Former students re-release ’69 OCHS choir recording

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OCEAN CITY — For a high school vocalist, it didn’t get any better than recording an album in the sanctuary of what was then known as the First United Methodist Church.

It was Christmas 1969 and the Ocean City High School Concert Choir, led by director Lewis Benzon, recorded nearly a dozen Christmas favorites, including Psalm 96, written by Benzon.

The vinyl album was a big deal to choir members; nearly 43 years later it is being re-released, this time as a CD, by a member of the choir.

Fueled by nostalgia, the buzz is building. The process, initiated by Tracy Allen, has rekindled many happy memories and friendships for the former classmates and choir members and for Benzon, who led the choir for 240 performances over 15 years.

“It was pretty darn nice, I never had a day I didn’t want to go to work,” said Benzon, who just celebrated his 90th birthday at a retirement home in Massachusetts. “I’m very proud of what I accomplished. I just loved that high school age group, loved working with them, being with them. We always had 50 singers, just enough to fill the risers, just enough to fill the bus, and not one more.

“We had the same number, but every year was a different complexion,” Benzon said. “Each year had its own character, but they were all wonderful students. I had a great 15 years in Ocean City.

“There was little need for discipline,” he said. “They took care of themselves. The younger students would come in and the older students would tell them that ‘This is the way we do it here, we don’t mess around,’ and they didn’t.”

The effort for the re-release began with a Facebook post: “You’re probably from Ocean City if you remember …” Old-timers were invited to share memories, and Allen, class of 1971, asked if anyone had a copy of the album.

“I heard ‘O Holy Night’ on the radio, and I remembered it from choir,” Allen said.

Gary Benzon, Lew’s son, answered the clarion call. The record was transferred to CD and soon everyone was excited. Copies were distributed to the former classmates.

“I was so excited,” said Sharon Kruk, a freelance musician. The CD brought back “many happy memories.”

“I had terrific students. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’d have a student in music class in ninth grade that would tell me they couldn’t sing. I knew they could, I could see the potential. I filled my soprano section with students who couldn’t sing.”

Allen remembered practicing for months leading up to the performance.

“It was so special, and it was in my church,” he said.

The acoustics in what is now St. Peter’s UMC made for a beautiful recording.

Through the efforts of the church’s musical director George Ashton, Benzon was able to secure Janice Harsanyi, a famous soprano singer to accompany the choir. Harsanyi sang as soloist for the United Nations, debuted at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra, made a recording with Eugene Ormandy, sang at a peace rally in Philadelphia featuring Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and sang for Albert Einstein in Princeton.

“We had no idea how famous this lady was,” Allen said.

Kruk said she remembers how important she felt wearing her choir jacket.

“I felt so cool walking around in it,” she said.

Irene Richardson Bell-Zebley, class of 1970, said recording the album “was a big deal” in 1969.

“We were so in awe,” she said. “We all felt so important, with all that recording equipment. We practiced so hard. We had to have it just right; we were recording an album, imagine that! We made a record, it was an unbelievable experience.

“When we sang we were many voices, but we came together for this one purpose,” she said. “It was all about unity. We were a tight group. I had so many friends in the choir. We had so much fun. We practiced on Wednesday nights and then we’d all race home in time to see Batman on television.”

The students were given the jackets, but had to make their uniforms.

“My mother made my skirt,” said Bell-Zebley, who now works at OCHS. “We had to have gray skirts or gray pants. The skirts had to be just above the knee. We really thought we were great.

“It was phenomenal, nothing but happy memories,” she said. “Mr. Benzon told us how proud he was of us. Ocean City has always achieved great things in sports, music, the arts. Ocean City is about excellence, Mr. Benzon expected it. He inspired us to do our best; that’s a tribute to him.”

Lorraine Pulvino Poling said it was “an amazing experience.”

“We practiced in the alcove of the old high school,” she said. “The acoustics were such that you could feel the reverberations through your whole body, it was incredible. You felt like you were part of the music. It was a transcending experience. We had the perfect pitch; it was something I will never forget.”

Lois Likens, class of 1973, thought the choir sounded “amazing.”

“Frankly, I did not remember being that good!” she said. “After listening, a couple things were immediately clear: under Mr. Benzon's direction there was an excellence no one else knew was possible, and, owing to that, something bigger happened. All in all, pretty heady stuff for a high school student.”

Benzon said he is thrilled his former students have reconnected.

“That was a special performance, and we have the Methodist Church to thank,” he said. “That church was magnificent.”

Benzon said the Christmas Concert was the highlight of the year.

“The kids loved to see me in my tux,” he said.

The father of four – Barbara, Carol, Gary and Judy – grandfather of 11 and great-grandfather to 13, said he still enjoys the company of “youngsters.”

“I eat in a little café at the retirement home, and they have high school kids serving us,” he said. “I like being around them.”

Benzon taught music and led the concert choir from 1964 until his retirement in 1979. He said he knew in 10th grade that he what I wanted be a choir director.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, he married his high school sweetheart, Eleanor, after graduating from Temple University.

“We met in the choir,” he said. “I got a job teaching and earned my master’s degree at the University of Rochester.”

Benzon taught in Long Island and Pennsylvania; when a job opened up in Ocean City he jumped at the opportunity.

“We wanted to raise our children (in Ocean City),” he said.

Eleanor Benzon – an accomplished golfer - opened her own real estate office, Benzon Realty and became the first woman president of the Ocean City Board of Realtors.

“We loved Ocean City,” he said. “I still correspond with students I had 60 years ago. I got a birthday card from a student I had in 1948.”

As the Gazette reported in 2008, Benzon went skydiving for his 86th birthday. He was feeling a “little stagnant” and thought jumping out of a DeHavilland Twin Otter aircraft would be the perfect antidote.

“I had to prove there was some life left in the old boy,” he said.

It was exciting and exhilarating, he said. Now in his tenth decade, the World War II veteran has a new goal.

“I’d like to go to the moon,” he said. “I really would.”

For a copy of the CD, contact Tracy Allen at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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