David Bielenberg: Philly’s gay music man


Are you lamenting the fact that Halloween has come and gone? Wishing there was one more day for you to play dress-up? Well, you’re in luck because the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus (PGMC) is having its first ever Wig Ball — a night to break out your best bouffant for a good cause.

PGMC has been an institution in the LGBTQ community for decades, and in the past few years, the chorus has rapidly grown and expanded. For the first time in its history, PGMC was able to hire an Executive Director. His name: David Bielenberg. We spoke to the newly minted Philadelphian.


I understand you’re a native of Charm City.

Yes, I’m originally from Baltimore.


What was it like growing up there?

My father was a pastor, so I was a preacher’s kid. He was a Lutheran pastor, and I grew up going to parochial school. The family was pretty conservative, so I stayed pretty much in the closet growing up. Other than that, nothing too remarkable, but I did sing in the church and school choir, so I was sort of a chorus nerd if you will. I knew I was gay in high school but didn’t come out until I went to college at New York University. I think I came out the minute I got off the train!


That’s funny.

For sure, and I was living in the Village, which made it really easy to do. I came out to friends and family in Baltimore slowly after that.


How many kids in the family?

DB: Just me and my older sister, but she’s six and a half years older than me, so in some ways, I felt more like an only child because my parents got divorced, and she was already off to college, so she wasn’t around a lot. We’re very close now; we just had different childhoods being so far apart in age.


They say that the kids of clergymen are always the biggest hellions, so who was the rebellious one in your family?

That would be my sister; she definitely had a rebellious side to her. She ran away from home at one point, where I was the preacher’s kid who kept my public nose clean, but I would get away with murder. I was just more discreet!


Ha, that was me. I had two brothers who were always getting in trouble. I was the angel, not because I didn’t do things too, I just did it so as not to get caught. I still occasionally will mention something that I did to the surprise of my mother, “Remember that weekend you were away my senior year…?” But back to you, what other things were you into as a youngster?

Music was my main obsession. I sang with two different choirs at school and a men and boys choir at church, as well as performing in a lot of the musicals at school. I also had a lot of part-time jobs. I was a newspaper boy for a long time, and I did little retail jobs at the harbor in Baltimore. But mostly it was all about music for me.


Do you remember your first record or CD?

I don’t remember the first, but I know a favorite was an album from Queen. At 13, I thought it was the coolest thing ever.


I think my first was the album “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green. What’s an interesting fact about a family member of yours?

I mentioned that my father was a Lutheran minister, but his father was a minister before him, and his father before him, so I basically broke the mold by not becoming a minister. Oh, and well, I don’t know how interesting it is, but I was adopted. My sister was naturally born, and then my parents couldn’t have any more kids, so they adopted me. My mother grew up in Chicago and was living there when she met my father. They later moved to Baltimore, where I was born.


What’s a place I should visit in Baltimore that’s not in tourist pamphlets?

There’s a really cool cemetery that I like to take people to when I have guests in town. A lot of the movers and shakers of old Baltimore are buried there, people like Johns Hopkins are there, John Wilkes Booth is buried there; it’s an interesting mix of people interred there.


So you got out of Baltimore and moved to New York, where did you go from there?

I was in New York for 11 years, and then I was in New Haven, Connecticut, for about five years working for a regional theater there. After that, I went to Washington, D.C., to work for the D.C. Chorus.


Did you come to Philly for the Gay Men’s Chorus?

I did. The opportunity came up, and I tossed my hat in the ring, and it worked out! I’ve lived or worked up and down the Northeast Corridor, and Philly was never on my radar, but now that I’m here, I love it. I’ve had a really warm reception.


As long as you don’t wear a Redskins or Ravens jersey …

I have not. I was never a Redskins fan. I do admit to being a Ravens fan just because that’s where I grew up, but I wouldn’t wear a Jersey out and about. I don’t even talk about the Ravens to anyone here! 


What are your responsibilities at PGMC?

We’re formulating it as we go, but a lot of it involves fundraising, which is my background. I do some of the marketing; I’m in charge of many of the financial aspects of the organization, paying bills and making sure we have the funds to pay them. I also work closely with our artistic director. We’re the two only paid staff members, so we talk just about every day.   


For the few people who aren’t familiar with the org, give me a quick pitch.

