The Story of the Turtle Creek Chorale

By Michael Sullivan: Transcript: JuLy 2016

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Good evening everyone, my name is Michael Sullivan. I am pleased tonight to present my history of the Turtle Creek Chorale as a founding member. But first, allow me to give you some of my personal story. I am the youngest of two children, born in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 8, 1957. My father worked for an electrical contractor for the Space Program. His work made it necessary for us to move around a bit, so my upbringing resembled that of an “army brat.” We ended up in Dallas in the summer of 1972, where I have been ever since.

Religion was never a huge part of family life for us, but as I wrestled with my sexual preference through high school, I sought solace in our Catholic faith and buried myself in music as a way to seek answers to the big questions of who I am and what would I become.

As I graduated high school in May 1975 and started college that fall, and while still living at home, I had pretty much accepted myself as gay and was beginning to explore gay social life in Dallas. The bars, especially the Old Plantation, which stood on the West side of Harwood Street where the Dallas Museum of Art is now, proved the safest place to be with other gay men. But the police were still entering and harassing us in our bars then. I remember the lights would come on, music would stop, and we would all just stand in place quietly as the police moved through our ranks looking, intimidating, and leering at each of us. Then they would leave and the fun would resume.

At the age of 18, while I was buried in my college biology books in our study at home, my father knocked on the door and asked if he could come in. I said of course, and he walked in, grabbed a chair, turned it around and sat down. This always meant something big was about to happen. I could not imagine what was up. My father was a very direct man, not one to mince words. He simply said, “Son, I want to know if you are gay”.

Well, I nearly fell out of my chair. After I choked for what seemed like forever, I simply answered, “Yes, Dad, I am,” to which he replied, “Okay, fine, but I have one request of you.” I said “Of course, Dad, what?” I swear to you, nothing could have prepared me for his next comment, which was, “I don’t care if you’re gay, just promise me you won’t be nelly!” After a few seconds of shock and surprise, I smiled and told him that wouldn’t be a problem! That was my coming out to my father.  

My coming out was more difficult for my Mother, and we had some pretty awful fights and disagreements over the next 5 years or so. But, her love for me ultimately won, and she became, along with my Father, my most steadfast champions for the rest of their lives. I could not have been more fortunate.

My coming out was during the height of the “disco era,” when all of our music was very upbeat, joyful and care-free. Those of us of a certain age remember the big anthems of the day and how good it felt to begin to be free as gay people, enjoying life more in the open and feeling less fearful of being “found out”.

The year 1980 was an interesting and pivotal year in many ways. The political and social environment of our country was shifting. A good friend at the time had told me about the formation of a gay chorus in Dallas and the first rehearsal was coming up. As a happy gay man and a musician, I couldn’t wait for the first rehearsal!

It is now widely accepted that our chorus formed after a meeting, of sorts, at The Crews Inn bar, of three very important people in our history. They were, Don Essmiller, Phil Gerber, and Rodger Wilson.  Thirty-nine guys gathered for our first rehearsal on February 19, 1980, under the musical leadership of Harry E. Scher, who gave his time free of charge. Our first accompanist was Julian V.C. Reed.

The very first piece of music we rehearsed at that first rehearsal was Randal Thompson's "The Last Words of David," which we have performed numerous times since. We gave our first performance on May 18, 1980, at Thanksgiving Square, and our debut piece was J.S. Bach's "To Thee We Turn".

Even though the Stonewall riots were 10 years old, ‘gay rights’ was not a top-of-mind issue, and the term AIDS did not exist. And yet sweeping across the land was a movement among gay men to gather together to sing. In some cities, the newly-formed choruses boldly chose to use the word 'gay' in their name, but in the buckle of the Bible Belt, the founders of just such a chorus in Dallas decided against it for what seemed obvious reasons. For one: the superintendent of the DISD proclaimed “There are no homosexuals in the DISD; and if there were, I would find them and fire them.” Many of our singers were DISD teachers.

The fact was we were a gay chorus; we knew it was not the “Dallas way” to present ourselves as "out, proud and gay" if we wanted our fledgling chorus to survive in the social and political climate of Dallas in 1980. The majority of the men in the new group were not 'out' and the chorus as a whole was certainly not 'out.'

