June 17, 2011
From The Mitchell Boys Choir to The Lettermen
He had a photographic memory; he’d hear a tune once and sing it back, note for note and pitch perfect. No, it wasn’t Bing Crosby this time, but it *was* Tony Butala, one-time member of the Bob Mitchell Boys’ Choir and founder and still-active member of The Lettermen.
“Music was – and is – my first love,” Tony said recently. “It’s been the foundation that educated me, nurtured me, and now sustains me – I’m one lucky, happy guy.” Tony, the eighth of eleven children in a Catholic family from Sharon, Pennsylvania, was an active kid – so active that an aunt recommended to his mom that he take dance classes to work out some of his energy!
“Mom would take me and my three older brothers to the movies on Saturdays,” Tony reminisced. “We all loved the westerns with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. I’d always leave the movies singing EVERY song I’d heard as the five of us walked home, much to my mother’s amazement, none of us ever having heard any of the songs before.”
His singing abilities were added to his dance routines, as the dance school instructor worked to find activities for the only boy in the class. While the dancing students would leave the stage in preparation for the next group to begin, he began doing impersonations of long-time popular “minstrel” performances in the styles of Ted Lewis, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. A parent in the audience caught the performance and asked Tony’s mom if he’d be interested in performing that same act for the local Knights of Columbus banquet. A local celebrity was born! Tony performed his act regularly, “…at the Moose lodges and the Jewish War Veterans, any group that wanted to see a kid perform!” The pianist who accompanied him at his first performance got $5 per show from the hiring group – and Tony got cufflinks. In fact, after 30 pairs of cufflinks, his mom put her foot down and said “You will now charge $5, too!” A talent scout from local radio station (and first in the nation) KDKA in Pittsburgh caught Tony’s act, and he joined the station as a 9-year-old performer.
“Fate took a hand,” Tony said. “My mom’s first cousin – more like a sister to her than a cousin – had moved to California with her husband. Her cousin worked as a nurse while her husband worked on an oil rig. They had six kids of their own, and when my mom’s cousin came down with pneumonia and couldn’t work – and her husband couldn’t leave the rig – she contacted my mother for help.” Tony’s mom, with her dad’s blessing, left her own family for a week – and Tony’s dad suggested that she take Tony to keep her company, and jokingly added “..maybe he’ll become a movie star in a week.”
Tony’s parish priest also gave his blessing to go. “As long as he attends the cousin’s parochial school while he’s out there, he should go with his mom.” And that’s just what Tony did – his mom took over caring for the kids while her cousin recuperated; Tony joined the kids in school…the very day that a notice was sent home to EVERY family that the famous Bob Mitchell Boys’ Choir was holding auditions the next day. The Bob Mitchell Boys’ Choir, a professional choir that performed in churches and synagogues in the Los Angeles area since 1932, was perhaps more famous because of the boys’ participation in a number of famous films – from “Angels with Dirty Faces” with James Cagney to “Going My Way” with Bing Crosby.
(Bob Mitchell Choir, with Bob Mitchell and Bing Crosby, pre-Tony Butala, on the set of “Going My Way)
Tony’s cousin, a boy his age, dragged him along for companionship. The cousin couldn’t even sing “Happy Birthday” when Bob Mitchell’s assistant choir director auditioned him. “But here’s my cousin Tony from Pennsylvania – he can sing!” When asked if he could sing “Happy Birthday”, or even the national anthem, Tony responded by pulling a stack of paper from his bookbag. “Here are my charts.” Dumbfounded, the assistant director called the back office. “Bob, you need to hear someone. Now.”
And Tony, comfortable auditioning and performing because he’d done it for a few years, found himself face to face with Bob Mitchell, himself a child prodigy on the organ at age 12, and who, after years of music study, formed his first boys’ choir in the early 1930s. The Choir auditioned for new boy sopranos each spring because boys would age out each year as their voices changed. The Choir, in addition to their film work, sang in Hebrew and Yiddish for weekly Jewish services, as well as Greek, Latin, and Arabic for weekly services at various Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic churches. The boys also sang songs in Italian, German, French, Spanish, and Portuguese – and when accepted into the choir had to agree to join the various performing unions that would give them professional memberships.
Bob Mitchell asked Tony to sing something, and Tony went into his minstrel act, confident and happy. After he was done, Mitchell asked why he performed impersonations of other singers, to which Tony replied “It’s my act.” “Try singing one of those songs using your own voice.” He sang “Mammy”, and Mitchell thanked him. The next morning at school there was a telegram for him and his mother, welcoming him into the choir. After a long phone conversation – long distance from Bob Mitchell’s office – between his parents, Tony spoke with his dad. “If you join this choir, you will be leaving your family. Are you ready for this? It’s a big decision for a ten-year-old. Do you really want this?” Tony said yes, and the next weekend waved goodbye to his mom’s train as the Mitchell organization took him under its wing.
