Original group of Purduettes smiling around a grand piano.

Extended History

Even though organized choral music at Purdue dates back to 1891 with the founding of the short-lived Chapel Choir, and the first eleven members of the Purdue Varsity Glee Club convened in 1893, the impetus for what would soon become one of the most unique, prestigious, and renowned collegiate music programs in the country saw its first light in 1930. It was then that Al Stewart, a former member of the Purdue Glee Club and West Lafayette native and local music instructor, was asked by the dean of women to direct the Women’s Glee Club.

Sensing a need to involve as many students as possible, Al Stewart soon formed the Purdue Concert Choir, a mixed-voice ensemble similar to those found at other colleges and universities. Before long, the Women’s Glee Club and the Concert Choir had developed a campus following and became a featured part of special programs for university functions and alumni groups. The Men’s Glee Club, which had continued as its own separate entity throughout the years, was then led by Mrs. Helen Smith, and upon her decision to resign, current members of the ensemble asked Al Stewart to take over the reins. Purdue now had a Men’s and Women’s Glee Club and a Concert Choir, all under the tutelage of Al Stewart. Although in high demand for performances, each of these ensembles was expected to fund their own existence and operations, just as was expected of athletic teams at the time. Though there wasn’t much money coming in, some early funding from private individuals made it possible for the groups to continue to grow and thrive.

Finally securing a permanent location for rehearsals and daily operations, the newly-named Purdue Musical Organizations continued to take shape within the walls of University Hall. But any future successes for Purdue Musical Organizations seemed far from certain. To broaden the horizons of his students and to begin sharing music and business beyond the Purdue campus, initial contacts were made with a potential show sponsor in Indianapolis, sparking what would soon become a steady stream of income-generating performance opportunities.

Given a new home in Fowler Hall in 1937, Al Stewart finally had his own staff and building with office space, a 500-seat performance venue, pianos in his office and in the rehearsals spaces and onstage, as well as the support of the University’s top official. Thousands of people across Indiana and neighboring states were now hearing and seeing the talents that Purdue students had to offer, unwittingly employing a most important public relations tool – a concise and positive experience associated with Purdue’s moniker, regardless of any previous connection to the institution itself.

The life of the performing arts on the Purdue campus and within the state of Indiana received a much-needed and unprecedented jump start in 1938. Buoyed by the need for space to accommodate large crowds for all-campus religious services and special events, then-President Edward C. Elliott made an impassioned presentation and lobbied successfully for a federally-funded, state-of-the-art facility in the center of Purdue’s campus. A veritable fortune at that the time, the $1.2 million price tag was enough to build the largest enclosed proscenium stage in the world, with the additional ability to house administrative offices and rehearsal spaces for all of Purdue Musical Organizations and the ever-teeming Purdue Band Department. With a seating capacity slightly eclipsing that of the internationally-acclaimed Radio City Music Hall, the Elliott Hall of Music (finally completed in 1940) continues to host conventions, gatherings, concerts, recitals, professional Broadway and symphonic tours, and is home to the Purdue Christmas Show and winter, spring, and summer commencement exercises for Purdue and many other educational institutions in the greater Lafayette area. Additionally, the Elliott Hall of Music also serves as a testing and exam site for a variety of courses and areas of study on the Purdue campus.

At Purdue University in the fall of 1942, classes began on a campus that was now missing much of its male population due to military mobilization across the country. Of those who remained or returned later after their military assignments were through, many were limited by travel restrictions discouraging them from leaving the local area. The Purdue Men’s Glee Club couldn’t perform on the road as before and though there were fine musicians and a quality product emerging within the Women’s Glee Club and Concert Choir, it was decided that a new group should be established.

