Tony Antolini ’63: A Brief History of A Cappella at Bowdoin

When Bowdoin Chorus Director Anthony Antolini ’63 matriculated in the fall of 1959, he recalled how members of glee clubs on campus were treated like royalties. “Bowdoin was a singing school,” Antolini said. “At that time singing here was about as prestigious as being in a varsity team.”

Antolini spoke last week at an event at Helmrich House called “A Cappella Exposed.” The senior lecturer in music gave a brief history of the Meddiebempsters — the oldest a cappella group on campus — and recalled what it was like to be part of the Meddies during his time at Bowdoin. Both the Meddies and Ursus Verses were invited to perform at the event as well.

The evening was organized by sophomores Caroline Pierce and Maggie Seymour. Pierce is a member of one of the co-ed a cappella groups on campus.

“Ever since watching the movie Pitch Perfect we feel like it is becoming a more popular activity,” Pierce said. “We wanted to give people a better understanding of where a cappella at Bowdoin came from.”

Concert pianist Fredrick “Tilly” Tillotson was brought to Bowdoin in 1936 as the first chair of the music department. He began the then humble department in the back of the chapel. But President K.C. Sills asked Tillotson to turn Bowdoin into a “singing college.” Tillotson formed the first Bowdoin glee club, the idea being that a group of people would get together and sing for fun.

He also decided Bowdoin needed its own version of the Yale Whiffenpoofs, the oldest collegiate a cappella group in the nation, and put together the Meddiebempsters. Although they began singing together in 1935, the new group’s members didn’t decide on a name until two years later. The men blindfolded one of the singers, spun him around and made him throw a dart at a map of Maine. The dart landed on Meddybemps — a little town in Washington County, Maine.

The group enjoyed success until the emergence of the Second World War when many students’ educations were disrupted. The Meddiebempsters ceased performing until the end of the war.

But the group made a comeback when the G.I. Bill was established. Students returned with enthusiasm, and Tillotson’s Meddiebempsters and Glee Club began singing once more. Under the leadership of Tillotson, the Glee Club performed at the White House, and both groups traveled extensively around New England for concerts.

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