Visiting Boys Town: The Embodiment Of Heart And Song

September 29, 2019

 

My January visit to Boys Town was an unforgettable experience. And there are so many other synergistic reasons why Boys Town has been on my mind as of late. The Academy Award-winning film Boys Town received its premiere 81 years ago this month, on September 7, 1938. And this summer, the process for Boys Town Founder Father Flanagan's sainthood advanced with the Vatican while John Mollison, the chorister I interviewed about his experience recording with The Everly Brothers, retired from Boys Town. See: "Christmas With The Everly Brothers And The Boys Town Choir." 

 

Above Photo: Boys Town tour guide Pam answers my questions about the exhibit concerning Father Flanagan's purchase of the 160-acre Overlook Farm in May 1921. Ten miles west of Omaha, it was to be the future home of Boys Town. Photo by Shelly Warner.

 

Since my interview with John in 2017, I've been keen on the idea of recreating this album in concert form. Christmas nostalgia is an industry in of itself, but there aren't many, if any, opportunities through which audiences can experience its recorded music history in the context of place. Well, after some inquiry and consultation, I'm beyond delighted to share the news that I'm collaborating with Boys Town Music Director Sierra Sanchez to organize a concert celebrating The Boys Town Choir's 1962 collaboration with The Everly Brothers for Christmas 2020!

 

And even more significant is that my proposal was accepted weeks ago in August, 57 years to the month that the album was recorded at Dowd Memorial Chapel. In celebration, I'd like to share an account of my experience at Boys Town in hopes that it will serve as an inspiring preface, like a pre-concert program or documentary of sorts, for next year's performance. 

 

During my afternoon visit on January 27th, I was taken by the history, the mission and the integrity of buildings and artifacts. Among them was the Best Actor Oscar that actor Spencer Tracy gifted to Father Flanagan as a symbol of his life's work. Boys Town gave wings to "The City of Little Men" where Father Flanagan welcomed poor, orphaned and at-risk youth of all religions, races and cultural backgrounds. He was a social reformer and visionary who "In the face of bigotry, narrow-mindedness and outright threats, held fast to his principles of acceptance, equality and respect for all (Boystown.org)."

 

Boys Town was filmed on location and premiered at local Omaha Theatre. More than 20,000 fans gathered at Union Station to meet Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney and Father Flanagan as they arrived by train from California. There were only 2,000 tickets for the premiere while a crowd of 30,000 waited outside. "This thing makes a Hollywood premiere look like a dying hog," said Tracy in an article by the Omaha World-Herald. "I've never seen anything like it." 

 

I captured a few photos of the film's display in the Boys Town Hall of History along with some archived premiere photos from the Omaha World-Herald. 

 

Father Flanagan's organization of the choir in 1935 was met with the film's international acclaim a few years later. The choir was renowned in its own right, but without Boys Town gaining celebrity, perhaps some of the opportunities they received, including their collaboration with The Everly Brothers, may not have materialized. Even the construction of Dowd Memorial Chapel was made possible by a generous donation from Mary Dowd who was moved to make her gift after seeing the Academy Award-winning film. It was completed in the fall of 1940 and dedicated in January 1941. The appeal of prominence aside, Boys Town's real-world presence eclipses that of its Tinsel Town darling.

 

My reason for visiting Boys Town was to experience its history in the context of place, including those locations where the choir rehearsed and recorded with The Everly Brothers in August 1962. It's impossible to listen to the album and truly understand the depth of this collaboration nor the season it encapsulates without greater insight into the world of Boys Town, whose mission it has been to save children and heal families for over 100 years. And now that I've journeyed to its origins, I have an even greater level of understanding and admiration. The music sounds even more beautiful to me now than it ever did before.

 

En route to Shenandoah to prepare for our Everly Brothers Pop-Up Museum at the Surf Ballroom's Winter Dance Party, my twin sister Sheryl and I scheduled a flight into Omaha where we met our colleague Shelly Warner. I had reached out to Boys Town in early December to make arrangements for our tour. We were late arriving to campus per our flight, but we were met by Pam, an excellent tour guide who made the most of our time with a great deal of knowledge, candor and humor. "I'm so glad John wasn't available so I could join you," Pam laughed. She had read our interview and now took a special interest in this history.

