For These Old Abes, It's Always Showtime

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Memorial High School’s Old Abe Show Choir
Memorial High School’s Old Abe Show Choir

If you ask people connected to the Old Abe Show Choir to describe the ensemble, the most often-used synonym is “family.” And, like most families, amid all the affection and good times is a lot of hard work.

“If you didn’t have passion, you wouldn’t be able to do it,” explained Abby Berthiaume, a Memorial High School senior and member of the Old Abe Show Choir. Berthiaume was drawn to show choir by a love of music, and she’s been kept their by the strong friendships and positive feedback and energy she gets from performing.

“I remember watching Glee and saying ‘I want to be in a choir like that,’ ” Berthiaume said.

And while the experiences of real-life show choir members probably aren’t as dramatic or star-studded as those of their TV counterparts, their lives are just as infused with music. The Old Abe Show Choir typically takes part in competitions between January and March, but the season begins in August when team members spend a week sweating it out – mentally and physically – in intensive, 12-hour rehearsals dubbed “Hell Week.” During the academic year, the show choir meets every other day during school hours and rehearses every Thursday evening as well. 

 “It’s kind of like playing a varsity sport as far as intensity level goes.” – Katie Sandberg, Old Abe Show Choir director

The endless hours of rehearsal are needed to learn the music and the choreography – not to mention how to combine the two alongside a live band. During a rehearsal in early December, director Katie Sandberg clapped in time to piano accompaniment emerging from a speaker as choir members practiced a medley. The risers at the front of the auditorium squeaked rhythmically as the 40 young men and women ran through their steps and sang a classic rock medley that included the likes of “We Will Rock You” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane.”

During a break in the rehearsal, Sandberg described the group as “show choir on steroids” because of the effort involved. “It’s kind of like playing a varsity sport as far as intensity level goes,” she explained. This year’s show – which was created with the help of an arranger and a choreographer from Chicago – features five musical numbers, some of which are medleys, and includes both contemporary and 1980s-era pop songs.

While the Old Abe Show Choir typically takes part in five or six competitions each season, the highlight of the year is usually Winterfest, an annual competition held at Memorial each February. Winterfest brings at least 20 show choirs from across Wisconsin and Minnesota (including ensembles from Eau Claire North, Chippewa Falls, and Altoona) to the school each winter for a day chock-full of performances. When they’re not pouring their hearts out on stage, the more than 1,000 performers are filling the hallways and classrooms of Memorial. More than 350 volunteers – including choir parents, former choir parents, alumni, and UW-Eau Claire students – pitch in to run the festival, which is the largest fundraiser for the school’s vocal music program.

“It’s a long day, but it’s a really neat day,” said Tammy Schmitz, a longtime show choir parent. She’s had four children in the program, and her youngest, Jason, is now a junior. (“I’ve been affectionately known as the ‘show mamma,’ ” she explained.) Winterfest connects performers with the community and with each other, forging bonds between Memorial students, who act as hosts, and competitors from other schools, Schmitz said.

While the Old Abe Show Choir and the Eagle Show Choir (an all-girl junior varsity group) don’t actually compete at Winterfest, they do perform in the festival spotlight, typically to rapturous attention – an experience that is both stressful and exhilarating. As senior Avala Pierce explained, “I’s like the Super Bowl, but for dancing.”

But before that day in February arrives, there will lots more rehearsing to create cohesion among 40 performers with different voices and different styles. All that effort is needed to build a successful team – and a family.

Eau Claire Memorial’s 26th Annual Winterfest Show Choir Competition • Saturday, Feb. 3 • Memorial High School, 2225 Keith St., Eau Claire • $15 for all-day ticket, $10 for ticket to preliminaries or finals ONLY, kids age 6-12 and Memorial students half price • sites.google.com/site/ecmwinterfest/