Changing of the Guard, 1976-81

by Bob Graeff, former KHS Choir Director

As a student member of the KHS A Cappella Choir from 1968-71, I remember dreaming of a day in the future when I might be able to succeed Mr. Zaloudek as the vocal music teacher at Kearny.  In those years, Mr. Z frequently talked about his desire to see an alumnus take over for him at the end of his career and I carried that dream into college with me.  In my final year of schooling at San Francisco State University, I began reaching out to Mr. Z to see if he could help me achieve our mutual dream.  After applying for the job in 1976, the call finally came through in early August that I was hired by San Diego City Schools as a classroom teacher and would be assigned to Kearny High.  A dream had come true!

My first day on the job nearly 45 years ago is still a very fresh memory.  I still remember looking nervously into the faces of those curious, teenage choir members in three separate vocal groups.  I remember the speeches I made that day, the student leadership replacing the pennies in the ceiling

according to choir tradition and spelling out 1977, and the directing of my first song on that first day during Period 6 with A Cappella Choir – “Pax Dei.”  I also remember being scared to death!  Was I really prepared for this assignment?  Would Z’s former students and Kearny’s teachers and administrators accept me as the new director about to step into those gigantic shoes of the longtime legend?  With Mr. Z’s name plastered all over the Choir Room and thirty-one pictures of former choir presidents and previous choirs posted around the room (including groups in which I had sung as a student member), there was really no choice but to dig in and succeed!

For the next five years, I tried very hard to preserve and support many of the traditions I had known so well, to discard a few outdated rituals, and to add some new pieces, as well.  We kept the very rich tradition of utilizing student leadership for choir organization (with the exception of Student Director), we continued singing “Pax Dei” as our choral alma mater, and we continued our saturation of the community with winter holiday caroling and related performances.  Visits to Mission Valley Center, Fashion Valley Center, women’s clubs, the Balboa Park Organ Pavilion, Mercy Hospital, and winter evening concerts remained seasonal highlights.  Spring Concerts featuring portions of selected Broadway shows continued being an annual highlight, including Brigadoon (1977), Paint Your Wagon (1978), Hello Dolly! (1979), Annie Get Your Gun (1980), and A Tribute to Rodgers & Hammerstein (1981).  

At the same time, it was clear that the high school I had attended just five years earlier was changing.  With new high schools being built to the north in Mira Mesa, Poway, and Rancho Bernardo, families were moving northward and our student body was beginning to decline in numbers.  With the end of the war in Southeast Asia, Linda Vista was designated as a residential center for Asian refugees, changing the demographics of our school community.  Due to other social pressures and the 1977 Carlin case ordering districtwide integration, voluntary ethnic enrollment programs were being introduced across San Diego and new neighborhoods were now sending students to Kearny from outside our local residential community.  Clearly, “the times they were a-changing” and the choral program needed to change with it in order to serve the changing student population.  

The A Cappella Choir continued through those years and performed as brilliantly as ever.  In my second year, we actually expanded the group to 110 voices – blending choir robes from an older set with a much newer robe collection to outfit all our singers.  The Girls Choir evolved for a while into a foundational group to support the larger concert choir, but later gave way to a 50-voice Gospel Choir.  This new group proved to be a huge hit with the African American students on campus and was afforded performance opportunities on campus as well as in local City-sponsored music festivals.  The mixed Ensemble quickly transformed itself into a Vocal Jazz Ensemble in my second year on campus and moved to an all-female jazz group in my fourth and fifth years, proving to be very popular on and off campus.  Singing mostly jazz tunes from the 1940s through the 1970s, this group discarded the tuxedoes and gowns from yesteryear and wore more casual, non-traditional outfits, often accompanied by piano, drums, and string bass.  Songs such as “In the Mood,” “Java Jive,” and “Makin’ Whoopee” became Jazz Ensemble favorites.

