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Men, music and message

Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington celebrates 30 years

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The Gay Men's Chorus of Washington performs on Dec. 13, 1985. (Blade file photo by the late Doug Hinkle)

There are several ironies about the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, a nearly 300-member choir that is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month: it was started by a straight woman, its most dedicated member has never sung a note with the group and despite numerous classically trained musicians among its ranks and at its helm, it’s eschewed standard repertoire in recent years.

Despite a bounty of obstacles though — AIDS ravaged the membership roster well into the ‘90s and mainstream venues (including present home the Lisner) were skittish about renting to the group — the Chorus has thrived, is considered among the best of its kind in the U.S. and enjoys such a bounty of interest, the audition process has gotten tougher simply because there’s no room left to get many more bodies on stage or in the rehearsal hall.

“D.C. is absolutely at the top of its game,” says Tim Seelig, artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and a 20-year veteran of the Turtle Creek Chorale, a well-respected gay male chorus in Dallas. “I hesitate to start naming names because I’ll certainly leave somebody out but Seattle, New York, Boston, Dallas, San Francisco, the cities that really have the stronger choruses within the movement, D.C. is absolutely at the top of its game. It’s not a competition, we don’t compete for audience or anything and it’s different in different cities, but the D.C. Chorus is absolutely one of the brightest stars.”

Seelig got insight into how good the Washington choir is during an unexpected moment. Many of the larger choirs of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) have done substantial recording over the years. Seelig has heard practically all the CDs and there are many hundreds. He’d picked up the D.C. choir’s “Songs of My Family” CD at a GALA gathering in Miami a few years before but didn’t get around to playing it for a year. He popped it in his car stereo and says he was blown away.

“It was so beautiful, I literally had to pull over,” he says. “It was the finest CD I’d ever heard by a GALA chorus quality wise and I’ve heard thousands of these things. The proof is pretty much there in the pudding. You can’t really fool microphones. You can adjust them a little but they pick up what they hear … they sing really well and they’ve crossed some really important bridges and boundaries. D.C. is absolutely in that top tier.”

The D.C. Chorus is a quasi-unofficial spin off of its San Francisco counterpart. During an early ‘80s national tour, the San Francisco group performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center and had a profound effect on local audiences. Marsha Pearson, a straight woman who lived in Dupont Circle at the time and enjoyed hanging out with gay men, was one such person.

“I couldn’t believe we didn’t have one of these,” she says during a phone chat this week from her home in the Philadelphia area. “I thought, ‘We’re the nation’s capital, how come we don’t have this?’”

She hand wrote fliers — four to a sheet — had her sister photocopy them at her office, cut them up by hand and passed them out at Capital Pride in 1981. Accounts vary about how many showed up to the first practice at the long-defunct gay community center (no connection to the D.C. Center) on Church Street. Pearson remembers about 30. Others say it was more like 15-ish. It was June 28, 1981 (30 years Tuesday), and, by all accounts, an innocuous beginning.

Pearson never sang with the group — it was exclusively a men’s chorus all along. She asked if anybody had any conducting experience. The late Jim Richardson did and became the first director.

“I still remember the first chord,” Pearson says. “It was just a simple thing, you know, like do, mi, so, do, but I just got goosebumps. I was just elated that even one note came out, I was so excited. I got those same goosebumps at the anniversary concert last weekend. I put their CDs on and I get the same thing, especially on certain things they sing. You just can’t believe it sounds so great.”

Steve Herman, who was also at the San Francisco group’s Kennedy Center performance, dropped his then-partner off at the first rehearsal, said hi but didn’t stay. At the second gathering, members told him they needed behind-the-scenes help. He became a non-singing member and is the only person who’s been continuously involved with the Chorus for its entire 30 years. He’s been incredibly active and been on the board most of those 30 years, even president for four.

