The Unstoppable SFGMC
Tim Seelig conducts the SFGMC during a Christmas performance. Photo: Anthony O’Donnell
It’s possible that as you read this, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is onstage singing. In the first weekend of December alone the group performed five shows. The boys are busy.
For reference: as the Castro Courier distributes this Winter 2017 issue, the guys are likely to be in the back parking lot of the Nourse Theater slipping into their Holiday best in preparation of Elfstravaganza, this year’s campy Christmas concert series.
(The back parking lot? Yes. Nourse Theater’s dressing room isn’t built for 300 men to do quick-changes.)
On the heels of October’s highly acclaimed Lavender Pen Tour, Castro Courier sat down with Tim Seelig — renowned conductor, artistic director, and quick-witted funny man — in a private conference room at the Chorus’ bright Castro Street administrative offices. At the mention of their then upcoming Christmas shows, Seelig’s sparkling gray eyes danced in the light.
“It’s adorable,” Seelig said, beaming. “The whole chorus, all 300, will dress head to toe
Brimming with humor, the audience can expect some silly spoofs. “Instead of ‘I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas,’ ours is ‘I Want A Lumbersexual for Christmas.’ Half the chorus wanted to audition for the lumberjack,” he said with a jolly laugh.
Lumbersexuals, aka hipsters, are attractively unshaven and may even sport a flannel shirt for effect. In case you’ve been under a rock the past few years, the scruffy-bearded look formerly reserved for rugged, blue-collar men, is en vogue. Seelig wears his closely trimmed.
On Christmas Eve, the Chorus will continue its annual tradition of hosting three shows, Home for The Holidays, at Castro Theater, which have been known to sell-out. This year will showcase a special number from some Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, “Popera” singer Katya Smirnoff-Skyy as Mrs. Claus, and, according to Seelig, the “stupid funny crap” their Christmas shows are known for.
When someone suggested that the group sing more serious songs this season, the 66-year-old said he pushed back. “It’s Christmas. We just got off a fucking tour,” Seelig said. “Jesus, how much Mission can people stand?”
After their whirlwind five-day, eight-city tour of the South followed by an immediate shift into Christmas show rehearsals and performances, the SFGMC will take the month of January off.
“This is the first time we’ve ever done this, with everyone jumping back in immediately,” said Seelig. “We got back [from the tour] Sunday and Monday night we were doing a holiday rehearsal. No rest for the weary.”
The Chorus began their 40th season with the Lavender Pen Tour, a soul-affirming, life-changing journey. Accompanied by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, the tour took them through Jackson, MS, Selma and Birmingham, AL, Knoxville, TN, Greenville, SC, Winston-Salem and Charlotte, NC.
Of the 20 “spectacular” performances, each one surpassed the groups’ expectations, according to Seelig.
In Birmingham, Alabama, First Methodist Church gave the chorus the green light to do a concert at noon on a Tuesday and the Chorus thought no one would come. “Maybe a couple of lesbians [would show] and a gay on his lunch break,” Seelig joked.
The church was filled to capacity.
“That’s when you know there’s hope,” he said. “That was really moving. I saw what could’ve been my grandparents, gray-haired folks, filling that place. It looked like Sunday morning church.”
They also separated into smaller groups, appearing at college campuses and hosting workshops on PrEP, HIV and AIDS, and the sexual revolution. “This is changing the world,” said Seelig.
But with all of the cheer and goodwill the Chorus spread during their time in the South, they were met with some resistance along the way. Upon announcing the tour, some churches received backlash (“This church is going to hell,” Seelig recalled someone saying). The Chorus received much hate, including one 13-minute voice message Seelig shared that was too assaulting to repeat.
During a tech rehearsal at First Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, the group was interrupted, calmly instructed to gather all of their belongings, and to exit immediately. They learned later that the evacuation was due to a bomb threat. The church responded by hiring a team of armed guards.
“Twenty minutes before showtime, the [church was] packed to the rafters,” Seelig said. The Chorus entered from the back of the building, walking through the aisles onto the stage, and the audience stood until the final chorus member was onstage. “Everyone was crying.”