In 1980, fear of repercussions individually and as a chorus kept the closet door rather shut for some time. So, the Turtle Creek Chorale was formed. Co-founder and general manager, Don Essmiller, was acutely aware of the politics of the time, and navigated us through the social challenges of those first years quite successfully, all the while struggling with the internal unrest of whether we should include “gay” in our name and come out in the community as such.

The winning argument eventually was, who cares whether we say we’re gay or not, everyone knows we are. Better to present ourselves to the Dallas community this way and not be alienated before we even get started. As the TCC became a serious arts organization in Dallas, the people of our fair city gradually began to accept us, and eventually we were able to come out. Now we are known as an open and accepting gay men’s choir with a variable number of straight men in our ranks. That may not have been the way for other choruses across America, but it worked for us in Dallas and has made us quite a successful, inclusive and loving family.

On Tuesday June 24, 1980 the TCC gave it's first formal concert at Caruth Auditorium on the SMU campus with over 70 members performing. I remember our first "regulation" attire of khaki slacks, dark blue polo shirt with embroidered TCC logo and a blue web belt with a red central stripe. Very chic for the day. Tickets were a whopping $2.50 and we performed to a standing-room-only crowd. We sang a varied program including the beloved "Last Words of David" to our cheering audience. We did a variety of benefit performances in that first year, one of which was for the Dallas Gay Alliance at the historic Dallas landmark Trinity Methodist Church which was later destroyed by fire.

By the end of our first season, the TCC had grown to 83 members. Also in that first season we lost our first member, Mike McConnell in a tragic auto accident, a death foreshadowing many more in the dark years to come.

The need for extra rehearsal time became obvious as we continued to build our repertoire through that first extended season. So, we decided to have an out of town retreat weekend at Lake Texoma Lodge in September 1980. You can imagine what a raucous time we had! I remember it rained heavily the whole time, but though we were soaked, we began to form the deep and binding friendships that have seen many of us through the years. Oh, and we did practice a lot as well. This became an annual event and has continued at every retreat since.

The first retreat "show" was a spontaneous collection of a few silly pieces performed after our Saturday evening rehearsal and dinner. Four members sang "Hey Big Spender" to a shocked and surprised Harry Scher, who sat in a chair as they circled him in ill-fitting drag, adorned with wigs of various styles and colors. And thus, the annual TCC show was born! It is important to note these shows were closed to the public, and only performed for us TCC members, at Retreat.

Over the next several years both seemingly serious, but mostly hilarious numbers were presented. Yours truly, Daryl Curry and Bob Stephens and my then partner John Hornecker formed a group called the Moonlight Quartet performing in old lady drag at our retreat show in 1983. We continued to perform numbers every year for some time as the Moonlight Quartet, The Early Years, in 60's drag. All very tongue in cheek and quite campy.

Daryl Curry, Bob Stephens and I performed quite a bit in various costumes and music styles, one of which was a "religious" trio known as The Nazarene Knockouts, featuring Yours Truly as Sister Marsha Dimes who sang in her big hair and choir robes with Sister Marsha in a wheelchair! Most irreverent but hugely successful.

In the 1990s after a short sabbatical, the Nazarene Knockouts returned with Paul J. Williams in our ranks as Sister Pauline who performed a "healing" of sister Marsha, knocking her wig off into a howling audience. Sister Girlene, aka Bob Stephens, was so stunned when I, sister Marsha Dimes, rose from her wheelchair, that he proclaimed "Well I'll be God-damned" and was struck by a lightning bolt and thrown to the ground, never to walk again. We ended that performance by picking him up, putting him in the wheelchair and leaving the "stage". What fun times we had back in those days.

At the close of the first season, TCC presented "Showtime," which premiered both a new accompanist, Dean Beasley, and TCCs first small group formed, called "Showstoppers," the ancestor of many other small specialty groups to come. It was the first time our audiences saw something other than pretty stand-and-sing choral music at our performances. Showstoppers performed two numbers from "A Chorus Line," including "The Music and the Mirror" perfectly choreographed by Rodger Wilson. We performed in skin-tight black dance pants with orange T-shirts proudly displaying "Showstoppers" printed across the chest. We were indeed "all that." Those members are worthy of mention in our history. They were: Rodger Wilson, Michael Baird, Greg Cotten, Phil Harrington, Phil Gerber, Jim Nash, Maurice Thompson, Ed Dowgiallo, George "Jake" Jacobs, Steven "Bubba" Mitchell, Jon Morehouse, and myself, Michael Sullivan. Of those early members only Steve Mitchell and I are still singing in the TCC today.

