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Harmony Remains Reedie Wright's Thing After 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.

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

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, that has won three international championships.

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."

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