That was Seelig’s first time to lead a chorus inside a Baptist church in 32 years. When he came out of the closet, Seelig, who’s originally from Ft. Worth, was the Association Minister of Music on the faculty of Houston University. “I was thrown under the bus,” he said. “The bus backed up and ran me over again. My wife took the kids away and I lost all my jobs.”
When he shared the moving experience from First Baptist Church on Facebook, the post received nearly 800 likes and over 65 shares.
“Tonight was a huge step in my long recovery from the hurt and rejection delivered at the hands of the church,” read part of his Facebook post. “This incredible group of Baptists channeled Harvey Milk tonight ...and gave us all hope. I am so lucky to have my biological and logical families to love! Take a moment and send a note of support to First Baptist. They need the love and support right now to keep doing the right thing!”
He believes many of us live in a bubble. “We broad-brush the South as ignorants that need to be taught how the real world is. I can tell you that everybody changed their minds [after the tour]. The far-right religious bigots are really not what defines the South.”
* * *
Before making international headlines with the tour, the SFGMC made headlines for a more somber reason. The group experienced a devastating medical emergency at their spring production of Paradise Found when Ryan Nunez, a baritone singer and the Chorus’ Administrative Coordinator, collapsed onstage during intermission and passed away.
“We can’t talk about Ryan without losing it,” he said softly, caught off guard by the shift of subject. “It was anyone’s worst nightmare and couldn’t have been worse in the way it unfolded.
“He was big and loud, and little did we know that he was behind the scenes encouraging people, advising them,” Seelig added. “We called on him many times [during the tour]. How different it would have been with him there.”
An ongoing scholarship named Ryan’s Fund, established in Nunez’s honor, will finance the participation of chorus memberships who require monetary assistance.
“He was the first cheerleader [for the Lavender Pen Tour],” Seelig said, “Wearing ugly drag and making Facebook videos [about fundraising]. The world literally knew about this. It made news all over the world and through gay and lesbian choruses. We will never forget him and his contribution.”
In July, between tour rehearsals, the chorus managed to record an anniversary album, 40, at Skywalker Sound, the sprawling complex of George Lucas’ Lucasfilm motion picture group. Produced, mixed, and edited by Grammy Award winner Leslie Ann Jones, the 14-track album honors members they’ve lost over the years and celebrates the monumental 40th milestone.
“This [recording] is so special because they’re a volunteer chorus,” Jones said of the group in a YouTube clip promoting the album. “They have other careers and have a great attitude when they come in. They’re so appreciative of the opportunity.”
The high-caliber recording — SFGMC’s thirtieth studio album — features highlights like “Amazing Grace,” “Love Can Build a Bridge,” and “Truly Brave,” a mash-up of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and Sara Bareilles’ “Brave.” 40 also includes a stunning new arrangement of Holly Near’s “Singing For Our Lives,” which the Chorus sang at its very first public performance in 1978.
After the much-deserved January 2018 break, the Chorus will start preparations for a homecoming concert at Davies Symphony Hall. For a one-night-only performance on March 29th, the boys will team up once again with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir.
“We had so much fun with them on the Lavender Pen Tour,” Seelig said. “It’s the perfect marriage of Oakland gay gospel. From the get-go, [we were] reaching hands across the bridge... or the tunnel.”
As the curtains close on the unpredictable and unforgettable year of 2017, I had to ask Seelig about his New Year’s Eve itinerary. “Do you have plans?” I prodded.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” he repeated adamantly, shaking his bald head with eyes closed. “I’ll be asleep in my jammies, mostly dead.”
Tony Taylor is the editor of Castro Courier and GayCities.com. Follow him on Twitter: @tonytaylorsf
Photo: Billy Green
The San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band has contributed their talents and awesome energy to the Bay Area and beyond for nearly 40 years. Between all three of SFLGFB's contingents, their concert band, marching band, and pep band, they have played pretty much every type of event imaginable. Perhaps their most beloved event is Dance-Along Nutcracker, where the audience is invited to dress up, dance along, and put some of that giddy holiday spirit to good use. This year's production, Nutcrackers of the Caribbean, has an especially star-studded cast, including Joe Wicht, Ruby Vixen, Zelda Koznofski, Dee Nathaniel, Leigh Crow, Marilynn Fowler, and Flynn DeMarco, who also directs the show.