A 13-member musical troupe of college women was chosen as much for their previous show business experience as their musical ability. Presenting an upbeat style and a repertoire including everything from sacred hymns to the latest Broadway and popular melodies, the newly-dubbed Purduettes were an immediate hit. Employing the current tunes of the day and a polished and professional look, the women of the Purduettes remained an audience favorite even after the Men’s Glee Club returned to top billing following the end of World War II. The name of the ensemble was soon changed to the Choraleers and an increased number of members once again signified the never-ending quest to engage as many people as possible in the music and mission of Purdue Musical Organizations. A return to the original Purduettes label several years later did nothing to deter those from wanting to participate, nor those that requested their talents for university, public, private, and corporate events across the country. Today, membership in the Purduettes ranges from 60-70 musicians each year, and employs a leadership honorary, mentor program, and many small specialty groups and soloists within the larger ensemble.

The Concert Choir, however, had continued to grow steadily since its inception in the early 1930s, spawning a larger ensemble named the University Choir, numbering more than 300 by the early 1970s. In an effort to limit the size of the ensemble, membership was limited to 66 voices through a rigorous audition process. To accommodate newly-interested singers and those displaced by the University Choir audition, the Choral Club (a second all-female group directed by Bill Luhman) was formed. Keeping with the high musical standards already employed at Purdue Musical Organizations, the Choral Club’s repertoire included music from all genres and styles. Throughout its existence, the Choral Club performed for university, community, corporate, public and private events and functions until its dissolution in 1993, providing twenty years of quality music, long-lasting memories, and proud service to its members and to Purdue University as a whole.

Always mindful of the ever-changing needs and interests of musicians and students, in 1979 Purdue Musical Organizations saw the addition of two English handbell choirs to its roster of performers. Lending a unique sound, appearance, and repertoire to PMO’s already-burgeoning musical offerings, the Bell choir ensembles soon became an audience favorite in the Purdue Christmas Show and beyond. Employing two, five-octave sets of handbells (Schulmerich and White Chapel), a set of Malmark choir chimes and a set of antique Shaker Chimes (donated by Howard and Lillian Taylor, both Purdue alums), the Purdue Bell Choir ensembles continued to occupy a greater presence with each passing year through church, community, and university-related performances. Small specialty groups within the larger ensembles soon represented unique bell ringing styles and offered additional musical variety. Ultimately, the Purdue Bell program was streamlined to feature one ensemble of male and female performers, numbering between 22-25 members. Performances for Purdue President’s Council and Alumni Association events and tours, as well as collaborations with other handbell and vocal ensembles, a featured performance at the Indiana Music Educators Association conference, and the creation and inception of the former Lafayette Bell Festival have all solidified this ensemble’s excellent reputation both on and off the stage.

Founded in the fall of 1988 to attract those interested in the vocal jazz and show choir genres, the PMO Express ensemble employed the varied talents of singers, dancers, and instrumentalists alike. As membership in the ensemble began to solidify, performance opportunities were more and more frequent. Performing a mix of choreographed and non-choreographed tunes ranging from Broadway to pop to patriotic and novelties, this mixed-voice troupe of men and women developed a style and audience all their own. In the fall of 1998, a change in format saw the PMO Express began to focus primarily within the idiom of vocal jazz with individual microphones for each singer and a fresh new instrumental approach. Additionally, members of PMO Express unwittingly started what was once a yearly tradition at PMO – Singing Valentines. Originally conceived as a fundraising idea for PMO Express, the Singing Valentines musical teams once included more than 200 members of PMO each February. The PMO Express also became an integral part of the annual Purdue Jazz Festival, appeared as a featured performance ensemble at the International Association of Jazz Educators Convention in Canada, and recorded a best-selling CD in the spring of 2001. Following a memorable and engaging 15-year run, the PMO Express would eventually disband in 2003, with those involved in this history of the ensemble leaving a strong and positive vocal and instrumental legacy.

The fall semester of 2004 saw the addition of another vocal ensemble to the Purdue Musical Organizations roster. Heart & Soul, a mixed-voice ensemble featuring 20-30 singers and instrumentalists, primarily celebrates the style of gospel and sacred music. Heart & Soul premiered on the main stage as part of the festivities during Homecoming weekend, and began a rich and variety-filled performance schedule as a part of PMO. Representing a cross-section of multi-cultural and musical backgrounds, the members of Heart & Soul encompass undergraduate and graduate students alike with majors ranging from nursing and engineering to education and science. Appearances for alumni and university functions, public and private, corporate and community events, a variety of religious and worship services, and participation in the Purdue Christmas Show make up just a portion of Heart & Soul’s annual performance calendar.

