The History of “The Sounds of Withrow”

By Zachery DeCarlos Riggins ‘72, Producer and Director of Withrow Sounds Again

The retirement of George G. ‘Smittie’ Smith in 1965 brought the end of the golden age of 35 years of Withrow’s musical Minstrels. They were much beloved shows that helped to establish Withrow’s music program as “The nation’s original high school Musical Arts Program.” The challenge then became how to follow this long and well established Withrow legacy.

Enter, Elston F. Hurst, 1948 Withrow Alumni, who was a student performer and later stage director under Smittie’s rein for many years. Elston was the binding tie between the two shows. He, in the fall of 1965, along with newly hired music director, Gilbert Curtis, sought to refashion the show into a more modern “Broadway-style” event, while keeping with the established traditions of grand sets, spectacular lighting and special effects, lavish costumes, a large orchestra playing popular and classical music, spectacular staging, and eye-popping “glitzy” dancing. Thus was born; THE SOUNDS OF WITHROW!

Newer skit materials were created to keep the show lively. The show was reduced to three nights from the traditional five nights of previous years, and performances continued to be sold out every night!

In the fall of 1967, James W. Parke took over the reins as music director from Mr. Curtis. In the fall of 1969, Woodson W. Conway became Choral director at Withrow replacing Ansel Martin who held that position for many years. The two men elevated the show to even greater heights with brilliant orchestrations and choral works that were added to increase the show’s popularity.

Ironically, throughout it all, Smittie was never far from Withrow. His musical arrangements were occasionally used whenever a nostalgic moment was needed to enhance the shows performance.

 This new musical tradition lasted from 1966 through 1984, eighteen years.

After the retirement of both James Parke and Woodson Conway in 1979, Jerome Johnson ‘66 and Carolyn Mitchell took over the reins in 1980. They kept the show going for another four years before it ended and became a smaller talent show. Most of the changes were due to budgets cuts, changing school schedules, relocation of families to newer suburbs and changing priorities.

We miss the SOUNDS OF WITHROW and all those memories we have cherished for so many years…so, in our centennial year, and after a 35 year absence, we are reviving those magical moments by creating a new show; ‘WITHROW SOUNDS AGAIN’. However, after decades of skeletal music programs, the student resources for such a show are very limited. In the past, there were 100s of students with experience and an interest in music and theater.

Today, with no choral program in the school and limited band and string programs, there are only several dozen students available for the show. For the first time, the students in the band and string programs will rehearse together in an orchestra setting. Further, local musicians, both alumni and Friends of Withrow, have volunteered to fill out the orchestra and will mentor students. In addition, Withrow alumni have formed a choral group. With a part-time stage manager, choreographer, choral director and music director funded by CPS and the Alumni Assn., a variety show including music, dance and skits is being produced.

Over the 60 years of student variety shows, Withrow’s auditorium had dozens of stage lights, light and sound control equipment and other infrastructure required to produce large performances. There was also a separate band building with rehearsal rooms and storage for band equipment. Large spaces below the stage were available for dressing rooms and storage. During the restoration of Withrow in the early 2000s, the band building was torn down; the spaces below the stage were appropriated for heating and air conditioning units; and the stage lights and other equipment necessary for large stage productions were removed.

Over the last 18 months, with the help of CPS, the Withrow Alumni Assn., alumni volunteers and others, much of the lighting and sound equipment and infrastructure have been restored. Further other auditorium improvements have been made so that it is again suitable for producing large stage shows. However, there continues to be no space for dressing rooms and inadequate storage.

We hope by producing Withrow Sounds Again, we can, over a period of years, reestablish the fine arts at Withrow University High School. It will take years to build a sufficient number of students to produce a show with only student performers. Just imagine…The Choir, Orchestra, Concert band, Jazz band, Drama, and a new addition; Media Arts, once again, at our Alma Mater.