Currently serving as President of the Board, Doug Litwin joined the band in 1985, just in time to perform in SFLGFB's very first Dance-Along Nutcracker. He's been a proud participant in the seasonal production, and in the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band ever since. Nutcrackers of the Caribbean happens at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum on Saturday, December 9th at 3pm and 7pm, as well as on Sunday, December 10th at 11am and 3pm.
Wendy: The Dance-Along Nutcracker always has a theme; this year your theme is Nutcrackers of the Caribbean. How did you decide upon it?
Doug: In it's first couple of years, the show didn't really have a theme. We played holiday music; we played the music from The Nutcracker ballet; we invited people to get up and dance. Probably about the mid-nineties, or earlier in the nineties, we noticed a lot of families with kids were in the audience. The show evolved before our very eyes; our daytime shows were mostly kids, all dressed up and dancing around, having a great time. Our one show [per run that we we do in the] evenings is more adult oriented. We started coming up with a theme around that same time to tell more of a story. The music from The Nutcracker is always in the show; that's always featured and the audience gets to dance to it. Everything else, we start from scratch every year and come up with a new theme, write a whole show, and choose other music to go along with it. It is a lot of work. It would be so easy if we were like the San Francisco Ballet and did the same Nutcracker every year! A lot of people like to go, but I wouldn't want to be an eight year old, having to sit on my hands for two and a half hours, when I could go to this event where I can dress up and dance along!
Wendy: Of course it's fun dancing, but it's not a requirement to go to the show.
Doug: We tell people, "You don't have to dance. Sit in your chair and see the dancers go by, and be totally entertained by just doing that." A lot of people come to the event with the intention of [not dancing], and before you know it, they're up on the dance floor, spinning around! For those people, in the back corner of the hall, we have our Tutus R Us boutique, where they can rent a tutu or buy a little tiara, a little magic wand, or any one of a number of accessories. This year we're gonna have pirate bandanas, and little swords and eye patches. A lot of people who have come to the show many years come prepared. The little kids will come all dressed up in their pirate outfit that they worked very hard on to show off. It's quite a sight to behold.
Wendy: Tell me about some of your past themes over the years.
Doug: Last year we did one all about super heroes; it was called The Fantastic Adventures of Captain Nutcracker. Super heroes are super popular these days, and that was a very successful show. We did one that was a cross between Frosty the Snowman and The Nutcracker, and we went to Hawaii; it was called Frosty's Hawaiian Holiday. We did one that was Hollywood themed, show-biz, tinseltown Hollywood. Twice we've done shows where we go into outer space. We did a western one called Blazing Nutcrackers. Another really unique one that we did was a Summer of Love themed show, which would have been a good one for this year because it's the 50th anniversary. It was called Clara's Magical Mystery Tour (Clara is the lead character in The Nutcracker). It was hilarious; the tie-dyed stuff was everywhere. We've gone around the world; we did a take-off on a Grimm's Fairy Tales one year; we did one that was all about the rats; the rats were the stars.
Wendy: You've been there for all of them too, because you have been with The Nutcracker since 1985, when it started.
Doug: I joined the band in 1985, shortly after the Pride Parade that year in June. The first rehearsal I attended was in the fall of that year, and it was the first rehearsal for the first Dance-Along Nutcracker.
Wendy: The Dance-Along Nutcracker began as a fundraiser. Is it still?
