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Reedie Wright Has Kept Barbershop Festival Humming for 40 Years

March 12, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

When Reedie Wright launched the first barbershop quartet concert in Pasadena in 1947, he had $37 in venture capital, his voice, a gift of gab and unbounded optimism.

From this flimsy base, Wright has built the annual Barber Shop Harmony Festival, which draws top singing groups from across the country and audiences from all over Southern California.

That first show made a small profit for the Pasadena Crown City Barbershop Chorus and a big reputation for Wright. From then on, year after year, it grew in spectacle and acclaim. Now, Wright says, the group gets nationwide requests from quartets and choruses that want to sing in the annual show.

The 40th anniversary event is scheduled Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where it has been held ever since Wright first got his big idea.

As usual, he will be in charge.

"Oh, I haven't got sense enough to quit," he said. "It's been a way of life. I guess I'm just a natural-born promoter."

Wright, 79, was chairman of every local show for the first 35 years, took the next four years off, and this year is back running things. He retired several years ago from his job as an executive with Arden Farms and lives in Altadena with his wife of 50 years, Lucille.

Wright has been local, state and district president of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America and became international president in 1967. He arranged the international group's conventions in Pasadena in 1957 and 1967. Now he is international service committee chairman, heading the group's charity, the Institute of Logopedics in Wichita, Kan., which treats adults and children with speech defects.

"I just opened my big mouth and got on every committee," he said. "This Logopedics Institute is the most wonderful thing in my life."

The international organization has about 40,000 members in the United States, Canada, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. Each local group raises money for the institute, providing a total annual contribution of about $700,000.

Wright said his interest in barbershop quartets began in a barbershop that was the gathering place in his hometown, Taloga, Okla., where he won all the school singing contests. He went on to perform on the RKO vaudeville circuit and in nightclubs after Prohibition ended.

After moving to Pasadena, he placed an ad in a local paper in 1946 inviting interested people to join him in barbershop singing.

"Eight people showed up, and here we are 40 years later and I still haven't got back my $1.35 for that ad," Wright said.

He talked the Civic Auditorium's impresario into letting the tiny group have the hall for one night in 1947, even though it could put up only $37. Twenty-two quartets sang until after midnight. It was then, Wright said, that "I knew it would grow into something big."

"Any time we need some magic to happen, he's the guy that has it," said Otto Nass Jr., son of one the eight founders and a member of the Pasadena group for 35 years. "You need a fabulous show, and you have to do daring things to keep people coming back. Reedie's a super organizer."

In the 1960s, when Americans were landing on the moon, a replica of a space module landed on the Civic Auditorium's stage, and quartets walked through its door to perform. At other times, imitation rockets flared, a submarine hovered over a stage set that simulated a sunken ship, and moving river boats and trains formed spectacular backdrops or devices to highlight the performers' entrances.

In 1980, the show's guest quartet from Sweden sang, among other things, "Slow Boat to China" in Swedish, in barbershop harmony.

"You just don't get an average guy to put that kind of thing together," Nass said.

This year's show will feature the reigning international champion quartet, "The Rural Route 4," from Kansas City, Mo., and "The Phabulous Phoenicians," a 100-member barbershop harmony chorus from Phoenix, Ariz., that has won three international championships in 10 years.

The Phoenicians will present "A Salute to Al Jolson," and two quartets from the chorus will perform, as will the Pasadena Crown City Chorus.

Wright will be backstage directing things, he said. A tenor, he has usually sung the lead for the harmony, but now, he said, "The good Lord has seen fit to take away some of my high notes."

"The Pasadena show is one of the most prestigious in the whole barbershop organization," said Lou Laurel, musical director of the Phoenicians. He called Wright "one of our real international guiding lights."

One room in Wright's Altadena home has been given over to barbershop quartet business, awards, certificates and mementos that cover walls and fill cabinets.

His wife, Lucille, who spent years traveling with him and entertaining throngs of visiting singers at their home, cheerfully called them "a bunch of stage-struck extroverts."

Wright agreed, just as cheerfully. Then he said, "This is the most rewarding work I've ever done. I'll keep doing it all my life."

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