Jennifer Holliday sings with the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington at its 30th anniversary concert on June 4 at the Lisner Auditorium. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

“I’m not a singer so I don’t have that experience, but I wouldn’t be there for 30 years if it wasn’t a major part of my life,” he says. “I wouldn’t have supported it so long if I didn’t think it was first rate.”

It was decided early on that the word gay would be the first word of the name. Members didn’t want any subtlety when it came to who they were and what they were about.

The first performance was in September at City Hall. The second was at the Eagle, then on 9th Street. Members stood on the steps between the first and second floors. One of the first songs performed was “This Train is Bound for Glory,” a gospel standard. The first ticketed show was at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. By summer’s end, the group had swelled to about 80 members, a size it retained for several years.

“We weren’t that good, but the audience was unbelievably responsive,” Herman says. “We did three nights, two at St. Mark’s and one in Baltimore and it was packed.”

Larry Cohen, a baritone who joined in 1986 shortly after he came out and moved to Washington, remembers a varied repertoire in those years with a mix of classical, show tunes and pop. He says the group didn’t start putting on theatrical productions until about 10 years ago.

“It used to be more of a show choir, you know, stand-on-the-risers-and-sing-kind of thing,” he says. “But in this age of multi-media technology, the audience has come to expect a lot of visuals, action and movement on stage so we mix it up and give them everything from a cappella close harmony to show-stopping production numbers.”

Jeff Burhman, artistic director since 2000, joined the Chorus first as a baritone in 1986. He says the evolution of the Chorus has entailed a number of factors from what other choral groups in the region offer, what arrangements and repertoire is, or was, available at any given time and what has proven successful at the box office.

“We’ve always had what I call the GTGs and the SMQs,” he says. “The ‘good time girls’ who enjoy the Broadway and pop stuff and want to have a good time, and the ‘serious music queens’ who want classical and traditional western stuff. When we were founded and even when I came on in ’86, we were still a novelty if you think about it. There wasn’t a lot of repertoire to be had so the choruses tended to be more traditional. They were doing a lot of college glee club repertoire and whateve we could find. When I joined we were singing German and French and traditional choral literature. That’s my background in classical music, so I was used to it and the audience accepted it. But then in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it started to reflect what was going on in the gay community. You started to see the AIDS crisis, for instance, reflected in the music. We wanted to sing about things that resonated with us, not just AIDS, but what it was like growing up as a gay man, so there became less interest in the traditional stuff. This has happened with all the large (gay) men’s choruses. Some of the directors have come in with more of a classical bent, but it just doesn’t sell tickets.”

During the nine years that Buhrman was assistant director, he saw the shift.

“I clearly saw that when we did the shows with a more entertaining twist, we got a bigger audience,” he says. “We would do something with a lot of opera and the serious music queens would come and everybody else would stay home.”

In time, the Chorus became known for its commissions — there’ve been three so far that have explored modern gay themes — and its all-male productions of popular musicals like “Grease,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

Jack Reiffer, who came out of a straight marriage and joined the Chorus in 1998 shortly after coming out, says the Chorus has exposed him to many musical styles that had previously been off his radar. As a first tenor — the Chorus uses barbershop harmonies (first tenor, second tenor, baritone and bass) but in a much different style — Reiffer quickly became a leader within the group, leading sectionals and mentoring new members.

“We prefer to talk about putting on shows now rather than giving concerts,” he says. “The word is out in a town like this that it’s great entertainment.”

Membership has tripled under Buhrman’s leadership and most involved agree the quality has improved dramatically over the years. Burhman is careful not to make the music too intimidating — the singers are volunteers and some don’t read music — while also expecting them to memorize their parts and rise to the occasion.

“It’s a catch 22 in a positive way,” he says. “By having a good Chorus, you attract good singers and by having good singers, you have a better Chorus.”

Cohen says the sense of family that exists has kept him involved along with the music and message.

“It’s an extended family in the truest sense of the word,” Cohen says. “You really form life-long friends and look out for one another and celebrate milestones together. And then you have the message on top of that, of hope, love, acceptance and tolerance. It really does change hearts and win people over in time. It’s affirming the value of our lives.”