Doug: It is. It's our biggest production of the year, with the biggest budget by far, of anything we do. As I'd said earlier, it takes a lot of work to create a new show every year, and it's hard to make money when every year you have to make new props, new costumes, and new musical arrangements. This year, for the first time, we said, "What if we had a revival, redid one of our shows?" That's what we're doing this year; Nutcrackers of the Caribbean was originally done in 2013. There are some changes in the show, but it's the same theme, same basic story line, etc. It's interesting because one member of the band, named Heidi Beeler, is an awesome writer, and she has written ten of these shows. She wrote this year's show. She's not retiring but she's probably not gonna write anymore of these shows. Our artistic director, Pete Nowlen, said, "Why don't we open it up? We've got all these band members who have been around forever and have seen all these shows; maybe some of us can come up with some great ideas for future shows." There have been about eight or ten submitted, including mine; I submitted two ideas. By the time we do our show on Saturday, our plan is to choose the theme for next year's show so that we can announce it to the audience.
Wendy: In the same way that you have welcomed your band members to write a show theme, the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band also seems so open and welcoming in it's overall membership requirements. You invite people to come and play at least on some level; you have the marching band, pep band, and concert band.
Doug: We've never had an audition and we don't plan start doing that anytime soon. We have a very low threshold; we don't want to turn anyone away. Every now and then, there might be a person who comes along that's really a beginner; we encourage them to get a lesson or two, and we try to help them with that. We have everybody from people that have played professionally on down to people who haven't played an instrument in 30 years when they joined.
Wendy: For anyone who doesn't play, there are so many volunteer possibilities as well.
Doug: For example, we had a guy join who plays the oboe, a very good oboe player. Remember in 2015 when Super Bowl was here in the Bay Area? The game was in Santa Clara but they had Super Bowl City down by the Embarcadero, and our band played there one day. As far as I know we were the first openly gay group ever to be invited to be part of the Superbowl. The guy who played the oboe was taking pictures, which was great; we have some great pictures. He said, "This marching band is so much fun, but I play the oboe!" I said, "Don't let that stop you. Join the percussion section!" Now he plays in the marching band at every event. That's the kind of thing we encourage.
Wendy: Going back to what you had said about being the first openly gay band to play the Superbowl, the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band was the first openly gay musical association of any kind in the world.
Doug: Yup. Jon Sims founded it all. In June [in the seventies] he had moved here from a small town in Kansas, and he [went to the Pride] parade. He said, "This parade is great but it's missing something. There's no marching band! Gotta do something about that." He created this band, and about a month later he created the Gay Men's Chorus. He created a lesbian/gay chorus; he created a number of other groups. All of the hundreds and hundreds of LGBT+ musical organizations around the world can trace their roots to what this one guy did. That's pretty amazing.
Wendy: Your 40th anniversary is coming up in 2018. Do you have any special plans to commemorate it?
Doug: Well of course we do! Since the band was founded to march in the Pride Parade in 1978, it was originally named after the parade. The original name was the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band & Twirling Corps. If you wanna try to put that on a tee shirt or a banner.... and we did. The parade subsequently changed it's name several times; the band eventually did change it's name to what we have now. Because it started at the parade, we know that a very big part of our 40th anniversary celebration will be during the parade next June. About two weeks ago we had a meeting with the executive director of San Francisco Pride and the manager of the parade at their offices to talk about this. They want to work with us to make sure we are properly honored during the whole weekend, and we are still putting together the details. in fact, our marching contingent could be a joint one with the Gay Men's Chorus, since they're also celebrating their 40th anniversary next year. A lot of ideas are kicking around, but one of the things I think is most exciting is that we are planning to commission a new piece of music, a new march that we would debut at the parade. It would be something that we play all the time in the future, and we're planning to dedicate it to the memory of Jon Sims, who founded the band and all these other groups.
Now that is the marching band; the concert band usually does three or four major concerts a year. We're planning a big 40th anniversary concert on Saturday, April 14th at Everett Middle School. Everett Middle School was chosen because that's the same place where the band did it's very first concert in December of 1978. Among our guest artists will be the Gay Men's Chorus, [who will] sing with us. It's gonna be pretty awesome.
Then, on Wednesday night of Pride week, June 20th, we're gonna have a big 40th anniversary gala dinner. We haven't finalized our location and we haven't determined exactly who all the entertainment will be that night. It will not be a band concert, but members of the band will be there, and of our smaller musical ensembles may perform.
We're gonna have another concert in the fall, in October; I believe on October 6th. That's the weekend of the Castro Street Fair. Then, we will do our Dance-Along Nutcracker in December, and that's the show we'll be choosing the theme for in the next week!