Sure, the choir has been around for 38 years. We do about three major concerts a year and some smaller performances in between. We also try to do a collaboration each year with Anna Crusis, which is the women’s choir. One of the things we’ve been really focusing on is diversity. We want to promote the fact that even though we are the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus, you don’t have to be from Philadelphia, or gay or even a man to participate. We have a number of trans people in the choir, and we’re welcoming our first woman to the choir this year. We’re keeping our historic name, but our doors are open to everyone.


How many folks in the choir?

We currently have about 180 due-paying members, but they don’t all participate in all the concerts. We’ll probably have about 130 people on stage for the holiday concert. It’s a large group, but we still feel like a big family.


I know you don’t generally perform with the group because you’re busy doing other things on show nights, but from past choirs, what’s a favorite piece you’ve performed?

In the classical realm, I love Durfle’s “Requiem.” It’s a religious piece, but it’s one of my favorites.


What was your most disastrous moment on stage?

Not one moment, but going through the AIDS crisis and losing so many members of the group so suddenly was tough. And lately, we’ve had a spate of deaths with the D.C. Choir, four or five people in just a few months. We lost people as a result of cancer, and there was also a suicide that really hit us hard. You always wonder if you could have done something, noticed something that you didn’t.


That must be tough. On a brighter note, I understand that you’re a married man!

I am! We met when I was in D.C., and then we moved to Baltimore. He has his own CPA firm there, so he stays in Baltimore, and we do the commuter thing where we trade weekends here or there. It’s exactly 105 miles from where I stay here in Philadelphia to our home in Baltimore. I can usually do it in 2 hours, so it’s not too bad a commute.


Hopefully he’ll come up for the Wig Ball because it sounds fabulous.

Yes, it’s our first time doing it, but we think people are really going to enjoy it. It’ll be at Tabu on Nov. 8. Stella D’oro is the host, and we’re encouraging everyone to wear wigs. We’ll have a DJ to keep the party going so there’ll be plenty of good music and dancing. It’s a fundraiser to help send members to participate in an LGBT nationwide chorus festival that happens every four years. About 6,000 plus LGBT chorus members get together in one city. Next summer, it’ll be in Minneapolis.


Random question: What’s a fun early memory?

One of my earliest and fondest memories is with the family. We used to rent a house each summer in a place called Dewey Beach. We’d open the door and run right into the water. It was a lot of fun, and it brings back fond memories.


I have trouble doing any beaches in this part of the world; I don’t like not being able to see what’s in the water with me!

I love it. The ocean has always been important to me. For a while, when I lived in New York, we had a place in Fire Island where we’d spend the summers, and I actually have a little place back in Rehoboth that we go to whenever we can.


Ever have any shark sightings?

I have, but luckily only from a distance.


Who’s the most famous person you’ve met?

Hmmm. That’s a hard one, the one that comes to mind … well, he wasn’t alive.


 You met a dead celebrity?

Sort of. When I lived in New York, I worked at St. John the Divine, which is a big cathedral downtown, and one year we did the funeral for Jim Henson. The guy who created the Muppets.


Of course!

It was the coolest funeral I’ve ever been to. There were people from the show and puppeteers who got up and spoke using the character’s voices as well as their own voices. It was a really moving and fun celebration.


I remember he died young from pneumonia.

He did. I’m sorry I never actually got to meet him alive.


What’s a song that always makes you happy when you hear it?

I am a closet fan of Earth, Wind & Fire. “Fantasy” or “September,” any of their classics.


Where was your first kiss?

It was with a girl; she was a couple of years older than me. I think I was 14, and she must have been 16 because she’d just gotten her driver’s license, and we kissed in her car.


You’re the music man; name three sounds you love.

Obviously, the sound of a choir singing, waves crashing on the beach is comforting to me and the sound of crickets on a quiet night. Not that I hear that much being a city boy.


What does the choir have in store for the holidays?

We’re doing our annual holiday concert Dec. 5-7. It’s called “Starry Night,” and the theme is “Songs that lift your spirits and eyes to the stars.” There’ll be traditional choral classics the first half, and the second half brings out all the costumes and dancing and all the campy stuff as well as contemporary holiday selections. It’s a really fun concert all the way around. Tickets are on sale now or our website or people can go to the Suzanne Roberts theater where it will be held.


And where should people go to participate in “The Wig Ball”

That’s going to be on Nov. 8 at 9 p.m. at Tabu, 254 S. 12th Street. Tickets are only $10, and the proceeds go to help our members who need a little assistance with traveling to competitions.