Cat Chorus celebrates 75 years of making music

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There is a group at Caterpillar Inc. that has nothing to do with big machines made of yellow iron that are turning and pushing dirt. It is a group that doesn’t get paid for making patented plans or making sure every bolt fits perfect.

And yet, this group has been together 75 years now, making music that is not accentuated by shifting gears, the clang of steel on steel or the roar of diesel engines. But it is an integral part of the Caterpillar culture, as are the musicals and other shows it produces.

The Caterpillar Employees Mixed Chorus, founded in 1941, is the longest running employee chorus in the world, said Henry Vicary, Caterpillar’s director of guest and community relations.

And the chorus still is strong within the company and this week, its newest show, “The Little Mermaid,” opens for Caterpillar employees, retirees and the public to enjoy.

“Our employees, retirees and their families in the chorus have tremendous talent and are very engaged throughout our communities. We feel like it’s an absolutely integral part of the Caterpillar family. It’s one piece of a large puzzle that provide the glue that keeps Caterpillar strong,” Vicary said.

“The Little Mermaid” opens a five-performance run at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Eastlight Theatre in the auditorium at East Peoria High School. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $11 and can be purchased by visiting www.

“This is going to be a fun show to see. I know it’s been a fun show to be part of,” said Lee Wenger, the well-known Peoria showman who is directing the Caterpillar show this year. It’s his third time directing the Cat show.

The shows themselves must be cast with Caterpillar employees, their families and retirees, but the company will find directors and crew from outside the company. Wenger’s wife, Denise Adams, is music director and orchestra conductor for “The Little Mermaid.”

“We have a great cast with people who really carry a show. There are fewer than there used to be in the Cat show, but they are a good group,” Wenger said in noting anybody from Caterpillar can participate.

“The Little Mermaid” is marking its regional premiere with an adult cast with this production, Wenger said. Based on the fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen, it tells the story of a young mermaid who dreams of being part of the world above the sea. She gives up her voice to find love.

The musical was written by Doug Wright with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. Songs include “The World Above,” “I Want the Good Times Back,” “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Kiss the Girl” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”

“Anybody familiar with the show knows there are a lot of funny characters in this show. They really make them stand out here,” Wenger said about his cast of more than 60. He said at least half have been in Caterpillar productions before but many are new to the experience. “There is always a lot of family involvement because it really is a good was for employees to do something with their families,” he said.

That’s why the Caterpillar Mixed Chorus usually produces family friendly shows.

The first show it produced was in 1942 called “South of Sonora.” While that one isn’t exactly well known, most shows through the years have been family war horses like “The Music Man,” “The Sound of Music,” “Annie,” “Oliver” and “Peter Pan,” to name just a few.

Many of the performers from the Caterpillar Employee Mixed Chorus became well known in local community theatre, as well. They include people such as Jerry Johnson and the late Mike Dentino. Current community theatre stalwarts who can be seen in the Caterpillar shows include Jeff Craig, who played Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” a few  years ago, Chip Johnson, who portrayed Maurice in the Eastlight Theatre production of “Beauty and the Beast” and few months ago, and Mariah Aberle, who has appeared in many community theatre productions.

For many years the Caterpillar Chorus produced its musicals at the Shrine Auditorium downtown but it moved to the Peoria Civic Center Theatre after it opened in 1982. It then moved to Eastlight a few years ago.

The Caterpillar Employee Mixed Chorus performs at different events during the year, including this summer at Dozer Park, home of the Peoria Chiefs. Later this year it will perform at the Caterpillar Visitors Center.

An exhibit about the Caterpillar Employee Mixed Chorus will open at the Visitors Center on Dec. 8.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).