Humans of TCGMC: Glenn Olson
November 29, 2018
JOSH: For our premier post, I spoke with Glenn Olson, who has sung with the Chorus since its second year. His reflections on the history of the chorus, along with the personal meaning he found through our chorus family, is moving. Thank you, Glenn!
GLENN: It was called the Twin Cities Men’s Chorus. I joined the year after it was formed. It was formed by four men, and they made a conscious decision to leave the word gay out of the name, because of where we lived and the climate, although from day 1 our mission statement has always said the word gay – “gay sensitive men.” This is 1981 and fast forward to 1990 when we changed the name…
One of the four (founding) men, Frank Lemandola, who subsequently died from AIDS, made an (appeal to vote) on changing the name for like, four years, and it never passed, never passed.
There were people in the early days, who, if we took a picture, would have to step out of the picture because they were afraid of getting fired from their job, that kind of stuff. During that time, there was a lot of violence again gay men, a lot of gay bashing, and he (Frank) said “We have to be visible for our community as out – as out as we can be.” I didn’t expect to get emotional about this, but it almost passed unanimously at that point. Having him talk about it at that time, knowing how sick he was, made it really big impression on all of us. What you take for granted now – it’s hard to condense. So putting gay in our name was a big deal.
JOSH: HOW MANY WERE THERE IN THE BEGINNING?
GLENN: Um, I think – you know, they put a little ad in the paper, and I think there were 60 guys that showed up. When I joined the year later, there were 80 of us. And that’s fluctuated, but it stayed around 80 as the max for a long, long time.
JOSH: AND SO PERFORMANCES – WHERE DID YOU PERFORM?
GLENN: It was 3 times a year, just like now. That hasn’t changed. But would be in a different church – usually church, because they were cheaper. We couldn’t perform in any Catholic church because we had “gay” in our name after we came out. Lutheran churches, UCC, any place that would take us until Ted Mann opened. Once Ted Mann Concert Hall opened, that became our home. But we would perform everywhere – in St. Paul, and here, around, everywhere. In the early days, too, we had pop concerts in June since it was around our pride concert. We would have it it in a ballroom in a hotel (in St. Paul). At the end of the concert, we would have a disco – a dance. And my kids always talk about my first concert. My sister came with her four little kids – try were about my kids’ age, and they would all talk about ow impressive that dance was, because everybody was dancing, and it was men with men, women with men, women with women, that kind of thing. Because there was, again, the only place to have that kind of social experience was a bar. There weren’t other kind of organizations around at that point, so it was a really big deal, and it was fun. I’m not sure when we stopped that, but it was kind of pricey to put on.
JOSH: YOU MENTIONED DISCO, AND IT MAKES ME THINK OF THE DISCO VERSION OF “WALK HAND IN HAND.” HOW LONG HAS THAT BEEN A THING?
Glenn: Well, that’s a really good question, because my first concert in spring of 1982 is when he introduced that song to us. Rick Weinberg was the director then, and that’s when we started it, and we’ve sung it every concert since.
JOSH: WOW, SO IT’S REALLY BEEN AROUND SINCE, PRACTICALLY THE BEGINNING.
Glenn: Yeah, and I remember when we sang it, it was prepared as an encore, and people just fell in love with it. When Stan Hill left, his last concert, when he had us starting to singing, he stopped it and said “Chorus, don’t sing. I just want the audience to sing. And it was like “Oh my god!”
I know (former Artistic Director) Ben Riggs floated the idea when he first started, of discontinuing it, and the audience went ballistic about it! It’s like, “It’s our song!” It’s the hokiest thing in the world, and we’ve sung it so many different occasions.
JOSH: I CRY EVERY TIME I SING IT.
Glenn: Oh, I do, too! You know, I always say, you know, “How many times have I sung this song?” And I’m all teared up. Especially when I look around at new guys, like you, who joined. (Editor’s note: The disco version of “Walk Hand in Hand” was arranged in 2008 by composer Michael Shaieb as part of his new work “Through A Glass, Darkly,” first performed by the Chorus in 2008. Artistic Director Dr. Stan Hill, at the time, felt we needed a more upbeat version of our signature song to follow the emotionally powerful “Through A Glass, Darkly.”)
JOSH: WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHANGE YOU’VE EXPERIENCED IN THE CHORUS?
GLENN: I was president of the chorus when I convinced the board to hire our first full time executive director and music director…. in 1998. That was a huge leap of faith. If we’re gonna hire full time, we have to give them a living wage and benefits. We’re not gonna pretend they’re gonna do it just because they’re passionate about it. And the board did it. I’ve never regretted it for a second.
JOSH: FINALLY, WHAT IS THE BEST THING YOU’VE SEEN HAPPEN TO THE CHORUS?
Glenn: I think the mission statement of building community through music has always been amazing. The three-tiered- the advocacy, musicality, and community have always been really important to me. The last few years, I’ve just been so encouraged by a younger generation singing, that the chorus is appealing to people in their 20s and 30s. And our audiences have noticed it, too!
Some of the comments I get: I expect certain people to react well… my family, friends of the chorus… When we do outreach and I see people who have never seen us before who are just moved beyond words. That always surprises me, but it’s like, “Yeah, that’s why we do this! That’s why I think outreach is so important – to remind us that our mission is so impactful. We’re not singing to a choir – we’re singing to people that need us desperately.”