Wednesday, May 23, 2018
News Roundup

Top-rated Toast of Tampa Show Chorus not well known in bay area

Like the coat of a decorated general, medals dangled from the fuchsia jean jacket draped casually over a chair.

I noticed that Ellen Robinson's T-shirt was also of a hot pink hue, only slightly different from the one in the picture of her I'd gotten in an e-mail not long before.

Pink is the team color, she explained, sitting at the dining table in her South Tampa home where the color pops against cherry wood finishes and throw rugs in soft blues and grays.

I'm not surprised.

Pink: hot, bright, wanting to be noticed.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. Especially if you've practiced every spare moment to make the team and hired a big-name coach to secure a win; if you'd traveled to Canada for internationals and nabbed the equivalent of a People's Choice Award.

All that, and the hometown barely knows your name.

I admit I didn't — the Toast of Tampa Show Chorus?

Ellen, herself, stumbled onto the group about seven years ago, after seeing a tiny newspaper listing about a local barbershop chorus that eventually joined with Toast of Tampa.

By then, both Will and Anna had graduated from Berkeley Prep and left their stay-at-home mom's nest. "It was something to do that was just for me," Ellen said.

She had sung in the church choir as a girl and in a college chorus at Florida State University, too. Now she wanted to perform show tunes.

She wasn't the best soloist in the world; she just liked the part about being on stage.

Now, she's deep into a little-known subculture striving to keep American barbershop music alive. Toast of Tampa is part of Sweet Adelines International, the women's counterpart to the Barbershop Harmony Society. Together, the organizations have about 60,000 members, said Ann-Marie Dowling, membership coordinator for the Sweet Adelines in Tulsa, Okla.

"It's almost like another world that people don't know exists," Dowling said. Toast of Tampa and other choruses that often rank in the Top 10 for international competitions are the "celebrities."

But even niche fame doesn't come easily.

Ellen uses car time to practice pitch and timely breathing. (Who knew exhaling took practice?) "I sing in the airplane," Ellen said.

Every Tuesday, she meets more than 100 other women at a strip center in Temple Terrace where they stand on risers for about three hours straight, singing and swaying. Ladies come from St. Petersburg, Brandon, Sarasota and Orlando. They range from about 20 to 86.

Ellen, 57, subscribes to The Pitch Pipe, a must-have magazine for women "barbershoppers," as they're called.

This is serious business. Toast of Tampa hired acclaimed director Tony DeRosa — a Doc Rivers in the barbershop world — last year. His online bio says he lives in Winter Garden and is music director for the Voices of Liberty at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center. He's also vocal director for Celebrity Cruiselines.

Toast of Tampa, which also performs locally, placed No. 1 at the regional competition in April in Daytona, qualifying to compete internationally in Nashville in 2009.

Their performance last October at internationals in Calgary, Canada, was based on The Music Man. It was Ellen's idea to dress in vintage dresses, like 1912 townspeople. Some in the group initially didn't think the concept would work.

Adelines, Ellen said, are known for being "sparkly," with big hair and costumes with rhinestones and such. Somehow, she got them to settle for pastel-colored dresses from the era. And wigs.

The crowd loved it.

And the Toast of Tampa named Ellen the group's MVP, or what the ladies would call Sweet Adeline of the Year.

In the end, the group placed sixth overall and walked away with the coveted crowd's pick for World's Most Entertaining Chorus.

They got another medal and a ribbon — more trinkets for the jacket.

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