Sunday, November 4, 2018

What Happens at Retreat

Numerous studies establish that singing in a community chorus is one of the best ways to improve your mental health. Especially if you're gay.

I joined Windy City Gay Chorus twenty-eight years ago. Like Seattle Men’s Chorus and Vancouver Men’s Chorus, Windy City Gay Chorus was founded at the beginning of the 1980s. They’re all part of the first wave of gay choruses, whose organizers were inspired by the pioneering San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ successful national concert tour. Today the international LGBT choral movement includes hundreds of choruses, from Beijing to Newfoundland. 

So far, I’ve spent five years in WCGC, fifteen years in SMC, and three years in VMC. For the last three decades, escaping with the chorus to our annual out-of-town Retreat has been one of the highlights of my year.

The only time I’ve ever been to the state of Wisconsin was for Retreat with Windy City Gay Chorus. Each year we stayed off-season in a rustic lake resort. From Friday evening to Sunday afternoon we rehearsed, schmoozed, ate, drank, and pampered each other.

One longstanding tradition of many gay choruses is the ironically named “No Talent Show.” On the Saturday night of retreat, chorines perform for each other. At Windy City, our No Talent Show revealed all kinds of hidden talents – singing, dancing, guitar, harmonica, puppetry, you name it.  

The comparable talent shows at some other choruses’ retreats are a little edgier, with lots of biting commentary directed at their conductors and others. In contrast, Windy City’s Retreat included a little gentle satire, but mostly we used the No Talent Show as a supportive showcase for each other. 

Statistically, Wisconsin is both the gayest and the most loving place I've ever been. 

This is a picture from the No Talent Show at this year’s Seattle Men’s Chorus Retreat, held last Saturday evening. Even though I left SMC a couple of years ago, I still make an appearance at Retreat. Before you’re impressed by my sacrifice, you should realize that for the last seven years, SMC has held its Retreat at the Sheraton hotel in Bellingham. Which is located 2876 feet away from my house.

Seattle Men’s Chorus, together with its fifteen-year-old sister Seattle Women’s Chorus, is the flagship of the LGBT choral movement. It’s one of the most successful arts organizations in the country, with a $3 million-plus annual budget, a dozen fulltime professional staff, and a sterling reputation in the community. Shortly after I left Seattle Men’s Chorus, longtime conductor Dennis Coleman retired. Unlike many nonprofit organizations, SMC successfully handled the transition. The new conductor came from Windy City Gay Chorus.

As you would expect from SMC, this year’s No Talent Show was professionally produced. Many of the acts were amazing. Even after a couple of years away, I still got 80 percent of the jokes. As usual, I was appalled by the brutal digs. But not surprised. Years ago, another Windy City alumnus who moved to Seattle was traumatized at his first Retreat by his brutal treatment in the No Talent Show. (His ears should be ringing from the comments this year.) Fortunately, Canadians are much too nice for a Seattle-style roast. 

When I joined SMC in 2000, the Retreat was at Fort Warden, in Port Townsend. It’s a decommissioned army base that the state now operates as a conference center. (The movie An Officer and a Gentleman was filmed there.) Fort Warden has a charming little USO theater where we mounted the No Talent Show each year. 

Eventually, the economics at Fort Worden became impractical. For a couple of years, SMC held Retreat at a hotel on the Hood Canal, similar to Windy City’s Wisconsin location, before the hotel’s incompetent management drove us out. Since then, Retreat has been in Bellingham at the bland but welcoming Sheraton.   

Last weekend after the No Talent Show, several of my SMC friends were kvetching about the impersonal vibe at the Sheraton. I agreed that I preferred the officer houses at Fort Warden. Then one of the old timers nostalgically pined for the rustic retreat location of his youth. Stumped, he asked “What was the name of that place we used to go for Retreat before Fort Warden?”

I reminded him of the name of the original Retreat site, an old Baptist camp in the woods on Vashon Island. I never went to Retreat at Camp Burton myself. But I feel like I miss it.

Vancouver Men’s Chorus still retreats into the woods. In fact, for almost thirty consecutive years, VMC has held its Retreat at the same environmental education center halfway between Vancouver and Whistler. (If you watched the television show Legion on FX, you’ll recognize our Retreat site as the good guys’ hideout.) We’ll be back again in April.

VMC is the oldest, largest, and most successful gay chorus in Canada. Unlike Seattle Men’s Chorus, other than the conductor and accompanist, VMC relies on an all-volunteer model. Lenny has been the board president off and on for longer than many singers have been alive. Our conductor Willi founded the chorus in 1981, and he's still here thirty-seven years later. Like SMC, VMC benefits from its extraordinary stability. When Dennis retired from SMC, Willi became the gay choral movement’s longest serving conductor.

All these factors combine for a fun Retreat, filled with chorus traditions. On Friday night there’s a welcome social and drag contest. Each night we stay up till the wee hours for s’mores and sing-a-longs at the Firepit. Eventually it will be late enough to burst into Willi’s cabin and serenade him with his least favourite song, “Amazing Grace.”

Last year the Squamish conference center’s longtime manager retired. He visited us at rehearsal for a tearful farewell, telling stories about the chorus’ positive impact on himself and his conservative family in Saskatchewan. VMC is like that.

