Larry Callagher flinched when a visitor referred to his singing as a hobby.
"I'm one of those people for whom it is an obsession, " he said, with a quick laugh. "I'd go crazy without it."
Callagher, a 43-year-old bank vice president from Canoga Park, has been singing for 24 years. At the end of the month he will take his family on a two-week vacation in the East while he sings in the international competition of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America.
Callagher belongs to the Valleyaires Chorus, the 100-member San Fernando Valley Society chapter, which is the organization's 1986-87 Far Western District Champion.
According to chorus director Stan Sharpe, 56, their entry marks the first time a Los Angeles chorus has made it to the international championship, beating about 21 choruses from California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii in district competitions to qualify in October, 1986.
The objective of barbershop singing is to blend voices so all of those in one category resonate like a single voice.
"What you're doing is creating a situation where the chorus, regardless of size, will sound like a big quartet," Sharpe said. "It's tough to do because you're dealing with people from all walks of life. We have people in our organization from construction workers to corporate presidents, from salesmen to scriptwriters and directors, but what they have in common is they like to sing."
According to Ray Rosenbaum, of Van Nuys, most of the group's 70 to 80 active members live in the Valley and are in their 50s, but there also are college students, retirees in their late 60s and one 92-year-old.
Even busy professionals such as NBC Vice President of Advertising and Promotion John Miller still make time to attend many Wednesday night rehearsals at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, he said.
International Contest Winner
Miller, 36, of Woodland Hills devotes most of his barbershop singing time to his quartet, New Tradition, which won the 1985 International Quartet Contest at the Society's annual convention for its Marx Brothers routines. A barbershopper since 1968, he started singing with a Chicago chorus.
"Barbershopping provides a terrific release from the activities I'm doing on a day-to-day basis," said Miller, who is gearing up for the fall TV season campaign.
Internal Revenue Service tax attorney Steve Diamond, 45, likes barbershop singing for what he views as its health aspects.
"Barbershop harmony promotes health and oneness and a feeling of well-being," he said. "The chords generate a tremendous amount of energy. Studies have shown that consonant sounds energize, while dissonant sounds fatigue.
"We experience throughout the evening together the consonant sound of harmonies. Physically, singing does a tremendous amount for health. You utilize diaphragmatic breathing and stand up very straight."
Barbershop singing, a cappella four-part harmony comprised of lead, tenor, baritone and bass voices, began in the mid 1800s. The form became more mainstream around the turn of the century, popularized by traveling minstrel acts as well as neighborhood barbershops.
It hit its heyday during the late 1920s and early '30s, coasting on the coattails of vaudeville shows that featured barbershop quartets and performers like Al Jolson.
Television director Bob Lally, 53, of Studio City calls singing bass with the Valleyaires "a performance outlet."
"I guess a lot of directors are frustrated performers," said Lally, now directing the fall series "Busting Loose," starring Jimmie Walker. "I find it a tremendous release when you're uptight with what's going on in the world and with your job.
"I never cease to be amazed by people who are willing to give up a lot of things to be able do this," Lally said.
Retired electronic cable manufacturer Al Theobald, 62, of Granada Hills, a former member of St. Mark's Episcopal Church choir, said that while rehearsing in the choir he often considered singing in a barbershop group. One day about five years ago, he heard the Valleyaires rehearsing.
"I opened the door and I heard this barbershop music and I thought, where is that coming from? I had been trying to find out where I could get with a group," he recalled.
For Theobald, who sings bass, the main appeal is fellowship. But, he added, "You sort of wash away whatever happened during the day and come here and completely relax. It's the most relaxing, stimulating situation, if you can imagine the two together. And, your lungs feel better, and your breathing is clearer."
Theobald's son, Dave, 35, of Reseda also is a member. A plumber, he joined the chorus last year. "I've been singing since I was 8 years old in the church choir and in high school and after high school in a group," said the baritone. He joined after attending many of the Valleyaires' annual shows and seeing how much fun his father was having.
"There are few things in my life that I've started and gone whole hog, and this is one of them," he said.