Jaretta Osmond leads a Zumba class Photo: Jessica Webb
Let the music move you with Zumba!
Zumba can transform your body and make you feel happier. Latin music is the heartbeat of this worldwide craze that created more than 200,000 studios in nine years. Two clubs in the Castro, 24 Hour Fitness and SF Fitness, host full classes most mornings and evenings of the week. The Eureka Valley Rec Center offers classes for seniors and those who like a slower pace.
All of the teachers are in great shape. When they arrive in class, the time seems to disappear, and within ten minutes, you’re hot! The pulsating Latin rhythm entrances participants for an hour. Many dance moves repeat, so when once you’re familiar with the music, it’s easy to fall into rhythm with the group.
Practice builds muscles and dancers get oxygen-intake faster and then the pace slows down. At water breaks, many towel-down and cool off while chatting to friends or the person next to them. Outside of the club, many develop new friends. In this way, the Latin music and synchronized movement develops bonding that helps in building more community.
People of all shapes, skin colors and ethnic backgrounds gravitate to Zumba’s hard Latin rhythms and smooth sound. The lyrics are practically untranslatable as the musicians are more concerned with the percussive and rhythmic effects rather than their specific meaning. You can sink into the sound and let the music move you.
Moving to music may boost cooperation and connection, says a recent finding of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. The Greater Good sponsors groundbreaking scientific research about social and emotional well-being that helps people apply this research to their personal and professional lives.
In the early 1990s, the Zumba craze began with Alberto “Beto” Pérez, a Colombian dancer and choreographer. Once, he forgot his music for an aerobic class he was instructing, so he used the tapes of music he loved. He infused Latin music with dance and aerobics in a very fast or “zumba” way. He was famous in Bogotá for his Zumba. When he brought it to Miami, he was unknown and after four years of knocking on gym doors and occasionally sleeping on park benches, he finally got to teach.
Zumba arrived at the beginning of the health food fitness awareness movement. It caught on and, after nine years, it’s a billion-dollar business.
Classes are affordable, so it’s easy to participate several times a week. When you become familiar with a teacher’s moves, you can be more expressive — even while making turns and moving faster than you imagined possible.
One of the reasons you may feel so good is this aerobic movement causes red corpuscles in our blood to fill up with oxygen and when your brain releases a feel-good neurotransmitter, Serotonin, at the same time, you really feel great. Naturally, someone in this frame of mind will pass on their positive energy.
What Zumba means to a few teachers
For some people, Zumba is transformative. One teacher at 24 Hour Fitness, Charles Cao, is a real success story. Cao lost 70 pounds through programs at 24 Hour Fitness. And what’s even better is that he’s kept the weight off.
“Zumba helped me become more assertive too,” Cao said. “I get a good feeling from the music and getting to know the students.”
A warm, positive guy, Cao has been teaching for seven years while studying engineering at San Francisco State and working in the field. He teaches part-time, attends the annual Zumba convention to improve his teaching skills, and is involved in the Bay Area Zumba community.
After being certified, he chose a mentor to boost his confidence in leading a class while putting his soul into the dance.
One of the first teachers in the country, Roberto Melani, oversees the “Group X” instructors at Bay Area 24 Hour Fitness locations. An Italian, Melani was living in New York while teaching Latin dances and group exercise classes when Zumba arrived in the early ‘90s. He fell in love with the music and the movement, as he explained with sweeping gestures and a smile.
“Zumba brings people together and develops a community feeling,” he said.
He spoke passionately about his trip to Central America and Brazil to see some indigenous variations of the dance. Along the way, he gave master classes and mentored students. His world opened up to new cultures through his affair with Zumba.
Places to Zumba in the Hood
24 Hour Fitness, 2145 Market Street.
FitnessSF, 2301 Market Street.
Eureka Valley Rec Center, 100 Collingwood Street.
Treasure Island’s Treasures: Protecting eelgrass and their eco-contribution
Our environment is made up of many small, delicate building blocks that interact in wondrous ways to create the natural world we enjoy every day. One such building block is a sea grass with the somewhat unappealing name of eelgrass.
