From the Archives: Drexel Glee Club and Varsity Singers

The Drexel Glee Club, 1946.
The Drexel Glee Club in 1946, getting ready to leave Main Building for a performance in Darby, Pa.

This summer, the Drexel community gathered to sing the Drexel Fight Song on the Race Street Lawn, to celebrate the tune’s 75th anniversary. It got me thinking about the history of choral singing at Drexel.

When the Drexel Institute was established in 1891, its Department of Free Public Lectures and Concerts offered performances by both professional and student groups. In Drexel’s first decade, those student groups included the Chorus and the Banjo Club. The ROTC Band and Glee Clubs would debut in the decades that followed.

In the 1920s, the Glee Clubs began to perform on the steps of the Great Court for such important occasions as Founders Day. Downstairs in the auditorium, the Orchestra and Glee Clubs would entertain and inspire at all-campus assemblies. Upon becoming Drexel's fifth president in 1942, George P. Rea made his first appearance at one of these assemblies: he took the stage and led the students in singing popular songs of the day. Naturally, the students demonstrated their talents off campus as well. In this 1946 photo, the Glee Club is about to depart from Main Building for a performance in Darby, Pa.

Drexel's Varsity Singers, a small group of approximately 40 students selected from the larger Glee Club, made their debut in 1950 with a tour of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. In 1957, the Singers would be Drexel's first student musical group to travel overseas, when they began the first of three European tours. That six-week 1957 tour took the Singers to France, Germany, Belgium, England and Ireland. In 1960, the Singers embarked on a Scandinavian tour, including a stop in Sweden where they sang for the King and Queen, then returned to Western Europe in 1963.

At home and overseas, the Varsity Singers were led by music director Wallace Heaton, pictured in the photo (far left). When that photograph was taken, Heaton had only recently become music director, a position he would hold for more than 35 years. Heaton composed such works as the patriotic cantata, "Great Among Nations," which was regularly performed by the Varsity Singers, most notably at Independence Hall in 1962, where they were joined by legendary actor John Wayne.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the emergence of even more student groups, including string quartets and a gospel choir, but we will have to visit those songs another day.