 

We purchased a few postcards in the gift shop before starting the tour, including the following postcards depicting Father Flanagan with choristers and Dowd Memorial Chapel in winterscape. With its exterior resembling the Gothic churches of rural England, it was just as picturesque as the day we visited. The postcards were printed in-house by the Boys Town Print Shop. 

 

Shelly played the Christmas album in her car as we drove around the village listening to Pam's commentary. It was so lovely. One could scarcely imagine being any closer to the history than we were in those moments. I brought my vinyl album along for a photo in the chapel where we arrived a short time later. Once inside, Pam led us to the baptistery where Father Flanagan was laid to rest (this is the octagonal structure on the right in the postcard). Watch the 1948 Paramount newsreel of Father Flanagan's funeral. 

 

Citing biographical facts and anecdotes, Pam spoke of his life, his passion and his work in equal parts profound and jocular, as was befitting. As we walked around the tomb, there was reverence, but also laughter. Having studied psychology and music, working in philanthropy and social services alongside the performing arts, I could identify with his approach to music as an avenue for help and healing. He was acutely aware that music was essential to life, but especially an ailing life. 

 

An article written by alumnus William Shannon entitled, "Music Delivered a Boy from Despair," certainly gives one an idea of the tremendous impact the program had as a measure of enrichment and rehabilitation. "The fact is that when Father Flanagan was alive it was his fervent belief that teaching and sharing the gift of music with homeless young boys would greatly enrich their lives. I am living proof, as are hundreds of other Boys Town alumni..."

 

Father Flanagan was an Irish immigrant and his heritage was represented in subtle ways around campus, usually through design elements and accents of green, including in the baptistery. With so many of his character traits reminding me of beloved family members, I felt closer to my own Irish-Catholic ancestry. Pam also told us that the chapel was made of Bedford limestone from Indiana, the state where my father was born. The personal connections I was making along the tour created an even deeper experience. History endures because of human interest in continuum. Relevance is powerful. While we're on a path to discover more about the past, we inevitably discover more about ourselves!

 

When we walked from the baptistery to the nave, I looked up and noticed the unmistakable gallery depicted in an artist's rendering on the album cover. The stained glass was radiant despite the overcast afternoon. The sparse light shone through like full sun in its illumination. Pam said she had heard the organ played only twice because there wasn't an organist on campus regularly enough who played the 4,000 pipe instrument. I was keen to explore the console, pipe display and get a better sense of the acoustic signature of the platform area, but this wasn't possible due to time and access.

 

Next time! For now, I'm indebted to the Organ Historical Society Database for providing specs and photos documenting the organ's three-manual console.

 

Pam took this photo of our Everly trio, who as you can see, bundled up properly for the incoming polar vortex! (from left to right: me, Shelly and Sheryl):

 

 

Except for one man praying near the altar, we were the only individuals in the chapel. I managed to respectfully take some photos without disturbing him:  

 

Boys Town has accessed that Dowd Memorial Chapel is in need of extensive repairs and is currently pursuing a campaign for funds to cover its restoration (learn more). I would like the proceeds from the concert to support this cause as well as Boys Town music programs. Watch this drone flyover capturing workers and scaffolding on the chapel roof tending to its maintenance. 

 

After another short drive, we arrived at the Hall of History where there were permanent exhibits narrating the history of Boys Town, including those pertaining to the chapel and choir. As a former dining hall built by Father Flanagan in 1939, the Hall of History is a wonderful example of a re-purposed historical building.

 

There were photos, documents, artworks, video/audio excerpts and many small and large artifacts including a Flex bus that transported Boys Town athletic teams across the country and the reproduction of a Show Wagon from "Father Flanagan's Boys' Shows" which presented variety reviews with band music, vaudeville skits and comedy routines. Father Flanagan created "America's First Boy Band" before he organized the choir. Other ensembles included a marching band and orchestra.

 

 

Exhibit pieces documented the construction and dedication of Dowd Memorial Chapel. It's interesting to note what was happening at the time of its completion in 1941. The sequel Men of Boys Town was released that year and Father Flanagan had charged Father Francis P. Schmitt with the task of training the choir that would eventually send them on international tours.

 

The choir exhibit showcased sculptures from the likeness of real choristers, keys from cities around the world, including from the Emperor of Japan, historic vinyls and more. I enjoyed seeing photos of the choir at Dowd Memorial Chapel and also The Music Hall where they had rehearsed with The Everly Brothers and played volleyball with them behind the building during breaks. I'd already felt a personal connection during my visit, but then there was a next-level association when I saw their 1951 contract to perform in Logan, Ohio which is close to my birthplace/hometown of Athens!