True to its label, eelgrass (Zostera marina) has long, ribbon-like leaves that extend vertically in the water. The blade-shaped leaves grow from 18 inches to over 12 feet in length, but only half an inch wide. Eelgrass grows completely underwater, but given the right conditions, it manages to flower, to spread, and to support a great many other organisms. It is so important to the health of its ecosystem, that it is known as a keystone species. If the eelgrass does well, then so will the lives dependent on it. If it does poorly - then its many dependent species will also suffer.
When a disease wiped out eelgrass beds along the eastern coast of the United States in the 1930’s, it also wiped out - forever - the eelgrass limpet, a small creature dependent on this one food source. That disease also resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of brandt geese - a bird that depends on the plant extensively.
In the November Castro Courier, we heard from environmental-award-winner Arthur Feinstein on the importance of protecting habitat in the San Francisco Estuary. Well, this very same eelgrass also grows in our bay.
Blades of eelgrass provide a place for Pacific Herring to lay their eggs, and then a place for diving birds to strip those eggs off for a nutritious lunch. Juvenile salmon and Dungeness Crabs hide from predators in eelgrass meadows. Bay pipefish camouflage themselves as swaying eelgrass blades. Even the decaying plant materials support the estuary’s food web.
Eelgrass meadows catch minute particles floating in the water and deposit them on the Bay floor, slowly building up the sandy and muddy bottom. Large beds of eelgrass can absorb wave shocks, protecting adjacent shorelines.
Eelgrass is sensitive to water clarity, to changes in currents, to increases or decreases in the sediment it lives in, and to changes in depth of water. Its presence off of Treasure Island is discussed in the Environmental Impact Report for the Treasure Island / Yerba Buena Island Redevelopment Project. Of particular interest is the Clipper Cove Marina Project.
I learned more about Clipper Cove in a discussion with Mr. Hunter Cutting, an advocate for protecting this ecological and recreational resource. Cutting has been following the Treasure Island Redevelopment Project since 2015.
Cutting is worried that the proposed Marina development project could damage the eelgrass population now living in Clipper Cove. These concerns were mirrored early on in Environmental Impact Report comment letters from environmental and other groups.
Recently, new concerns have arisen, due to the revelation that a wave attenuator - a kind of breakwater - would be installed in the new marina and might result in increased sedimentation and yearly dredging.
The precise impact on the eelgrass beds is not known; in public documents, the developers stated that even they were not sure of the overall impact. In response, an eelgrass expert wrote that the impacts could and should be studied. To date, this has not been done.
Cutting is also concerned about another building block - but one of our society. Every year, the Treasure Island Sailing Club hosts sailing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) classes for over 2000 San Francisco public school fourth graders. The protected Cove is an ideal, and uniquely safe, learning environment for young children, many of whom are low-income youth who would otherwise never have the opportunity to experience being on the water in the Bay.
The proposed Clipper Cove project would expand the existing dock areas for many more - and larger - yachts, to over 30 percent of the protected water area. This will result in the loss of much of the protected sailing area and have a negative impact on the STEM program.As a result of both the negative educational and environmental impacts, the San Francisco Unified School District Science Department, San Francisco Bay Keeper, Friends of the Sailing Center, the Sierra Club, the US Sailing Association, and elementary school teachers from all over San Francisco have asked the City to choose a less damaging alternative to this project.
San Francisco Bay belongs to everyone and should be devoted to the common good for everyone -- for the eelgrass, for the myriad forms of life it supports, and for the fourth-graders who venture on the water to learn how our natural world works.
What you can do: Contact the Board of Supervisors and ask them to reject the current plans and support the Minimum Impact/Maximum Share Use alternative. Once this project is approved at the Board of Supervisors, the next step is hearings at the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
For more information, contact Hunter Cutting c/o the Castro Courier at: CastroCourier@gmail.com.
Kathy Howard is an open space advocate in San Francisco. She is also a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club
Illustration courtesy of Kathy Howard: A drawing of an eelgrass meadow.