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D.C. homebuyers face hyper competitive market

Sellers in driver’s seat as region faces record low inventory

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housing market, gay news, Washington Blade

With job growth rising during a period of aggressive government spending and historically low mortgage rates, the spring 2021 market sits at the lowest level of inventory since 1983.

Homebuyers in the D.C. area continue to face an incredibly competitive market. This is truly a seller’s market.

Lack of Inventory: Washington, D.C. has been in a gradually worsening housing shortage since the Great Recession. The area hasn’t had a six-month supply of homes for sale for almost 12 years. Now, we add a global pandemic that seriously altered what homeowners want out of their home, Wall Street on fire, and insanely low interest rates and we get a surge in motivated homebuyers.

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), the number of homes nationwide reached a record low in December 2020, with just 1.07 million properties on the market. The DC metro area is even worse off than the national average with only one month’s supply of homes. That means if new listings were completely dried up, there would be no homes available in four weeks. On average, D.C. homes have been selling within 11 days, which is 15 days faster than this time in 2020.

Seller’s Market: The time is now for Washington, D.C. homeowners to seriously consider selling their homes if they have played with the idea. Experts predict 2021 will be another strong housing market with an increase in demand from existing homebuyers in search of larger homes and buyers who delayed purchasing a home due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Zillow forecasts a nearly 30 percent annual growth in homes for sale in 2021. This would be the largest home sales growth since 1983. Zillow’s annual report stated, “Home price appreciation will reach its fastest pace since the Great Recession, as the inventory crunch continues to pit buyers against each other, competing for a scarce number of homes for sale.”

D.C.’s Current Market: According to the NAR, in March of 2021, D.C. home prices had increased 4.1% compared to March 2020, for a median price of $635,000. There were 1,004 homes sold in March 2021, an increase from 842 at this time last year.

We are seeing many homes receive multiple offers within just a few days in the D.C. area. The average home is selling a little above 1% of the listing price and many hot homes are seeing large bidding wars and selling for 3% or more above the listing price; 42.7% of D.C. homes sold above list price in March of 2021. That is a 13.4% increase from last year at this time. Active inventory for March of 2021 was 1,457 homes, down 9% from March 2020. March 2021 also saw 991 homes sell in the D.C. area, an increase of 31% from February of 2021. March 2021’s total homes sold had a 19% increase from March 2020.

Buying a Home: In the current seller’s market, buying a home can be like playing a chess match. You need to know the rules and be strategic. It can seem more like winning than purchasing a home right now. If you find a home you want to buy, chances are you won’t be the only one making an offer. It is a seller’s market everywhere in the country right now and D.C. is no different. Be sure you know what you qualify for and what you can afford.

Conclusion: The NAR and the Mortgage Bankers Association both project prices of existing homes to increase 5.9% in 2021. This may mean buyers will have to be more flexible than in the past. For example, making an offer contingent upon the sale of a current home may be harder than before. It’s also possible you will pay more than the list price. The D.C. real estate market is on fire and many homes are off the market within 24 hours of listing. For sellers, if you have been thinking of selling your home there is no better time than the present.

 

Khalil El-Ghoul is Principal Broker for Glass House Real Estate. Reach him at [email protected] or 571-235-4821. Glass House Real Estate is a modern, more affordable way to buy and sell a home in the D.C. Metro area. Learn more about what makes us different at glassshousere.com.

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Kick-ass crossovers

Still the hottest vehicles in dealer showrooms

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crossovers, gay news, Washington Blade

Dodge Durango SRT Hellcat

Crossovers keep wending their way into our driveways—and our hearts. After overtaking sedans, station wagons and minivans as the hottest vehicles in dealer showrooms, crossovers are now taking aim at the most quintessential of American rides: the muscle car. With naughty looks and hepped-up engines, the two dynamite crossovers below are sure to blow your mind—and just maybe your budget.

