By BRENNA GRITEMAN
Fresh off its 100th grand championship, in its 35th anniversary year, Findlay First Edition is shipping out today for its sixth trip to the Show Choir Nationals in Nashville. If all goes according to plan, they’ll earn their first national title on stage at the Grand Ole Opry House.
Findlay High School’s show choir will deliver a high-energy, naval-inspired performance featuring several old standards, as well as a ballad and two numbers written just for them, during the national contest. They’ll be competing against 13 groups in their division on Friday, with the hopes of advancing to the finals Saturday.
The odds of making it to the finals are pretty good, says director Kevin Manley, who points out that FFE has gone to the finals in every competition they’ve entered since 1989.
And, the students are still reeling from the milestone achievement of securing their 100th win at the Solon Show Choir Invitational this month. That trophy stands in the same display case as the first championship trophy FFE ever won, back in 1986.
Since the time of FFE’s founding in fall 1985, plenty of things have stayed the same.
The group still performs classics rather than the latest pop sensations, and parents remain deeply devoted to helping the program run smoothly. A dedicated group of student performers — 52 this season — rehearses entirely outside of school hours, sometimes up to four nights a week.
“One of the things that remains constant is, it’s a classy group,” says J.D. Smith, who founded FFE and served as Findlay High School’s choir director for 22 years. He retired (“for the last time”) in 2005, but remains heavily involved with the show choir. (“You spend so much time and energy, you almost become addicted to it.”)
Another constant that cannot be overlooked is choreographer Andy Haines, who has been with FFE since its inception.
And, FFE has only ever had two directors in its 35 years: First Smith, then Manley, who took the reins at the end of the 2005 school year. (At that time, Smith became director of The Boingers, FFE’s instrumental ensemble.)
“Consistently, they have always sung well,” says Haines, noting that the inaugural group of 24 started off dancing on boxes because there was no budget for platforms.
That was remedied in 1994, when the ensemble performed for the Hancock County Community Improvement Corp. and was granted money toward proper platforms. That same spring, FFE performers — including future Broadway sensation Gavin Creel — went door to door and asked community members for money toward costumes, which they received in spades.
These days, costumes are an integral part of any show choir appearance. The show that will be performed this weekend features multiple outfit changes for both the girls and the guys. Smith notes that for many years, the most the ensemble attempted was removing a full skirt from over a sheath dress.
Sets, too, have become more elaborate through the years. Smith recalls arriving at a Fort Wayne, Indiana, contest years ago, only to discover that the sets they’d prepared wouldn’t fit the space. FFE went on to win first place anyway, proving that a quality performance will beat out even the most impressive of sets.
Haines says the scale of things is one of the biggest changes he’s seen through the years. Everything is bigger now: the performances themselves, the sets, the number of contests offered annually and the amount of student performers involved (there used to be a cap of 40 performers allowed on stage).
The production is so big now, Haines likens FFE to a travel sports team. There are parents who work diligently behind the scenes here in Findlay — building sets, sewing costumes, perfecting the lighting, organizing fundraisers — and still more who go out on the road with the choir. Those parents are chaperoning bus trips, checking students into hotels, managing meals, shuttling sequined dresses and vests to the venue, and cheering from their seats in the theater.
“It seems like a new parent committee forms every year,” Manley says.
“It’s a nationally known group because of the support of parents and the community,” Haines adds.
And the community supports this style of show, Manley says.
He began organizing the 18-minute show to be performed in Nashville last summer, with students beginning to practice the first half in September. The entirety of the performance came together in January.
In putting together each year’s program, Manley focuses on great music and designing an act that will be as entertaining as possible. He knows that the community supports FFE’s performance of classic tunes, and that students are proud to perform a throw-back show that stands out at contests.
“They’re our future supporters of the arts, and I want them to have those standards,” Manley says.
Smith says Findlay’s commitment to the show choir’s continued excellence is demonstrated not only through the support of parents and the community at large, but by the students themselves.
Somewhere along the line, a tradition began where the senior girls buy roses for the incoming freshmen girls. Smith doesn’t know how or when this started, but it’s a good indicator of the seriousness with which the students approach their involvement in FFE.
“That is their family,” he says of the students. “They travel together, they rehearse together, they eat together, they celebrate together, they cry together.
“It’s an incredibly emotional experience. There are highs and lows experienced all the way through. And you hope the highs outweigh the lows.”