January 20, 2019

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Hymn Sing reunion revives television magic

Former CBC show made beautiful music for three decades

In the beginning, Canadian families across the country would faithfully gather around their rabbit-eared television sets every Sunday at 5:30 p.m. for CBC’s new national program, Hymn Sing.

The Winnipeg-based series that launched Oct. 3, 1965 as the brainchild of its musical director Eric Wild and director/producer Don Williams featured a chorus of 16 fresh-faced singers performing soulful hymns, gospel tunes, spirituals and light classics each week, led by Wild and later his successor, Winnifred Sim, who took over as conductor in 1978.

The half-hour program immediately struck a chord with more than three million viewers a week across Canada, even toppling the ratings for CBC kingpin Hockey Night in Canada at its zenith and becoming the second-longest running show in the network’s history after Front Page Challenge.

Originally slated for a modest, 13-week run, Hymn Sing blossomed into an astonishing 30-year series until it was cancelled in May 1995, leaving viewers bereft and shocked choristers unable to bid a fond farewell to their legions of fans. Until now.

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In the beginning, Canadian families across the country would faithfully gather around their rabbit-eared television sets every Sunday at 5:30 p.m. for CBC’s new national program, Hymn Sing.

The Winnipeg-based series that launched Oct. 3, 1965 as the brainchild of its musical director Eric Wild and director/producer Don Williams featured a chorus of 16 fresh-faced singers performing soulful hymns, gospel tunes, spirituals and light classics each week, led by Wild and later his successor, Winnifred Sim, who took over as conductor in 1978.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Organizing committee for the Hymn Sing reunion, from left: Margot Sim, Cynthia Dutton, Lois Watson-Lyons and Carol Nowell.</p></p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Organizing committee for the Hymn Sing reunion, from left: Margot Sim, Cynthia Dutton, Lois Watson-Lyons and Carol Nowell.

The half-hour program immediately struck a chord with more than three million viewers a week across Canada, even toppling the ratings for CBC kingpin Hockey Night in Canada at its zenith and becoming the second-longest running show in the network’s history after Front Page Challenge.

Originally slated for a modest, 13-week run, Hymn Sing blossomed into an astonishing 30-year series until it was cancelled in May 1995, leaving viewers bereft and shocked choristers unable to bid a fond farewell to their legions of fans. Until now.

Hymn Sing alumni return to Winnipeg this weekend for a three-day reunion, capped by a sold-out celebratory concert Sunday at 3 p.m. at Bethel Mennonite Church. An estimated 100 former Hymn Sing members will perform 22 classics, including Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art, during the 90-minute concert, which will be followed by a reception.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as many of us are now in our 60s, or even mid-70s," said John Nelson, now a pastor in Regina who performed on the show between 1968 and 1974. He has served as committee chairman since his dream to stage a Hymn Sing reunion had its genesis last spring. "It’s also our opportunity to thank our fans, and bring a sense of closure... that we never really had until now."

Many of today’s choirs and classical music groups owe a debt of gratitude to the little series that could, with its total roster of 400 singers from its 30-year history reading like a who’s who of local and international talent. Some of those include: Diane Berger, Phillip Ens, Donna Fletcher, Elroy Friesen, John Greer, Heidi Klassen, Nelson Lohnes, Andrew Thomson, Lois Watson Lyons, David Watson, Henriette Schellenberg, Kristi Vensand-Hall and Ed Wiens — to name but only a few — with many flocking here for the festivities that also includes a tour of the CBC television studios and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, as well as an old-fashioned Manitoba social.

Supplied</p><p>Hymn Sing aired on CBC for 30 years before it was cancelled in May 1995, becoming the second-longest running show in the network’s history after Front Page Challenge.</p></p>

Supplied

Hymn Sing aired on CBC for 30 years before it was cancelled in May 1995, becoming the second-longest running show in the network’s history after Front Page Challenge.

Singers earned the then princely sum of $140 to $150 per show for a 14-week season that helped finance many university educations — musical and otherwise — as well as providing opportunities for further training in the United States and Europe as vocalists built their careers.

One of those is Winnipeg performer Carol Nowell, another reunion organizer who sang with Hymn Sing between 1965 and 1970 and is one of the group’s 16 charter members that were selected from 200 that auditioned for the show.

"As we know, Winnipeg’s tradition of choral music is extremely strong — there are just so many training programs here that produced singers and there seemed to be a never-ending supply," Nowell said.

"There were lots of shows coming out of Winnipeg during the early ’60s, like Swingalong, Red River Jamboree and Georges LaFleche’s Music Break," said Nowell, who will treat Sunday’s audience to her solo Down By the Riverside. "This was brand new, and the CBC executives were quite amazed by the response. However once it had a life of its own, there was no stopping it, and I think it surprised everybody. "

In addition to the TV show, Hymn Sing choristers toured throughout Canada. Singers learned how to sight-read on a dime and memorize copious amounts of lyrics.

Another skill they picked up proved to be lip-syncing. Virtually all the shows were pre-recorded, allowing performers to freely move into various stage configurations without altering the balance between the four vocal sections.

Nowell recounts filming a solo one evening when a large light fixture exploded right over her head. Ever a consummate professional, her lips kept moving, barely flinching at the perilous close call while cameras continued to roll — with the single take used for that week’s broadcast.

Singers received fan mail, letters, gifts of chocolate and even a marriage proposal or two from smitten viewers. Fans would become attached to various soloists, snapping photos of their screen idols in action and sending the grainy images to their musical heroes and heroines.

But the program also became deeply personal for others living in remote communities. Hymn Sing became a musical ministry in itself, reaching far into all corners of Canada, and it had a particularly strong following in the Maritimes.

One woman in her 80s wrote regularly to Nelson, confiding that he reminded her of her own grandson.

"He lived in the States, and she rarely had an opportunity to see him. But she said seeing me each week felt like he came to visit her every Sunday afternoon," he said. "People knew we would be there every week."

Sunday’s concert also pays homage to Sim, who will watch proudly from the audience. The program includes her original composition O Splendour of God’s Glory Bright, conducted by her daughter Margot Sim.

"Winnifred Sim played a very prominent role in the life of Hymn Sing because she was first its organist and then musical director," Nelson said of her decades-long tenure, adding that the show’s late pianist Mitch Parks will also be formally recognized for his contributions.

"She had a tremendous sense of humour, and really gave a refreshing shot to the program by including more classical pieces and anthems," even including ballads by Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles.

Another highlight during Sunday’s trip down memory lane will be the Hymn Sing chorus resurrecting its popular sing-along, with audience members invited to warble to words projected onto large screens.

But if there’s one piece that promises to bring a tear to the eye, it’s the show’s theme song, Sing, Sing, Ev’ryone Sing! penned by founders Williams and Wild, which will open the concert as it did on the CBC for 30 years.

"That moment when we march out onto the stage and hear those first few notes is going to be overwhelming," Nelson said.

"For me personally, it will be very emotional because of the depth that I feel I owe that program, the singers, and the technicians that were so good to all of us," he said. "We all looked forward every week to getting together, singing together, sharing life experiences together, and being treated like professional musicians. We were a family."

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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