Five years after a series of scandals resulted in its widely publicized closing, the Boys Choir of Harlem is holding auditions to accept new singers, rebuild the organization, and restore its once world-renowned image.
Dozens of young men turned out for auditions last week and this week at the Church of the Ascension on 107th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. Next week, the directors will visit churches and schools throughout the city to recruit singers between grades four and 12.
The auditions are the first operation since 2007 for the choir, which was founded in 1968 by Walter Turnbull and was known internationally for its Grammy Award-winning music and its academic and personal support services for underprivileged Harlem children.
But its success was overshadowed after Turnbull’s reckless accounting ran up a $5 million deficit and an administrator was convicted of abusing a 14-year-old choir member in 2001. The boy also alleged that Turnbull and his brother Horace—the group’s new president—knew of the abuse and did not report it.
The molester received a two-year prison sentence, the city evicted the choir from its long-time rehearsal space, and Walter Turnbull died in 2007. Shortly thereafter, the choir folded.
Administrators are ready for a comeback. The organization is restructuring its hierarchy by establishing a system of “leadership by committee,” said George Reyes, the choir’s chief operating officer.
“With the last choir, Dr. [Walter] Turnbull was it. He was the first and last word,” Reyes said. “With this particular incarnation of the choir, we’re going to committees and checks and balances to make sure no one person has a say on everything.”
Officers are working to implement smarter financial planning and a properly trained staff of “mandated reporters,” according to Horace Turnbull, the new CEO of the Walter J. Turnbull Foundation, the umbrella organization for the Boys Choir.
Turnbull maintained that there was never any financial mismanagement.
“There was never an accusation that anybody stole anything,” he said. Instead, the group expanded too quickly, he said, and overspent on creating more programs for the children, such that its expenditures outpaced its income.
He vowed that the choir’s troubles were a thing of the past. He is set now on his goal to “re-establish the choir as a well-renowned performing child development organization,” he said.
As an after-school program, the choir will offer music instruction, academic tutoring, and personal counseling. Turnbull described child development as a “three-legged stool” of education, personal development, and art.
So far, the choir has attracted celebrities, including Alicia Keys and Queen Latifah, to its advisory board. It has been asked to perform the national anthem at Madison Square Garden and at various corporate events. And a Los Angeles production company, DuBose Entertainment, is preparing to make a docuseries about the choir’s comeback.
But some basic operations are not yet in place: The group is still without a space to rehearse, and fundraising is “really tough right now, because we don’t have a product yet,” Turnbull said.
The search for that product began this month at the Church of the Ascension auditions. Gerald Thompson, a Harlem resident, brought both of his sons to audition because he said he believed the choir would make them “better singers, teach them the ropes of how to grow up to be a man, to learn responsibilities as an adult.”
Thompson said he was also attracted by potential scholarship offers that could come up for his sons down the road.
“The choir gives them something to do academically, gets them off the street, so that they won’t fall in with the wrong crowd,” he said.
Linda Jordan and her son Jaden, 10, traveled an hour and a half from Brooklyn to audition.
Jaden sang “What Makes You Beautiful” by the British boy band One Direction and said he wants to be a singer when he grows up.
“I’m most excited about meeting new people and singing in front of people and traveling,” he said.
After auditions, the choir will accept 40 to 60 boys from fourth to 12th grade. Auditions for the girls’ choir will happen later this year.
Turnbull is cautiously optimistic. He said he thinks the choir can recover “to the extent that society will allow.”
“Whether we get a Grammy Award-wining singer at some point is irrelevant to me,” he said. “What’s relevant is that we produce productive American citizens. Mediocrity is not an option.”