Following in the tradition of offering something for everyone and aiming to involve as many individuals as possible within the structure of Purdue Musical Organizations, the All-Campus & Community Chorale (also known as AC3) was started in 2003. Although other choral music opportunities certainly exist within the Greater Lafayette area, sponsoring a choral ensemble through PMO that provided a place for current and past students, as well as staff and faculty of Purdue and community members at large to sing has proven to generate much interest. A wide variety of ages, backgrounds, professions, major areas of study, and musical experiences can be found amongst the 50-60 strong members of this ensemble. Rehearsing one evening per week, AC3 provides a manageable time commitment for participants, while still presenting the possibility of participation in a portion of the Purdue Christmas Show.

Another monumental and successful program that began in 1937 saw, in its heyday, more than 2,000 volunteer participants from across the state of Indiana. Originally called the Indiana Home Demonstration Chorus, this dedicated and talented group of women hailed from nearly every county in the state of Indiana, rehearsing in their own individual ensembles to prepare for one large gathering on the Purdue campus each year. In a time when few women worked outside of the home, this much-needed organization provided a well-organized and musical activity that combined a love of music and the arts and friendships and performance opportunities that still continue today. Once deemed the world’s largest volunteer chorus, the Indiana Homemakers Extension Chorus program (as it was later known) still thrives under the name of the Melody Makers, and although no longer affiliated directly with Purdue Musical Organizations, continues to be a shining example of the power of music and the positive and lasting effects it may have on both the participant and those who benefit from the finished product.

Additional ensembles culled from the already-existing membership of Purdue Musical Organizations also played an important role in the history of PMO. The Al Stewart Singers, the New Collegians, the Purduette Trio, and other specialty groups from the University Choir, PMO Express, Choral Club, and the Purdue Bell Choir represented a sampling of some of the best and brightest talents already listed on PMO’s roster, allowing more flexibility in booking performances and in the marketing of PMO as a whole.

Representing Purdue University through song, performance, and interaction with past and present students and audience members of all ages, from a variety of backgrounds in many different local, state, national, and international appearances, the musicians who comprise Purdue Musical Organizations continue to leave a legacy of class, dedication, attention to detail, discipline, and memorable music and entertainment wherever they go. Student and staff leadership of individual ensembles may change, but the basic mission and premise of quality music and the finest representation of PMO and the university as a whole remain as the foundation for the past, present and the future. Upon Al Stewart’s retirement, Bill Luhman took over the helm of PMO and further expanded the scope of musical genres and focus while still remaining anchored in the traditions of what PMO had become. After Bill Luhman’s death, the leadership of Purdue Musical Organizations was in the capable and creative hands of Bill Allen, followed by the professional entertainment experience and master showman Brian Breed. Upon Brian’s retirement in December of 2007, former Glee Club member and professional entertainer Gerritt VanderMeer was appointed interim director of PMO until the hiring of William E. Griffel, the current director of Purdue Musical Organizations.

Performance Highlights

Capturing a complete catalog of the opportunities the students of PMO have been offered from 1891 through present day is not the intent of this focused listing of performance highlights.

  • Tours throughout North America, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa
  • Appearances during six U.S. Presidential Inaugurations
  • Performances at the White House, during the NCAA Final Four and during conventions for IBM International, the National Hot Rod Association and the American Choral Directors Association
  • Collaborations with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops and the Boston Pops, Cincinnati Pops, Indianapolis Symphony and Lafayette Symphony
  • Appearances on the Today Show, Good Morning America, Fox & Friends, The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
  • Performances at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, the Crystal Cathedral, the Hollywood Bowl, the Indianapolis 500 and during a National Prayer Breakfast with Mother Teresa