As with all organizations, we began to experience growing pains and started our third season under the direction of a new guest conductor, Richard Fleming, who joined us as an un-paid interim conductor at the beginning of our second season in 1981. He intended to stay for only one season and was very generous in accepting this interim status with virtually no pay, as we had little to no money to offer at that time. I served my first term as president that year, leading the group with the help of other chorus officers and our general manager. We had no functional Board of Directors yet, so all management and fundraising rested in the hands of the singers and their officers.

Johnny Mann's Great American Choral Festival came to Dallas that year, and the TCC entered the competition. Dr. Fleming led us to great recognition in this competition, with the TCC winning first place honors for the state of Texas! The overall first place winner of the competition was a chorus from the University of Arkansas under the direction of Michael Crawford. Don Essmiller observed his skills and we began the discussion of courting him to become our next permanent director. As we ended our second season, Dr. Fleming returned to his full time music ministry position at First United Methodist Church in Richardson.

The board and leadership began a successful negotiation process with Michael Crawford and board member John Thomas extended an offer to him on our behalf, which he accepted, making him our new conductor starting in our fourth season in the early fall of 1983. Michael moved his wife Joan, yes, that’s Joan Crawford (and you know that name was not wasted on a room full of gay men!) and their two children to Dallas. Since Mr. Crawford was a jazz musician, he taught our chorus a great deal about style and variety. He collaborated with local fellow jazz musician and arranger, Bill Keck, and the TCC added a wide array of upbeat, jazz influenced repertoire during his tenure, including the often-performed Bill Keck arrangement of “Big D.”

This time also marked the establishment of a new performing small group, Spotlight, under the direction of Bill Keck and won wide community acclaim as an excellent singing, dancing and acting subgroup of the TCC for the next 3 seasons. Sadly, it was during our fourth season that the chorale would lose its first member to AIDS with the passing of a beloved member with a beautiful tenor voice, Charley Miller.

Feeling unprepared to lead the TCC through the coming AIDS crisis and the emotional toll it was taking on our group, Michael Crawford tendered his resignation at the close of our sixth season in 1986, leaving us again adrift with no artistic leadership heading into our seventh season. Immediately a search committee was formed, comprised of myself, Daryl Curry, and Steven Mitchell. We advertised far and wide in our search for a new artistic director. Little did we know that in the audience at our last performance of the sixth season at Fair Park's Garden Center sat our next leader! At the end of the concert, I was talking to patrons at the back of the hall, when I was approached by a gentleman who said "Hi, I'm Tim Seelig and I would like to apply for the position of artistic director." He placed in my hands a large thick envelope which he said was his résumé. I went home that night and poured through all the papers with almost giddy excitement. I just knew I had found the perfect candidate! I called Daryl and Steve the next day and proclaimed we certainly had found our next AD. But, our process required we audition Tim in front of the group. So, the committee chose the next best candidate, a Fort Worth community chorus conductor, and Tim Seelig as our two "finalists."

We assembled the chorale at Thanksgiving Square on a Sunday afternoon that summer of 1986 and presented both candidates to the membership. They individually conducted us on a piece we had previously performed. Tim overwhelmingly won the hearts of the guys, and we extended the offer to Tim in July, 1986 to become our new Artistic Director. We debuted with him at the helm, opening the 1987 season with a concert entitled "Hello Dallas" and began a new era for himself and the TCC.

Though we still had little or no money in the bank, we did everything in our power to pay Tim his promised salary, but we fell way short most of the time. Nevertheless, he continued to commute to Dallas weekly from Houston for the first half of that year until settling permanently in Dallas.

With the combination of Tim's amazing skills and leadership, conducting and his ministerial background, the TCC flourished and our numbers rose steadily from around 65 members in 1986, sometimes reaching the 200 singing member benchmark we often mention to this day. Think what you will about Tim's eventual difficulties with choir leadership over the next 25 years, he was the primary moving force in the development and success of the Turtle Creek Chorale as we know it today. We owe him, and all of our early tireless leadership, an eternal debt of gratitude.