By: Jeff Schwachter
CUMBERLAND COUNTY – Formed in Vineland in 1957, the Singing Ambassadors choral group has been a mainstay on the Cumberland County community entertainment scene for more than six decades.
Originally called the Vineland Community Chorus, the group of singers has performed up and down the East Coast—as well as several times in Canada—including numerous concerts in Cumberland County over the years.
The vocal group, which today includes about 20 members, performs a mix of sacred, popular, patriotic, classical, traditional and Broadway music.
Whether it was for a small performance at a local nursing home or one of its two annual stage shows—one in the spring and another during the holiday season—the choral group’s always been well prepared, rehearsing on Monday evenings at the Fiorelli Senior Center in Vineland for as long as many of its members can recall.
Due to declining interest among audience members, however, the group rehearsed for the last time at the Senior Center on May 13—for one last show.
The 62-year-old Singing Ambassadors will perform for the final time together on Saturday, June 1, at 3 p.m. at the Vineland High School South Auditorium. The show is free.
“We’re going to put on a show as we always do,” says singer Warren Crescenzo, 69. “It’s a concert with a variety of musical styles. There will be some soloists, but mostly group singing. And at the end we’re inviting former members to join us for what they used to use as a sign-off piece, a song called ‘Like an Eagle.’ So, they’re invited to come sing with us for that last piece.”
Donna Strain has been the president of the Singing Ambassadors for the past 10 years.
“I guess we’ve outlived our purpose,” she says. “I don’t know, it’s heartbreaking.”
Strain says that over the last few years, the group has modified its act and changed the days and times of its concerts, but audiences still haven’t been supportive.
“We have a great, dedicated group; a great executive board; we just don’t have an audience,” she says.
Current members of the group are primarily from the Vineland area and range in age from their 20s to 80s. However, in addition to audience members, the group has had a hard time attracting new singers in recent years.
“We’ve had younger people in and out from time to time, but they don’t seem to stay,” says Crescenzo, whose been in and out of the Singing Ambassadors four times himself since he was in high school.
At one point the group opened membership up to those 14 years and older, but the “young ones never seemed to stay,” he says. “It’s more of an older-persons group [these days] I guess.”
Musical directors over the decades have included Walter Ross (who initially organized the group at the First Presbyterian Church in Vineland in 1957), Henry Ricci, Charles Wine, John Gainfort, Janae Hair and Dawn Behm. Kyle Sheppard took the reins in 2017.
Anyone who wanted to attend rehearsals was always welcome to join the group, even if they were from outside Cumberland County, according to Crescenzo. At one point the group had to turn members away.
“We used to be a much larger group of people,” says Crescenzo, whose daughters were part of the Singing Ambassadors for a period of time. “I think when I joined they had to limit the group to 60 because so many people wanted to join. And then over the years things changed from more people to fewer people. More recently membership’s been in decline.
“It’s been difficult to attract singers—the older folks either leave for one reason or another or else they pass on and the younger people were not coming in,” adds Crescenzo. “Also, the audience just seemed to keep shrinking and shrinking.”
Karen Ponchot, the longest-serving member of the Singing Ambassadors (32 years) says she’ll miss the singing and camaraderie.
“I’ve been busy as the secretary, too,” says Ponchot, 80. She says the oldest current member of the group is 87 years old.
Along with providing entertainment and promoting the city, county and state during their travel engagements, one of the main purposes for the non-profit organization was to establish a scholarship fund. They’ve offered the C. Olin Fisher/Jodi Paterno Scholarship each spring to a graduating senior entering the field of music or the arts. The group will award one more this year.
Like the scholarship, the group has always been a community effort.
“It started as an attempt to bring the community together through the love of music,” says Crescenzo. “But it got to a point where we’re saying, ‘Well, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not a bright light unfortunately.’”
He has fond memories of the times when children were involved with the group: “I think we called them Ambassadors Kids,” he says, “and they did the skits with us. They would perform along with the music and be a part of the show.”
Crescenzo says while it’s been fun to learn different types of music, he’ll miss the bonds he’s made with other singers in the group the most.
“The friendships formed over the years—the end of anything is never a happy thing,” he says.
“Hopefully, we’ll have a place in the Historical Society.”
So, what will the members of the Singing Ambassadors do on Monday evenings now that they won’t be rehearsing together?
“That’s a good question,” says Crescenzo. “There might be another group out there or something may reform in some way. I really don’t know at this point.”
Crescenzo is also involved with the Cumberland County College Jazz band, Wind Symphony and Chorus as both a singer and trumpet player.
“I actually stopped playing for a number of years and stopped singing,” he says. “I was sort of in a depressed mood. And I just let it all go for a while and then slowly it came back with [my] church choir and then moving on to other things.”
Crescenzo says the Singing Ambassadors rehearsals in recent weeks have been energetic.
“I think people have been giving it their all to try and make it the best [show possible],” says Crescenzo with regard to gearing up for the last concert.
Come fall, he says, he’ll be missing the group he’s been a part of on and off since high school.
“It’s sort of like when a teacher retires in June; they don’t realize the full impact until September,” he says. “And in our case, we normally wouldn’t have a lot going on during the summertime, until the fall when we’d start up rehearsals again [for the holiday concert].”
Strain adds: “We’re going to be lost on Monday nights. Maybe we’ll do smaller shows at nursing homes, just as a group of friends.”
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