May 19, 2006 -- Following a performance in Nashville, Tenn., near the end of an exhaustive summer tour in 1996, University of Wyoming Centennial Singers traveled to Memphis where they held their annual end-of-year banquet. The group of UW students was weary from weeks on the road, but excited to explore the home of Elvis and the blues.
Director Bruce Bishop surveyed his group -- strained voices, hints of sickness and dwindling energy levels -- and made his diagnosis: tour fatigue. That night Bishop asked the singers, dancers, band and crew to make the ultimate sacrifice, a 10 p.m. curfew. The company, albeit grudgingly, complied.
"The next night in Hot Springs, Ark., the show was electric. The audience was with us as if they were up on stage," says a nostalgic Bishop. "Afterward, a member of our band came up and hugged me. He said, 'Last night I didn't know why you did that, but man, you give up for music and music pays you back.'"
This year Centennial Singers, official musical ambassadors for the state of Wyoming and its university, celebrate 20 years of giving up for music and sharing the payback with audiences nationwide.
Centennial Singers will formally gather this year in Laramie on May 26-28 for a retrospective look at 20 years of music and memories. The season's final performance, open to the public, will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 27, at the Laramie High School auditorium.
In anticipation of the University of Wyoming centennial commemoration, UW Choral Director Carlyle Weiss suggested to the centennial committee that a musical group be formed as goodwill ambassadors for the university's year-long celebration. Bishop, who was a graduate student and choral assistant with experience directing show choir, was asked to direct the temporary ensemble of auditioned volunteers.
"Professor Wise told me he had money appropriated for a musical theatre group, he asked if I would be interested in putting it together and said there was a little bit of money that goes along with it. Since every grad student could use a little money, I took it on," Bishop says.
Patricia Tate, professor of dance, agreed to choreograph, 15 singer/dancers were selected, a rhythm section was chosen and technicians were recruited. The show was designed in musical revue format where songs are loosely tied together by a central theme and flow like a musical rather than a concert. Centennial Singers was born.
The group was conceived to begin and end during the UW Centennial, but thanks to overwhelming support from the UW Board of Trustees, the Wyoming legislature and communities across Wyoming, the program was deemed too successful to terminate.
In 1989, Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan designated the group as official musical ambassadors of Wyoming for the state centennial approaching in 1990. Centennial Singers developed a two-year plan to perform in each Wyoming county.
"There are very few towns of any size in Wyoming where Centennial Singers hasn't performed and drawn great audiences. In Baggs, population 250 at the time, we had 350 people at our concert," says Bishop.
Through time, the group underwent many changes and emerged as one of the premier performance troupes of its kind.
"We started with five costumes, two of which were created by incorporating a reversible vest. We had more trouble with costumes then, than we did a few years later when we had 13," Bishop says.
The role of costumes and the use of advance lighting and sound technology have grown, adding to the group's professional appearance.
"For the first five years we used corded mikes, it was common for 200 feet of microphone cord to blanket the stage at one time, creating a near disaster each time a singer/dancer made a wrong exit," Bishop remembers.
Since its beginning, this group of diverse majors and talents has captured the hearts of musical theatre lovers from small towns in Wyoming and Cubs fans in Chicago to international crowds at Disney World. One Centennial Singers fan, Darlene Splittgerber, has been watching the group every step of the way.
"I don't know how I could prove it, but I've seen every season's show," says the longtime Torrington resident. "What they're doing with Centennial Singers at the University of Wyoming is absolutely tops. They just never seem to make a mistake, it's amazing how good these kids are. You wonder how in the world they get in and out of these costumes so fast."
When Bishop resigned as director in 2001, General McArthur Hambrick, the group's choreographer, was asked to take over the group. As Bishop says, he was the first and only choice.
"Originally I accepted the job as an interim director, or so I thought -- I've stayed five years," Hambrick says.
This season Hambrick directs his final show, "In Retrospect."
"The decision to return to my career as a performer was a difficult choice," says Hambrick, who has toured with Cats, Miss Saigon and Phantom of the Opera. "Being director of Centennial Singers has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life."
More than 250 Centennial Singers alumni now span the globe and often gather at Centennial Singers shows and join the current group on stage for the perpetual encore, "We Are Wyoming."
Tickets for Saturday's performance cost $8 for adults, $5 for students and $3 for children 12 and under. They may be purchased in advance at the Wyoming Union or Fine Arts Center Box offices or at the door. Call General Hambrick at (307) 766-3076 or visit www.uwyo.edu/singers for more information.
Posted on Friday, May 19, 2006