“Glee” has Matthew Morrison. “Smash” has Katharine McPhee. Olympic Hot Tub Co. has Don Riling. The vice president of the Pacific Northwest hot tub retailer has been singing nearly all his life. In elementary school he performed in talent shows and later sang in the high school chorus. A teacher even encouraged him to pursue a scholarship to a music school, but college wasn’t for him. Riling opted for community school instead but even then, he only showed up for classes so he could perform with the college’s a cappella chamber choir.
It wasn’t until he attended a performance of the Seattle Men’s Chorus in 1986 that he found his true calling.
“I went to the holiday show and sat in the audience, and it was a transformational moment in my life,” Riling recalls. “I had never been exposed to anything like that before. I thought, ‘I am supposed to be doing this.’”
He auditioned the following January and has been a second tenor with the group since.
Founded in 1979, the Seattle Men’s Chorus is the largest community chorus in the United States in terms of budget and membership. With 280 male performers, it also is the largest gay men’s chorus in the world. There’s even a women’s chorus made up of more than 200 singers. The men’s chorus presents a five-concert series each season and its holiday show attracts nearly 30,000 people, the second most widely attended holiday show in the Pacific Northwest.
“When I saw the Chorus performing, it gave me a way to stand up publicly and say I was proud of who I was, and I was on stage to share my talent and the message of acceptance and inclusiveness with everyone,” he says.
Over the years, his involvement with the chorus has led to many opportunities. In addition to traveling to Europe to share its message about building bridges and gaining acceptance, his membership also has afforded him the chance to perform with some Broadway legends and other notable figures. From Debbie Reynolds and Kristin Chenoweth to Megan Hilty and Harvey Fierstein, Riling has shared the stage with some of today’s most popular stars. However, singing while poet and author Maya Angelou read her work aloud to an audience in 1990 takes the prize for the best moment of his singing career.
“When she walked on stage, her energy was so palpable it was like a wave,” he says.
Riling’s contributions extend beyond his vocal ability. Over the course of 25 years, he has been social chair, chair of the marketing committee, a member of the board and served on the board of development committee. Additionally, he has been a member of three chorus subgroups and currently serves on the Chorus European Tour committee. In 2005 he received The Rainbow Award for “Meritorious Service Beyond All Reason.”
“It’s fun. It gives me a creative outlet that doesn’t have anything to do what I do during the day,” he says.
However, for Riling there is a correlation between the chorus and his work at Olympic Hot Tub. When he joined the company in 1995, he learned its owner Alice Cunningham already had been advertising in the chorus’ publication Flying House Magazine for five years. The association the dealer has with the chorus has actually translated into sales. Many of the clients share stories about being in the audience for Riling’s performances. And more than 50 members of the chorus, including its director, have purchased a hot tub from the store.
Although he doesn’t sing at work, for Riling, the showroom is like a second stage. And he often uses it as an opportunity to talk about the chorus with his clients. Even during illness, he refused to call in an understudy. In 1998, he was diagnosed with lymphoma but continued to work and sing despite undergoing six months of chemotherapy. It was during this period that he missed his one and only performance. Even then he made it to the show and sat in the audience.
“I love just being on stage and having talent that I can’t use anywhere else in my life utilized and recognized,” he says.
Off the beaten track
- The sections of a men’s choir typically include two tenors, baritone and bass. Occasionally there will be a basso profondo, which is the lowest of all male vocal ranges.
- The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the first to label itself as such, debuted on November 27, 1978, during an impromptu memorial service for Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone on the steps of City Hall.
- The Delphic Hymns are two compositions from Ancient Greece. It was recently determined that the hymns were both written for performance at the Athenian Pythaides in 128 BCE, which would make the First Delphic Hymn the earliest unambiguous surviving example of notated music in the western world whose composer is known by name.