By Zach Campbell
Midwood High School's class of 1957 returned to Bedford Avenue for their 55th reunion with an unusual activity — a new production of a play they first wrote, produced and staged over half a century ago.
As a bonus, they got to honor one of their favorite teachers — the woman who invented SING! in the first place — Bella Tillis, who celebrated her 99th birthday on the day after the reunion.
Tillis, as a young music teacher, created SING! in 1947, and New York City high schools have been holding SING! competitions ever since. A school’s classes compete against each other, putting on a theatrical production entirely composed, organized and performed by students. The productions are an opportunity for students of all backgrounds and interests to come together and work on a creative project, to be performed for the entire school.
It's an event that is so memorable to students that some have come back, 55 years later, to do it again.
Midwood's class of 1957 has had many atypical reunions over the years, and has always been good at keeping in touch, said Harris Sarney, a '57 graduate and one of the organizers of the recent SING! Reunion. Using old scripts, programs and recordings, Sarney reworked four productions that the class had staged during each of its years at Midwood, to create a production that the group could perform for its reunion.
And they got to do it on the same stage as 55 years earlier.
“Other classes generally have periodic reunions in hotel ballrooms or catering halls — our class has never done that,” Sarney explained. “Over time we've met in many different places, often at people’s homes. It's always been a much more personal thing. Most reunions would never want to go near their old high school.”
Sarney and the other organizers thought that recreating the event and holding it at Midwood High School would attract many former classmates. Part of the difference, he said, was that the annual SING! was, and still is, so important to Midwood students.
By all accounts, Midwood was the first New York City high school was to hold SING!, following Tillis’ 1947 initiative.
“It was great because it drew together kids from all backgrounds and sphere of interest,” Sarney explained. “No matter who you were, you could do this thing that brought the whole class together.”
David Cohen, Midwood’s principal for the last six years, fondly remembers the event as a student at Cardozo High School in Queens.
“Some of my greatest memories of high school revolve around my experience with SING!” said Cohen.
“I imagine that is the case for many Midwood students,” he added. “It is definitely our biggest event each year and brings together students from very diverse backgrounds.”
The senior SING! put on by the class of '57 involved the class standing “trial,” with a judge deciding whether or not they were fit to graduate. The reworked version involved a scenario in which the class of '57 had to go back to Midwood for a 50-year evaluation of their diplomas, again facing the scrutiny of a principal (played by Principal Cohen) who would eventually decide to either certify or revoke the class’ high school diplomas.
For many, the reunion and SING! was an opportunity to reconnect with old friends, or to make new ones.
“It was very interesting to see where each of our lives has taken us,” said Elaine Reiss, another '57 graduate.
Reiss described a very diverse class, including a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, a well-known theatrical director, members of the Peace Corps, nuclear scientists and a movie producer and owner of two windmills.
“We ran the gammut of professions,” Reiss explained, adding that it was also an opportunity for many to visit their alma mater university, Brooklyn College, located across the street. Long after the class of ’57 graduated, the school was renamed Midwood High School at Brooklyn College.
“Many of the people who came back went to Brooklyn College,” she added. “They were really coming back to look at two institutions that were important to them.”
William Friedman, also a '57 graduate and one of the events organizers, had a similar experience.
“We look back on high school as a time when people seem to be clever and interesting, and you wonder how people turn out,” Friedman said, “I wanted to come back and see where people were in their lives.”
As for his experience with SING!, Friedman admitted that he was a reluctant participant.
“I finally decided to participate in my senior year — I was in the chorus — at some point somebody walked by and suggested I just mouth the words,” he said, conceding that, “I'm not singer.”
“The event was wonderful,” said Dorothy Rabinoff, who graduated from Midwood in 1947 and taught the class of '57. Rabinoff added that the SING! was a great way to bring together alumni.
As for the current SING!s, “they're still going strong. It's still a diverse group, with performances once a year in December,” Rabinoff said. “Students are still responsible for everything.”
Dorothy, who taught English, attended the reunion with her husband Samuel, who taught social studies Midwood.
Wendy Guida is an English teacher at Midwood. She has made three trips to visit Bella Tillis over the years, to interview her and document her involvement with the school.
Guida said that Tillis, although she wasn't able to attend the event, felt honored that SING! has become so integral to the life of Midwood and many other schools, and that the class of '57 would dedicate their reunion SING! to her.
As for the current Midwood students, Guida saw it as a way for them to connect with older generations.
“When the students heard that it's a 55th reunion, they were surprised to see people, who are a little older, who are really vibrant, funny and talented,” Guida said.
She also explained that the current SING!s rely less on lyrics and actual singing, and more on dance, mixing step, hip hop, ballet, jazz and Bollywood styles.
“In those days you would have had 100 or so kids in the chorus,” Guida added, “now you're lucky if you have ten.”
Still, she says, the SING! is as important to Midwood students now as it was in 1957.
It has some similarities to a Broadway show, and some big differences,” she said. “It's a reallybig, bizarre, wonderful thing.”