Another switch was that we focused much more on performing on the school campus than in years past.  Introducing mini-concerts, various choral groups would hold 25-minute programs throughout the school year inside the Choir Room during lunchtime, inviting students to come and listen.  We also took the performance risers outside our room and set them up in the lunch area with microphones and loudspeakers – taking our music directly to the student body.  These performances would include more contemporary music and pop solos to stir interest among the student listeners.  We also brought back two very popular small groups (the Boys Barbershop Quartet and their female counterparts, the Four Bs) which could sing on and off campus at the drop of a hat.  Combining our energies with the Drama Department, I worked closely with teacher Jack Wynans in those years to produce Supper Theatre programs every spring where students would sing, dance, and act in a small cabaret-style setting in the small gym – creating a Vegas-like atmosphere of dinner with a show.  These productions gave 20-30 students wonderful opportunities each year that were not often available in the typical choral or drama classroom.  Some of those show themes were Happy Days (1977), Send in the Clowns (1978), and New York, New York (1979).

Still, the mainstay of the vocal program during my five years at Kearny remained the A Cappella Choir.  Those days were very busy with a heavy activity calendar run largely by the student officers and included fall “kidnapping” picnics, fundraisers, float building for Homecoming parades, after-concert parties at local pizza restaurants, and seasonal parties at the homes of agreeable choir parents.  In addition to the many seasonal productions, concerts, and social activities, the annual highlight for all our groups had to be the spring festival season.  In the Kearny tradition, we would compete with local high schools in city-sponsored festivals and travel to other locations in Orange and Los Angeles Counties to take on some perennial powerhouse schools.  Our musical selections were always a cappella (without accompaniment) and only utilized music in the classic tradition.  We sang in English, Latin, German, and French and often were considered the most outstanding group in attendance.  Some especially noteworthy selections were “At the Round Earth’s Imagine Corners” (Spencer), “She Walks in Beauty” (Fotlz), and “Exultate Justi in Domino” (Viadana).  Choir students from this era will recall that the A Cappella Choir never faltered – earning “Double Superior” ratings from the adjudicators for five consecutive years in festivals sponsored by the Southern California Vocal Association.  Coupled with overnight travel and next-day trips to Disneyland, these experiences created extraordinary moments in the lives of KHS choir students that can never be forgotten.

Along the way, there were other memorable moments, as well.  The 1977-78 Choir provided the music for a massive Veterans Day program at the Organ Pavilion, sharing the stage with local dignitaries and the Marine Corps Band.  The 1979-80 Choir participated in the school district’s annual All-City Choir program, including a March concert directed by guest conductor Jester Hairston, a son of former slaves and well-known for his Negro spiritual compositions.  During their winter holiday season, the 1980-81 Choir and Ensemble were featured for a full thirty minutes on a television program entitled “KFMB Looks at Learning.”  

As Kearny’s student enrollment continued to decline, however, the school needed to reduce the size of its teaching staff and I was transferred to Hoover High across town in July 1981.  KHS Band Director, Barney Norman, was then assigned to lead both the vocal and the instrumental programs.  Looking back, those five years at Kearny made an indelible impression on me about the critical importance of keeping the arts strong in our public schools.  In the vocal music classroom, students learn to improve their individual singing abilities and to sing within a group of other people.  While also learning to read music, they gain lifetime skills that they can treasure for the rest of their lives.  They also learn to experience and to articulate the concept of “beauty” – where else do we teach that?  Perhaps more importantly, choral students learn self-confidence, stage deportment, presence, teamwork, sacrifice, cooperation, and the importance of being positive, even when conditions might dictate otherwise.  As a product of Kearny High’s choral program under the leadership of Mr. Z in the late 60s and as the director of the program for five years in the late 70s, I will always be thankful for these extraordinary experiences provided to me by Kearny High and will remain hopeful that forward-thinking school leaders will have the insight to initiate and support similar programs in the future.  Forever, “Go Komets!”

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