They Never Sing In Public

Editor’s Note: This year’s Hidden City holiday party is being held at the private Orpheus Club. Don’t miss this chance to visit the Club’s “memento-crowded” home, and breathe some of its 19th century atmosphere. 

The Orpheus Club is the oldest men’s singing group in America, and has survived, more-or-less unchanged from its founding in 1872 to the present day. The club is the product of “Old Philadelphia” society, which even as late as 1963 Nathaniel Burt could call “one of the few, if not the only, still-established hereditary oligarchies in America, perhaps in the Western World; certainly one of the few whose  tenure extends without any real break from the early eighteenth century to the present.”

Orpheus Club Revels–Fiftieth Anniversary–January 14, 1922

Old Philadelphians still exist, of course, but they are rare, especially in the city, and it is far easier to spot their names on street signs–Chew, Wharton, Morris, Norris, Pennypacker, Cadwalader–than to see one in the flesh. As Burt writes, “a good many of the genuine gentry, particularly the older and ones, might be more or less unrecognizable as such on the street or anywhere else, since Philadelphia doesn’t hold with “distinction” any more than it does with “smartness.”‘

Burt’s The Perennial Philadelphians is to the Old Philadelphia Aristocracy what Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide is to birds, although one Old Philadelphian sniffed that Burt could never paint an accurate portrait, since he was from Princeton, and his publisher from Boston.  In any case, Burt had quite a lot to say about the Orpheus Club, and although the club has become more democratic of late, it is worth quoting at length.

Orpheus Club Annual Outing–Thirtieth Anniversary–Philadelphia Cricket Club, May 26. 1903

“If you want to get a taste of Philadelphia Gemutlichkeit distilled, one of those occasions when the Orpheus sings for fun–after the annual cricket game at the Merion Cricket Club for instance, or above all inside their own memento-crowded clubhouse–will give you the best possible opportunity; but of course you have to be invited. Like nearly everything else good in Philadelphia this is not for the “public.” The Orpheus, in fact, never sings in “public,” even though their three annual concerts fill the Academy of Music. Everybody is a guest; and on gala evenings everybody is in evening dress, too.

“The Club is divided into two sections. There are the Active members, less than seventy of them, who actually sing, and then there are the Associate members, some 500 of them, who are privileged to go to the annual concerts, with their guests. The Active list is Old Philadelphian enough, but after all one has to be able to sing, ratther than merely be a Biddle. Only two Biddles have made the Active list; but the Associate list is something else again, and Everybody is on that…

“Since the first Orpheus cricket teams were formed in the eighties, the Club has been playing games either with itself (tenors vs. basses) or with outsiders. An Annual Outing of some sort, involving a day of golf, tennis, baseball, cricket, eating, drinking–and singing, has been traditional since the ‘nineties. Now there is an annual cricket game at the Merion Cricket Club between Orpheus and Merion, on the old cricket grounds, the lawn tennis paraphernalia having been removed for the occasion. The best play is inevitably provided by the 70- or 80-year-old veterans of Philadelphia’s great days. This remains the last upper-class cricket game played in Philadelphia, at least outside Haverford College and its occasional opponents. ”

 

 

Peter Woodall is the co-editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Digging Up Vine Street In Search Of Old Skid Row

Digging Up Vine Street In Search Of Old Skid Row

April 26, 2017  |  Vantage

Public health scholar Steve Metraux exhumes the heart of Philadelphia's Skid Row, buried under the Vine Street Expressway by the hands of urban renewal. > more

Khmer Monastery In Kingsessing Enlightens The Schuylkill

Khmer Monastery In Kingsessing Enlightens The Schuylkill

April 24, 2017  |  Vantage

Dan Papa celebrates the Cambodian New Year with a look at the Wat Khmer Palelai Buddhist temple under construction in Southwest Philly > more

How Franklin’s Grave Became A Monument And Philadelphians Were Persuaded To Like It

How Franklin’s Grave Became A Monument And Philadelphians Were Persuaded To Like It

April 19, 2017  |  Vantage

Nearly 70 years after Benjamin Franklin’s death, public outcry demanding honor for the Founding Father transformed a battered, overgrown gravesite into a popular tourist destination. But the real story isn't at all what we've been told. Join Mark Dixon as he uncovers truth and public deception behind the hole in the wall at Benjamin Franklin's grave > more

A Powerhouse Of Footwork And Fitness On Delaware Ave

A Powerhouse Of Footwork And Fitness On Delaware Ave

April 18, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

On the outskirts of Fishtown, a dance club and rock climbing gym keep spirits high inside an old 19th century trolley car power station > more

Engineering & Architecture Ride The Rails At Athenaeum

Engineering & Architecture Ride The Rails At Athenaeum

April 15, 2017  |  Vantage

An exhibition at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia illuminates the history of railroad architecture through drawings, photographs, and more. Michael Bixler has the review > more

Ghost Station At Art Museum Rises From The Dead

Ghost Station At Art Museum Rises From The Dead

April 13, 2017  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Harry K. walks us through the origins of the mothballed "Art Museum Station," now being renovated at the PMA, and one man's visionary plan for mass transit in Philly that never came to be > more