The Mitchell Boys’ Choir was a very disciplined organization. Tuesday through Saturday mornings were devoted to typical classes in arithmetic, history, English. After an hour off for lunch, the boys would return for four hours of music education. Friday evenings they’d often sing at a synagogue service. Saturday afternoons would often include another church service. Sunday late mornings they’d sing at Good Shepherd Church –in Latin of course – and this was Bing’s church.
“Of course, I knew who Bing Crosby was before I moved to Hollywood,” Tony continued. “We saw a lot of celebrities back in those days – in radio studios, on TV and movie sets, in church. But NONE of them were as big as Bing. Nobody was. And even at church Bing would be followed – people wouldn’t leave him alone. We sang at his wife Dixie’s funeral – we know how people could be with him. So Bing had arranged with the pastor to have a key to the choir loft. Just before Mass started, in Bing would come. He’d sit with us and because of our training, we knew we had to maintain our professional demeanor. After Mass, however, Bing would always chat with us – talking baseball or music, and he’d pay special attention to the smallest or newest boy in the group. That was me for a little while, and it was fun!”
Because Tony was a “commuter” – his family didn’t reside in the LA area – he lived in a special dormitory affixed to the Mitchell school. When there were no organized activities for the boys (“we went camping and hiking sometimes – it wasn’t all work!”), Tony would catch up on writing letters home, and he’d get a little homesick. Bob Mitchell would be sure to include him if he could when Mitchell was hired to play piano or organ at private parties. “A few times after Mass, Bob would have a few hours off before he’d head to Bing’s house for a private party Sunday evening, just Bing’s family and a few Hollywood friends. Bob would play the piano – and I’d tag along, usually sitting in the corner, just observing people like Gary Cooper or Loretta Young. It was a wonderful education! Such memories!”
Six months after he moved to California, his 19-year-old sister found a secretarial job in Los Angeles, and he was able to move into an apartment with her. And 18 months after that, the entire Butala family moved from Pennsylvania to California, for his dad, a long-time Westinghouse Electric employee, was able to take a job transfer. “Such luck! And one of my brothers, who met his wife in California, is the proud dad of actress Jenna Elfman – if my mom’s cousin hadn’t’ve gotten sick and called for my mom, and if I hadn’t gone along, who knows what would’ve happened. Wow!”
Tony, because of his perfect height at the perfect time, was one of the eight Mitchell Choir Boys hired to perform in the final scene of the film “White Christmas.” “The boys in the front were actors, and of course there were the four ballerinas, and then the eight choir boys near the tree.” He admitted that he’d not seen the film in a number of years, but was overjoyed when viewing the film recently, remembering the comic antics of Danny Kaye, who loved playing with the kids in between scenes, and the lovely ladies Vera-Ellen, and especially Rosemary Clooney. “Bing was always prepared, as I recall. Genial and considerate of his fellow actors, he’d warm up to an orchestral playback, sometimes adding ‘scat’ for fun, probably just to limber up his voice. But he was very professional and took his work seriously.”
At age 14 and starting to “age out” of the Boys’ Choir, he’d formed a special bond with Bob Mitchell. As the assistant choir director was drafted, Bob hired him as “temporary assistant choir director”, where he worked with the boys on music theory, vocalizing, and the like. Mornings, however, Mitchell had enrolled him in the Hollywood Professional School, a school for child performers. After graduation and upon the return of the assistant choir director after his military service was over, Tony former a vocal quartet with two former Choir Boys and a female classmate from Hollywood Professional School – they called themselves The Fourmost. Soon, however, the female member, Concetta Ingolia, decided she was ready for a solo career. As Connie Stevens, she found success as a singer and actress. The remaining boys formed a new group, The Lettermen.
“I remember another Bing Crosby connection,” Tony chuckled. “When The Lettermen performed in Las Vegas for the first time in 1958, we were in a show called ‘Newcomers of 1928’, a recreation of a Paul Whiteman Orchestra program from 30 years prior. Paul, who was alive and well, conducted the review, and The Lettermen played The Rhythm Boys – and I sang Bing’s part in ‘Mississippi Mud’. We had a ball!”
A few years later, The Lettermen performed at a fundraiser at a Hollywood club – and Bing, who was also a performer, came up and joined them on the last verse of “When I Fall in Love”, their big hit at the time. Tony said he reintroduced himself to Bing and mentioned the “Newcomers of 1928” program. Bing seemed amused, he said, but had to be wondering what stories about HIS youth were told to them by Paul Whiteman!
Music has been Tony’s passion, but he’s saved room for creating and acting as director of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, a not-for-profit dedicated to the legacy of the great vocal groups. He’s also a Napa Valley vintner, owning and managing Butala Vineyards.
For more information on Tony and The Lettermen – who’ve had sixteen Top 10 singles including one #1, 32 consecutive Billboard Magazine chart albums, 11 gold records, and five Grammy nominations – can be found at www.TheLettermen.com.
PS – Tony is the choir boy just over Vera-Ellen’s left shoulder!