Instead of a No Talent Show, on Saturday night we have “Skits.” Each of the four sections prepares a skit using themes based on our current concert season. The trophy for the winning section looks like the Stanley Cup, and is more coveted. Last year the baritones undeservedly won. 

I’m still not ready to perform in a skit myself. But I did provide a couple of nautical props for the Second Tenor skit, including my son Oliver’s pirate chest. In my rush to depart Squamish, I didn't realize someone had mischievously put an extra prop in the box: a lurid red oversized sex toy. I immediately took it out of the chest. I didn't want to forget it was there when I got home to Bellingham, and accidently put it back in Oliver’s room unopened.

Unfortunately, when I picked up the kids, my daughter Rosalind opened the car door and immediately saw a strange red object in the back of the minivan. She said “Papa, what is this?”

I am seldom rendered completely speechless. As I stammered about not being sure where all the other props from the skit came from (I try to always tell my kids the truth, in an age-appropriate way), Rosalind answered her own question: “It’s a mushroom, isn’t it?” I shrugged. That counts as telling the truth.

Then Rosalind, who is very artistic, said “I would have painted little white dots on it. To be more realistic.”

I met most of my friends in Seattle through the chorus. Like SMC itself, we have our own traditions. For the last six years, at lunch on the Saturday of Retreat we’ve gone out for Mexican food at the same place. Last year we discovered Dos Padres was under new management, and the food was terrible. This year at my parents’ suggestion we went to El Gitano, where the food is excellent and the margarita goblets are the size of beach balls.

Most of our group happen to be rabid sports fans. Other than my father, they’re the only people I watch football with. This year the University of Washington’s game against Stanford preceded the No Talent Show, so I went over to watch. When I left home, the Huskies were up 21-7. By the time I arrived, it was a three-point game. Fortunately, UW won in a nailbiter.

I brought Trader Joe peppermint creams and a bottle of red wine. Shockingly, no one had a corkscrew. Rather than go ask someone to lend us one, John took the bottle and a pair of scissors into the bathroom and closed the door. We heard a loud noise, then John said, “Don’t come in yet.”

Undeterred, Mark peeked in the bathroom, where he saw what appeared to be spattered blood stains. John came out and grimly poured everyone a glass of wine.

I won’t say any more. What happens at Retreat stays at Retreat.

All three chorus Retreats include gratuitous nudity. As with so much else, SMC’s nudity is bigger. For as long as I can remember, a gaggle of exhibitionists and their enablers have organized a show-stopping number with multiple chorus members on display.

After I moved to Bellingham three years ago, I commuted to Seattle to sing one last holiday show. Compared to the Vancouver drive, the trip to Seattle was miserable. I knew there was no way I could keep doing it.

The finale of the No Talent Show at Retreat in Bellingham that November was the traditional exhibition of naked boys singing and dancing. Fortunately, the performers included the one guy in the chorus I’d always wanted to see naked.

I knew I could finally move on.

Someday I will write a more detailed comparison of my experiences with all three of these exceptional choruses. For now, here are some closing observations from almost thirty years of Retreats:

·     As the No Talent Shows and Skits confirm each year, each chorus is blessed with a staggering array of gifts. You could never assemble such a dream team of performers from any sample of the general population. It’s like a Nazi eugenics experiment gone totally right.  

·     The only times I appeared on stage, I portrayed a Mormon missionary or a lawyer. Typecast.

·     I’ve never had sex at Retreat. But I’ve drunkenly made out on the dance floor.

·     Every chorus has the same mantra: “What happens at Retreat stays at Retreat.” 

·     There are a lot of bitchy queens out there.

·     Nevertheless, Retreat is a loving space. Over the years I’ve watched the men of each chorus welcome everyone who felt the call to join – regardless of age, race, disability, gender identity, or sex. Even as we carve out a magical space for “Us,” chorus teaches us there's no need to reject anyone else as a “Them.”  


  1. Hi: I am also a resident of Bellingham. Are the locals welcome? We do not have a gay chorus here. We do have the Kulshan Chorus, which is just as welcoming.

  2. When I moved to Bellingham five years ago I continued to drive to Seattle for Seattle Men's Chorus rehearsals and performances for one final Holiday concert. The Bellingham-Vancouver chorus commute is much easier. A couple of Bellingham singers have car pooled with me in the past, but I'm the only Bellingham guy currently singing with Vancouver Men's Chorus.

  3. Roger: I found out from someone that the SMC retreat is next weekend (the weekend of Nov 16th. I wonder if they will still have their party on Saturday at Rumors? I was an associate member back in the 90's and I had two friends in the chorus, Merland Grieb and J. Michael Anthis. I want to try to reconnect with them while they are here in Bellingham, my home.

    1. Since moving to Bellingham I've crashed the No Talent Show and party on the Saturday night at SMC Retreat each year, as well as occasionally meeting SMC friends at Rumors late Friday or Saturday. This year however I'll miss seeing everyone because I'll be singing with VMC in Victoria. (FYI, Merland passed away a couple of years ago).

  4. Roger: Thank you!!! I did not know that Merlandl passed away! He was my closest friend on the chorus! Without him being here, I may not even bother to crash on site, but maybe at Rumors! You made my day and I am sorry about Merland.