DODGE DURANGO SRT HELLCAT
$81,000
Mpg: 12 city/17 highway
0 to 60 mph: 3.5 seconds

For more than 20 years, the Dodge Durango has been a solid if nondescript family hauler. But this year the automaker jazzed up its midsize crossover with brawnier styling and the latest tech toys. And for the first time, Dodge is offering a limited-edition Durango SRT Hellcat—a high-test model with the same hellacious Hemi V8 engine in the Challenger super coupe and Charger sport sedan. With 710 horsepower, this blazingly fast crossover can kick some serious ass, outrunning many a Ferrari and Lamborghini.

The upgraded suspension provides more dynamic handling and cornering, as well as selectable steering for better grip. For straight-line acceleration and to prevent nasty fish-tailing, I simply flipped the “launch control” toggle switch. The massive Brembo brakes also were stellar, with stop-on-a-dime performance and flaming red calipers on each wheel. Another plus: the iconic Hellcat exhaust rumble could be heard blocks away—music to the ears of any auto aficionado. As with all Durangos, this bruiser has best-in-class towing capacity of 8,700 pounds.

Inside, there’s plenty of space, including more room than expected for third-row passengers. The steering wheel, dash, and trim accents now have trendy Euro styling, though it’s more VW than upscale Audi. And you can opt for flashy seatbelts and premium seats in a color Dodge calls Demonic Red, along with black velour floor mats and a soft-touch headliner. Other features include heated/ventilated seats, a large 10.1-inch touchscreen, wireless smartphone integration and the ability to pair two Bluetooth devices at once. Options include a 19-speaker Harman Kardon stereo and rear-seat entertainment with Blue-Ray player. Alas, this is a limited-edition model and all 2,000 of these speed demons quickly sold out months ago. But there’s still hope: Dodge allocated some of the racy Durangos to select dealerships, so you can call around to see if any are still available. And you can always try social media to find a lucky Durango Hellcat owner who just might be willing to sell this rollicking ride, if the price is right.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER X
$85,000
Mpg: 17 city/22 highway
0 to 60 mph: 5.7 seconds

For decades, both the Land Rover Discovery and Range Rover have been ubiquitous in the United States. Not so the smaller and less ostentatious Defender, often seen as a work-horse vehicle in BritBox reruns or action flicks like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. But last year the Defender returned to these shores after nearly a quarter-century hiatus.

Available in two- or four-door models, both Defenders start around $50,000. My test vehicle was the new top-of-the-line Defender X, which added—yikes!—another $35,000 to the sticker price. The look on these crossovers is boxy chic, which allows for a ginormous amount of headroom, legroom and cargo space. Land Rover also added extra stowage areas and cubby holes, as well as transom windows and a sliding panoramic sunroof to keep things airy. While the cabin may be sparse and full of solid plastics, the walnut trim on the center console and door panels is quite elegant.

Land Rovers have a somewhat infamous reputation for less-than-stellar electronics, but the 10-inch touchscreen was crystal clear and synced up seamlessly with the infotainment system. Tricked out with a jet-black roof, hood, and side cladding, the press vehicle I test drove was painted a haughty Eiger Gray Metallic. It also came with thick all-terrain tires, adding to a slightly menacing vibe. A full-size spare is conveniently mounted on the vertical tailgate, which swings completely open like a refrigerator door for easy access. The Defender X may not be as lightning quick as a Dodge Durango SRT Hellcat, but it’s still plenty fast. And this brute can tackle the toughest of terrains, thanks to locking differentials, hill-descent control and a standard air suspension that can raise the chassis 11.5 inches above the ground. Overall, the Defender X can’t quite hide its refined roots as a tony Land Rover. But as with the Dodge Durango SRT Hellcat, this burly crossover flexes some serious muscle.

Land Rover Defender X

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Miscellaneous

A closer look at the houses in our fave holiday films

The role of architecture in Christmas storytelling

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Christmas house, gay news, Washington Blade
Ralphie’s house in ‘A Christmas Story’ is available for special events and even weddings. (Photo courtesy AChristmasStoryHouse.com)

We’re in the midst of the Hallmark season. Their movies are available 24/7 and they can serve as both light entertainment and as background noise.

