Campus singing group creates lifelong friendships through music
By Monica M. Walk
It was a chance meeting that resonated through five lives – leading to musical collaboration and enduring friendships.
Ralph Schwartz was enjoying the record albums in the music lounge of the newly opened UW-Fond du Lac campus, singing along to Peter, Paul and Mary. Barbara Mueller Louis was the only other person in the room. She thought, “I can harmonize to that.” And so she did, despite being a generally reserved person.
“I must have felt comfortable with him. I am very shy,” Louis said from her home in North Brunswick, N.J. She recalls how their harmonies meshed with those very first notes, in their first meeting.
“You can feel it when it clicks. It’s almost physical,” Louis said. “When a harmony clicks, it’s like the planets align. You find a note and make it last for a long time…it’s like the whole world disappears except for the beautiful sound in your head.”
The duo immediately realized they had created something they wanted to continue. But in 1968’s era of folk music, they knew their vocals needed guitar accompaniment. A shared music class led them to Merle Vogt, who had been playing guitar since he was a young teen.
Moonstone Populus was born.
The name has mysterious origins, largely due to the member’s conflicting memories about the decision. Schwartz recalls reading Greek mythology for inspiration. Louis remembers looking at album covers of other bands, and Vogt thinks other lyrics or song titles may have played a role. They formed shortly after the moon landing, when “moon” was looming large in the collective consciousness. Louis laughs that the spelling of “Populus” could well be a spelling error - of “Populace” or “Populous.”
Performing would become a constant during the next two years of their Fond du Lac lives, including regional travel to other campuses, both local and farther-flung bar gigs, and a television appearance.
The initial trio soon grew to five members to incorporate more complex harmonies. Fellow chorus classmate Rich Zangl - Vogt’s lifelong friend - joined and brought his 12-string guitar, which added volume to the group’s sound. Schwartz’s sister, Elaine Schwartz Rebek, was attending Marian College, but welcomed into the group for the harmonies she had honed through a childhood of singing to Mitch Miller recordings with her sibling. She and Louis added occasional percussion with tambourines.
Weekly practice created a large and popular repertoire. They drew from artists including Peter, Paul and Mary; Bob Dylan; Joni Mitchell; The Beatles; Everly Brothers; and Simon and Garfunkel. Standouts and favorites included: Stewball, Bleecker Street, Blowin’ in the Wind, Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream, For Lovin’ Me, and Leaving on a Jet Plane. (Although repetition of the last song led Zangl to dislike it to this day.)
“It was an amazing thing,” Louis said. “We came up with our own arrangements. It was automatic. We’d each find our own harmony and it would fall into place. No one ever sat down and told us to sing a part. It came naturally.”
But it was the support of then-campus music director Ray Wifler that really turned them from hobby singers to performance professionals.
“Ray Wifler gave us the opportunity to perform with the choir programs,” Schwartz said. “He encouraged us and gave us venues to play. He mentored and coached us.”
“Where ever the chorus performed, the five of us would get up and perform,” Zangl said.
“There weren’t so many people there,” now-retired Wifler recalled of the then-new campus. “Suddenly there were these young people doing a pretty good job. They were good singers, and harmonized similar to the groups of that time. They were right in the timeframe. I am pleased they give me some credit.”
Campus performances grew to paying gigs in other places: the Cow Palace at the Fond du Lac County Fair; repeat performances at Fond du Lac’s Rathskeller; a regular gig at an Appleton bar, where a couple brought in their tape recorder to tape the show.
“We had a following,” said Louis.
Not all audiences were appreciative. A bar in Green Bay proved so loud and rowdy, that the girls moved from the stage behind the bar onto the bar to sing. “And then we took off our pants,” recalled Rebek. “That got their attention,” Louis said. Both laughed that their tunic tops were plenty long enough by today’s standards.
