Visiting Boys Town: The Embodiment Of Heart And Song


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 currently in talks with Boys Town Music Director Sierra Sanchez about organizing a future concert to celebrate The Boys Town Choir's 1962 collaboration with The Everly Brothers!

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. For all of my joy in this moment, 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, for next this future 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.