The formula is simple: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, and she moves to some rural place with plenty of snow rather than live in the city where she is harried, overworked, and financially successful. Thankfully, Hallmark is finally branching out to boy meets boy and girl meets girl like Dashing in December and The Happiest Season, but the formula remains pretty much the same except that someone is still in the closet.

As a real estate agent, I tend to focus on things like architecture and décor when I watch the original classics and those that have become traditional in more recent years.

There are extreme exteriors like the Griswold house in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Deck the Halls, where the Halls and the Finches argue over how many exterior lights are too many.

One of my favorite movies is The Holiday, where Iris and Amanda exchange homes for Christmas vacation. Iris’s house is the quintessential stone cottage in a quaint English village. You can just feel how cold the house is until the fire is lit.

Amanda’s house, on the other hand, is a gorgeous Mediterranean built in the late 1920s, with a barrel tiled roof, located in San Marino, Calif. There are lots of contemporary touches inside, including automatic window shades and a kitchen to die for. While the house’s exterior is real, the interior was specifically constructed on a separate soundstage to transform it from traditional to contemporary.

The kitchen in A Christmas Story reminds me of my maternal grandparents’ home in Maine. It was a three-bedroom, one-bath upstairs apartment over my grandfather’s general store. We would sit around the table chatting while my Nana uncovered the dough that she would use to bake bread.

She would peel off little bits of dough to deep fry and we would eat them with locally made butter for breakfast (think hush puppies with dough instead of cornmeal). The whistle from the nearby, malodorous paper mill called us to lunch at that same table. At one, the whistle would blow again to call the townsmen back to work.

The incredibly large Georgian Colonial home in Home Alone, also from the 1920s, always made me wonder what Mr. McCallister did for a living that he could afford the mortgage. Today, that house in the Chicago suburban village of Winnetka, Ill., would command roughly $3 million.

The Victorian Four Square showcased in The Family Stone reminds me of the homes in 16th Street Heights, with large wrap-around porches, wide moldings, wainscotting and what looks to be William Morris wallpaper. And who could forget the Smith’s family home in Meet Me in St. Louis, an impressive Victorian Second Empire, where the songbird, Judy Garland, wooed us with her rendition of Merry Little Christmas.

The Columbia Inn with its adjacent ski lodge became the set for White Christmas. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sang and danced their way into our hearts. The lodge had floor to ceiling atrium windows and held about three dozen tables for dinner. It was beautifully decorated for the holiday, with the red of poinsettias and the green of World War II uniforms.

Also lovely were the Christmas tree and arched doorways in the 1947 Cary Grant film, The Bishop’s Wife (not to be confused with Denzel Washington’s 1996 remake, The Preacher’s Wife, which seems to take place as much outdoors as indoors).

How can we possibly talk about Christmas movies without mentioning the drafty, old house of It’s a Wonderful Life? The Old Granville House is another example of Second Empire Victorian (1860s to 1880s). In the beginning of the movie, it’s what we would call a fixer upper, without the shiplap and open floorplan favored by Chip and Joanna Gaines. Mary Bailey, wife of George, does an excellent job of cleaning and wallpapering (and, we hope, replacing windows) to transform an ugly duckling into the swan that is the family home.

Finally, Miracle on 34th Street is still one of my favorite Christmas movies, as much for the independence of the single mother and trial of Santa Claus as for the yellow Cape Cod that a young Natalie Wood is presented with once she learns to believe in Santa. Perhaps if you believe in Santa again, someone will bring you a house next year too.

Wishing you happiness and good health this holiday season.

Valerie M. Blake is a licensed Associate Broker in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia with RLAH Real Estate. Call or text her at 202-246-8602, email her via DCHomeQuest.com, or follow her on Facebook at TheRealst8ofAffairs.

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