San Franciscans with a Taste for Choir Singing Suddenly Have a Choice: Regular or Ethel

updated 12/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

To Ethel: a verb meaning to bellow high-decibel tunes made famous by the one and only Ethel Merman. As in: "Those people can really Ethel."

Okay, the definitive, Ethelized dictionary hasn't really been written yet. But don't tell the four guys and eight women who make up San Francisco's Ethel Merman Memorial Choir. "We're loud and we're proud, that's our motto," says Jo-Carol Block, 34, the group's musical director. "They say I look the most like Ethel," boasts Barry Blum, 40, an ex-punk rocker who, while Ethelizing, sports a matronly red velvet dress and falsies fit for a '56 Cadillac bumper.

For a negotiable $800, the five-alarm group hires out to sing a medley of Merman hits, including "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and a Richter scale rendition of "Stayin' Alive"—a tribute to the Broadway star's brief disco period before her death in 1984. Capturing the full Merman look, of course, means donning curly brunette wigs, oceans of eye shadow and red lipstick applied with a spatula. "I can handle the pancake makeup," says bus driver Dennis McIntyre, 43. "But the girls have to do my eye stuff."

The choir was born around Christmas last year when Judith Olson, 33, a bottled-water sales rep, received a gold-flecked tambourine and maracas that, she says, "screamed showbiz." At first she fantasized about belting out Ethelized carols to shoppers who would "give us money to go away." Then she got on the phone, called a few friends and began discovering a small army of Ethel enthusiasts. "Every Saturday my mother, my sister and I would dust the house while listening to Gypsy" says Randi Merzon, 32, a marketing director. "Merman's music still makes me want to whip out a dust rag."

So far, reviews have been mixed. After one performance, "there were some boos," says Blum, "but that made me feel good. That's how they show appreciation for a punk-rock band." Although the Mermans' ultimate goal is to sing an ear-piercing national anthem at Candlestick Park, for now they'll content themselves with a round of upcoming Christmas parties, during which they'll Ethel the lyrics of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" to the tune of "There's No Business like Show Business." As McIntyre says, "The secret to being a good Ethel is not taking yourself too seriously."

From Our Partners