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The Sunrise Choir

The Arizona State Teachers College a capella choir performs at the Grand Canyon.

The Arizona State Teachers College a capella choir performs at the Grand Canyon.

It was Easter of 1944 when the Arizona State Teachers College a capella choir, under the direction of Eldon Ardrey, stood at the chilly south rim of the Grand Canyon to perform in the annual Easter sunrise service and have this picture taken.

The tradition of the choir singing at the sunrise ceremony had begun in 1935 with a special Easter broadcast from the Canyon over a radio hookup that went nationwide.

That year the 60-member choir traveled by bus from Flagstaff at 3 Easter morning because there were no accommodations available at El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim and Bright Angel Lodge and cabins were still under construction.

The choir later would have the pleasure of staying in Bright Angel’s rim-side cabins, a short walk to the rustic sandstone altar and wooden cross where the sunrise service took place.

Spectators were not allowed within 150 feet of the performers and the microphone radio pickup, and the lack of audience noise gave the broadcast a feeling of isolation.  The sensitive equipment was newly designed to transmit the program over telephone wires to KTAR studios in Phoenix.  From there, the signal was sent to KPO in San Francisco and broadcast over NBC radio.

Radio voice J. Howard Pyle organized the program and handled the announcing duties at the rim.  Pyle always reported the “first light shining over the canyon,” whether the weather was clear enough to see it or not.

Ardrey wrote music for the announcements at the beginning of the show as well as directing the choir in at least eight selections of religious music during the Episcopal Easter service conducted by the Rt. Rev. Bishop Walter Mitchell, Episcopal missionary district of Arizona.

In 1940, there were plans for the show to be broadcast from both the South Rim and Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon, which Howard Pyle told radio-listeners was “1,000 feet below the beginning of time.”  The choir members were supposed to ride down on mules, but the plan was changed at the last minute and it is not clear from news reports of the time whether or not they actually made the trip.

In 1941, the U.S. entered World War II and the choir changed. The members continued to perform each Easter, but by the time of this photograph in 1944, most college-age males were in the military service and even with replacements from the community, there were few male voices to fill the void.

In 1945, Ardrey put out a call for male voices, finally turning to the Tucson Boys choir, which made the long trip to the Canyon to sing in the broadcast that Easter.

In 1949, the ASTC choir was renamed The Shrine of Ages Choir.  That was the name later given to the all-faiths chapel built on the rim in 1952.  By then, Howard Pyle was governor of Arizona and gave his approval for the location of the stone and glass chapel/concert hall a few feet from the south rim set in a grove of pinon juniper.

The choir continued to perform into the 1960s, both at the Grand Canyon and also on tour throughout the United States and Europe.

Canyon appearances stopped in 1968.  In 1983, the name of the choir was changed to the University Chorale.

In 1999, a new Shrine of Ages Choir was formed.  On Easter Sunday, 2002, after a 33-year hiatus, the choir once again performed at the Easter sunrise service at the Grand Canyon, under the direction of Dr. Edith Copley, director of Northern Arizona University Choral Programs.

— Joan Brundige-Baker.  Photo courtesy Special Collections, Northern Arizona University Cline Library.

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