 

Historical audio excerpts were offered as optional listening for visitors. Pam said most guests for whom she had given private tours usually just listened to her commentary and never opted for the audio. When I selected "Silent Night," there was profound stillness. It was just the four of us in the museum. I slowly panned over the exhibit with my phone to capture a video. Pam, who had to this point been the witty comedienne, was teary-eyed. 

 

 

It was clear from all that I'd seen and experienced that Father Flanagan not only believed in the healing power of music for the boys in his care, but as a point of universal connection for all. I transcribed the following quote from this video: "I'd like to think of music as being the language of the soul. It reveals us truth and beauty beyond the power of words to describe. Music goes beyond the barriers of race, creed, or geography. It is a spiritual medium of mutual fellowship for all people, for the rich and the poor, for the mighty and the meek, for the old and for the young" (Father Flanagan).

 

The Omaha company Nanonation with whom I've been consulting about interactive display technology for The Everly Brothers Childhood Home installed a donor exhibit in the Hall of History, so I made sure to spend a few minutes there. Impressive! I was looking at donor entries when surprisingly John's profile appeared on screen! 

 

 

During the driving part of our tour, we passed The Music Hall where the Everlys and the choir rehearsed and played volleyball together. I asked Pam if we could take a look inside, but it isn't open to the public. As we continued, Pam pointed out scenes from the film, such as where Mickey Rooney first entered Boys Town near Father Flanagan's house.

 

A girl waved at us from a window as we were driving by the large beautiful houses where specially trained families cared for Boys Town youth. Some youth were there only on a short-term basis, whereas others were there longer term depending on their situation. I waved back at the girl. It was a powerful moment. I wanted to smile and cry at the same time. I could hear John's response to my question about what membership in the choir meant to him: "Our appearances around the country brought to life the reality of what Boys Town was for many people whose only exposure was the Boys Town movie or the seasonal mailings they received. It let them know that their donations were making a difference in the lives of boys who might not otherwise have a chance in life. It made Boys Town real for them and not just a fictional place they saw in a movie."

 

Although it was the end of January, I was so thankful for the Christmas decorations that remained. They added another dimension to the experience. Approaching Father Flanagan's home, I took this video where you can hear Pam's commentary, our enthusiasm and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" playing from the album on Shelly's car stereo. We were amused by Pam's "Shenanigans" comment ("I call it Flanagans!") given the Everly connection which I told her about afterwards (Don Everly played in a band named "The Shenanigans" in Shenandoah).

 

On the National Register of Historic Places, Father Flanagan's house was an especially festive time capsule. The furnishings were original just as were many of the decorations. In one room, there was a scene of Father Flanagan and some of the boys gathered around a Christmas tree recreated from life-sized photos. A classroom and dormitory were also imagined with authenticity. When I saw all of the little beds with stockings and vintage Christmas cards draped with quilts made after the designs Father Flanagan's sister made for the boys (she also lived in the home), I felt indebted to the album that brought me here.

 

The film Boys Town was produced by Warner Brothers and The Everly Brothers were Warner artists at the time, so I'm sure this collaboration was first and foremost a business decision for the company. But their union was more deeply rooted than any executive's idea to marry classical choral voices with blood harmony. 

 

Don and Phil began their careers in the 1940s as child radio stars in Shenandoah, Iowa, just 74 miles from Boys Town. As itinerant musicians, the Everly family lived a humble and uncertain existence. But just as their father Ike's musicianship offered him an escape from the life of a coal miner, so did music offer the brothers an avenue for success in music when they came close to abandoning their dreams.

 

Christmas With The Everly Brothers And The Boys Town Choir represents formidable innocence, the dichotomy of precarious formative years and strength of song. When listening to this album, you can almost hear the stories of their shared early plight with music as the driving force to create possibility in their lives. To know the depth of this collaboration is to truly know the gift of music. And this is the defining characteristic that will make the concert at Boys Town next year such a profound experience. Music was their key to perseverance and through acts of preservation, we'll ensure that their music endures.

 

Sherry

 

The content on this site belongs exclusively to its creator and author, Sherry Davis. It is protected under the Copyright Act of 1976 and all subsequent amendments to copyright law. An excerpt or image may not be reproduced without consent. Please contact the author to request permission.

 

 

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