70 years of song with the TotemAires

The only requirement to join the TotemAires is an interest in barber shop music and a willingness to be an active participant in the all-male singing group.

Rehearsals take place every Tuesday evening from 7 to 9:30 at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Tacoma, and anyone interested in joining the group is encouraged to attend one of the weekly rehearsals. Singing and non-singing guests are always welcome.

The group’s members are friendly, talented, and share a great love of singing.

“We are the oldest acapella men’s chorus in the Northwest,” said TotemAires president Ed Gentz, who has led the group for two years.

In 1946, the group caught the eye of Edgar Eisenhower, President Eisenhower’s brother, and on Sept. 27 of that year with his help, the Tacoma Barbershop Harmony Chorus was given recognition status.

The group sang at an event when the State of Alaska gifted a totem pole to the City of Tacoma, and from then on, they were known as the TotemAires. In October this year, they celebrated their 70th anniversary.

Ninety-year-old retired school teacher and principal Steve Mondau is the oldest member of the group and has sung with the TotemAires for the last 60 years.

“I love this kind of music and the beautiful harmony,” said Mondau, adding that when he was the principal at Washington Grade School in Tacoma, the music teacher encouraged him to join a singing group.

“I saw a flyer, went to a performance at Jason Lee (junior high) and signed up,” he said.

Walt Paulsen, who began singing with the TotemAires 40 years ago, said, “We learn a lot on the job. We also have training CDs and other learning aids.”

A committee comprised of eight members makes the important decisions on what songs will be sung.

On Oct. 30, the group took part in Gloria Dei’s 26th annual Reformation Sunday Hymn Festival. Members met before the performance for a quick rehearsal, and their strong voices could be heard throughout the church basement as they belted out “Nearer my God to Thee.” The singers were robust and enthusiastic, and latecomers making it through the door into the crowded room were already chiming in as assistant director Jeremy Seuss led them through their practice.

The TotemAires sing at local events throughout the year, and the recent Christmas season offered them a wide variety of opportunities. They regularly sing Christmas carols at retirement communities. Last year, they sang at the Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community, and Gentz said it was a heartwarming experience.

“When we went inside, we saw a whole group of folks and we asked if it was okay if we sang some carols. A gentleman beside us started singing with us, and later we found out he had not spoken a word the whole time he had been living there. That music opened him up, and I thought it was so awesome,” said Gentz.

The main headquarters for the Barbershop Harmony Society is in Tennessee. The TotemAires are part of the Evergreen District, which includes Washington, Idaho, Oregon, British Columbia, Alaska, Alberta and Montana. There are 63 chapters in the Evergreen District.

The TotemAires have been named the “most improved chorus” in the Evergreen District’s Division 2 for the last two years.

The TotemAires have 36 members, ranging in age from 20 to 90. Membership is open to any male from 12 to 100 years old, with no experience. “We will teach men how to sing,” Gentz said.

They will perform at Gloria Dei on Jan. 11 at 7 p.m.

Anyone interested in joining the group can contact Gentz at 253-495-8599 or at TotemAires.com.

The group, which is available for performances almost anywhere for any occasion, doesn’t really need a reason to sing. The members just like to sing, said Gentz.

“It is a time commitment, but my wife said I have never had a habit that I kept, and now all you have to do is mention four-part harmony and I say, ‘I’m in.’ It is a great group of guys,” he said.


Joan Cronk, who wrote this article, is a freelance writer.

The TotemAires practice before a performance at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. (Joan Cronk/for Senior Scene)