plan to participate in the Valentine’s Day assignments. He doesn’t hear so well anymore, and that makes it tricky.
Stew Raygor will miss this year’s serenades but has enjoyed the response in the past.
“Usually surprise or shock,” he said of the audience. “We’ve always been welcome.”
And even if they weren’t, would it stop them? The Harbormasters, according to Raygor, have been known to spontaneously entertain while sitting in a restaurant together.
The call: “Let’s sing a song,” he said.
‘We’re here today to entertain you’
The scene was casual on a recent Tuesday, with about 13 of 18 singers — some standing, some sitting, sometimes depending on the liveliness or patriotic level of the tune.
Different combinations of lead, tenor, bass and baritone took to the front of the room, some in official Harbormaster button-down shirts, and worked through the songs. There were accordion folders and binders thick with sheets of music. In between there were group sing-alongs — a medley of patriotic tunes that started with Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
Raygor had a quartet called Cooler By the Lake and was invited by his golf partner to join Harbormasters. He described the group simply.
“A bunch of guys who like getting together to sing,” he said.
Steve Lapatka, who probably drives the farthest to rehearse, (he lives in Virginia) is the crew’s interim director — and has been for years. Part of the draw: “All the crazy characters,” he said. “We have one of everything.”
Among them, the tall guy and the group’s newest member: the Rev. Sean Koos, a nearly 7-foot-tall singer who came in with a barbershop background.
“Our Big Bass,” Barschdorf called him, one of a few nicknames found in this group.
Right before the midway coffee-snack break, an original song by former director David Tucci — a sort of Harbormaster’s theme song — was among the high-energy picks. They all sang together:
“We are the Harbormasters / From Duluth / We’re here today to entertain you / That’s the truth.”
For more information
- Who: Duluth-Superior Harbormasters Chorus
- What: Singing valentines, $39
- When: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Feb. 12-14
- How to find them: Don, 715-392-1357; Jerry, 218-391-8800