By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Dick Van Dyke comes to town for 10th year, to help save schools' music

Photo by Chuck Kirman/Ventura County Star: Dick Van Dyke signs autographs and answers questions for the Oak Park High School chorus after rehearsing with them for the upcoming “Wishing Upon a Star” benefit concert.

Ventura County Star
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

For film and TV legend Dick Van Dyke, donating his time to support local high school music programs is all about perpetuating an art form that’s crucial to the advancement of society.

“Without music, we’re dead,” said Van Dyke, one of America’s most beloved actors, who has starred in a number of timeless classics, including “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” “Music and art are the glue that holds civilization together.”

At 84, Van Dyke is starring for the 10th straight year in an annual benefit concert in which all net proceeds will be donated to area public school music programs, which badly need funding because of state and local cuts.

This year’s show, “Wishing on a Star,” will take place at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. It will feature Van Dyke singing songs made famous in Disney musicals like “Mary Poppins,” “Pinocchio” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” He also will serve as the emcee, introducing and performing with five high school choral groups from Oxnard, Oak Park, Newbury Park, Simi Valley and Woodland Hills.

In light of budget cuts in public school arts programs, this year’s show is more important than ever, said Van Dyke, a Malibu resident.

“They called me 10 years ago when all of a sudden they couldn’t afford musical instruments or sheet music anymore. We can’t create a generation of robots,” he said.

“This show gets better every year,” he said. “We pack ’em in. You wouldn’t believe the talent these kids have.”

A slow start

Initiated in 1998, the show is sponsored by the Conejo Valley Harmony Oaks Chorus, the local chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society that’s dedicated to teaching the art of barbershop harmony to men from 16 to 96.

Over the years, 12 local participating high school chorus programs have received more than $100,000 from the series of concerts, said Neil Pennywitt of Newbury Park, vice president of public relations for the Conejo Valley Harmony Oaks Chorus.

“The first two years of the show were moderately successful, showed a small profit, and all the participating schools shared those funds,” Pennywitt said.

“The whole success of the show changed when Dick Van Dyke, a longtime barbershopper, offered to help,” he said. “Over the past few years, we are generating a profit of around $15,000, which is split between the five participating schools.”

The idea for the fundraiser came about when the chorus saw that one of the best ways to recruit potential new members was to introduce the art of barbershop harmony to youths and show them how fun and artistically satisfying close harmony really is, Pennywitt said.

“We contacted local high school choral directors to see if they would be interested in participating and found that an interest was there,” he said, “so we forged ahead.”

Making choruses better

The choral directors knew that exposure to and training in music is vital; studies show musical training strengthens math skills, since music is mathematically based.

“What those directors have found over the last 10 years is that incorporating barbershop-style close harmony into their teaching curriculum is making their choruses better, and actually increasing the numbers of students choosing to take music courses,” Pennywitt said.

For instance, John Sergeant, the director at Newbury Park High School, has seen the number of male chorus members grow exponentially over the past several years and go on to win regional state awards because of their proficiency.

Heidi Cissell, the choral director at Oak Park High School, instituted a requirement in her curriculum in which members of the senior chorus had to form and perform in a barbershop quartet in order to pass the course. As a result, her chorus has improved “nearly beyond measure,” she said.

“One of the reasons that Mr. Van Dyke is so committed to the program is that he began his music career in high school, and he fondly remembers those roots,” Pennywitt said. “It’s one of the things he talks about to the students when he visits each school before the show to plan their performance and how he can participate in it.”

‘So awesome’

During Van Dyke’s recent visit to Oak Park High School, he rehearsed a number from “The Lion King” that he will perform with the chorus at the show. It was the second time student Ren Rodner had the chance to share the stage with the man she most fondly recalls from one of her favorite childhood movies.

“I loved ‘Mary Poppins’ when I was a kid,” said the 17-year-old, who performed with Van Dyke at the benefit concert two years ago. “It’s so awesome to have the opportunity to do this. It’s a big deal. Not everybody gets the chance to perform with Dick Van Dyke.”

After the rehearsal, 16-year-old Ari Stidham stood in awe as nearly the entire chorus swarmed Van Dyke for autographs.

“It’s like, there he is,” Ari beamed. “He’s just so incredible. I grew up watching him. This is huge. It’s a big deal for me.”

In addition to benefiting local high school music programs, the concert offers a unique opportunity to see Van Dyke, one of America’s most famous and loved actors and musicians, in a relaxed and fun environment, Pennywitt said.

“And it’s also a great deal of fun to see just how talented our local students can be when they do something that they really like,” he said, “supported by professionals like Mr. Van Dyke.”

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