Those pantsuits sported an explosively flowery pattern of the time. Rebek also recalled a shopping trip to Milwaukee resulting in the purchase of tops with large accordion-pleat sleeves and cummerbunds, in blue for the women and brown for the men, worn with white pants. “We thought we looked so cool,” Rebek said.
Playing at the Jefferson County Fair led to meeting country performer Bobby Hodge. “He let us perform with him, and got us an agent,” Schwartz said. “Our nicest paid gig was playing the main floor of the student union at UW-Stevens Point.”
Wifler’s connection to The Wisconsin Dutchman polka band and their weekly Green Bay TV show, The Polka Festival, landed Moonstone Populus on television. Vogt recalls sitting around with family and friends to watch the taped program. More poignantly, he learned years later that his father had recorded the audio from the TV performance.
“My oldest brother moved to Michigan in 1967-68, and he and my dad bought tiny reel-to-reel tape recorders and they would send messages to each other,” Vogt said, describing how he rediscovered the tape after his parents’ deaths and struggled for a while to find a way to play it. “He set the recorder by the TV and taped the audio. He explains what is happening, how the neighbors are excited, that I’m there with my girlfriend. And he said on the tape, ‘You know, it probably won’t be long before you are done with this, and someday you will wish you had recorded this.’ That was insightful on my dad’s part.”
Transitions and Reunions
The group ran a two-year course parallel with its members’ location. As they finished school and personal commitments in Fond du Lac, they moved on - first Louis to Milwaukee and Schwartz to Oshkosh to continue their educations. The remaining members performed for a while as a trio, sometimes adding other local musicians. While the group didn’t formally break up, they drifted apart.
“When we finally started making money, we were all ready to move on with our lives,” Schwartz said.
“I decided it was not the life for me,” his sister Rebek said. “In show business, you have to be really dedicated.”
They moved away from each other in location, relationships and commitments for more than 30 years.
A call reunited them in 2000. Moonstone Populus was invited to be among the performers at the dedication of the new Prairie Theater atUW-Fond du Lac.
All five accepted the invitation, including Louis who lives in New Jersey. The Wisconsinites gathered to rehearse, and would call and sing to her over the phone. She arrived a week before the show and the group practiced intensely.
Rebek recalls rehearsing for family at Trip’s Tapsidermy in Pipe. “After 30 years, we got together and didn’t skip a beat, other than remembering lyrics,” Zangl added.
“Practicing was great,” said Vogt, who splits his time between homes in Milwaukee and Arizona, after years of living in Ohio. “Then, standing on stage again in front of family and friends - scary as it was - is probably my fondest memory....it was one of the most enjoyable times of my working career.”
The 2000 reunion performance was such an emotional high for all five that they made a pact to gather annually. For the past 15 years, they have met in the summer in the Fond du Lac homes of Zangl, Schwartz or Rebek to share a meal, visit for hours on end, and sing. They perform songs they know, and experiment with new ones, with lyrics accessed via iPads. Siblings come along and join in.
Annual harmonizing made them ready to again perform in the Prairie Theatre for the 40th anniversary of the campus’s founding. The 2008 concert featured all but Vogt, who could not attend. Longtime friend Mike Soffa played guitar with the group, as he had sometimes done back in earlier days.
“We didn’t know each other at all,” Louis said, recalling the group’s founding. “Rich says, ‘Barb, why weren’t we friends in high school?’ Even though Rich, Merle and I all went to Springs, we ran with different crowds. On campus, we got to start over and meet new people. We get along so well now.”
“That first year on campus opened doors,” Schwartz said. “There were all different ages; it was a diverse population. It was a time to come out of my shell and meet people. I had the freedom to experiment and take risks. As a result, it created bonds.”
“I’ve been out of Fond du Lac since I was 25,”said Vogt, who paints himself as the rehearsal “taskmaster,” urging the others to stop talking and start singing. He treasured an inscribed St. Christopher medal given to him by band members when he signed up for the draft, and mourns its loss three years ago in Paris. “My parents died seven years ago. It’s nice to go back. And it’s always nice, growing old together.