What would John Brophy ’53, BME ’54, have said if, back in his undergrad days, someone had told him he’d still be singing with Cayuga’s Waiters more than sixty years on? “I would have said it was impossible,” Brophy replies with a laugh, “but first, I would have said I was lucky to be alive.” Now in his mid-eighties, the retired sales engineer and avid baritone is among a dedicated group of Waiters from the Fifties and Sixties who still perform together. With a core membership of about a dozen and a half singers (plus an equal number who’ve dropped in occasionally over the years), they’ve become fixtures at Reunion, where they entertain at Cornelliana Night and various class gatherings. “We’ll sing for cocktails, or supper, or thunderous applause — we don’t care,” says fellow baritone Dave Schmidt ’55. “We do have a lot of groupies. It’s fun to have them say, ‘Boy oh boy, we love hearing those songs again.’ ”
Those beloved tunes include school-spirit classics like “The Halls of Ivy” and popular fare such as Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Among the group’s signatures is the cheeky love song “Goodnight, Little Girl” — “We thought we could win you / with all that gin in you” — with which they often serenade a lucky audience member. While today’s a cappella often features a soloist, Brophy notes, the early Waiters strived for a seamless vocal blend. “It’s always uplifting,” Schmidt says of performing together. “The camaraderie is fantastic, and we just make good music.”
There are now more than a dozen a cappella groups on campus, but the Waiters were first: they were founded in 1949 as part of the Glee Club but spun off on their own in 1957. The group first went on tour — to Bermuda — in 1953, and over the decades the Waiters have kept up the habit; recent trips have taken them to Puerto Rico, Vancouver, Miami, and London, where they performed at Buckingham Palace. “We’re a Cornell tradition,” says current leader Peter Duba ’16, an urban planning major and second tenor, “and it’s amazing to be part of it.” He notes that the Waiters have a prominent spot on the Daily Sun‘s version of the “161 Things Every Cornellian Should Do” list: item number four is singing along at a performance of their signature tune, “We Didn’t Go to Harvard.” That song, a Cornellian version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” has been an audience favorite for the past couple of decades. (Among the reasons it gives for eschewing a certain campus in Cambridge: “We don’t like crimson / plus we didn’t get in.”)
Being a Waiter is no small commitment: the group rehearses in Lincoln Hall three times a week, including three hours each Sunday. It has recorded two dozen albums over the years, with the latest, Nothing Wrong, released last spring. For the Fifties and Sixties-era alumni group — whom member Bob Cohen ’60 affectionately terms the “Geezer Waiters” — the rehearsal schedule is a bit less taxing: they spend a few hours practicing their four-part harmonies on the Thursday of Reunion Weekend. While the Waiters are technically an all-male troupe, the Geezers include a woman: cabaret singer Liz Fuchs Fillo ’58, who stands in for her late brother, second tenor Carl Fuchs ’55. “Whenever we come back, the balance works out to about three people per [vocal] section,” Brophy notes. “We just luck out.”
Duba, who joined the Waiters his first week on campus, says he’d be thrilled to be involved as long as Brophy and Schmidt have been. In his case, that would mean crooning Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” — around the year 2078.