25 Years Later, Phantoms Thrive
Published: Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 01:10
In 1988, a group of eight friends went Christmas caroling in Georgetown Hospital. Twenty-five years later, their legacy, Phantoms, sing at the White House during the holiday season.
The university’s first coed a cappella group is celebrating its 25th anniversary at the D.C. A Cappella Festival and Alumni Event on Nov. 9.
The original members largely saw themselves as a group that would fill a gap on campus by showcasing a cappella singers of both genders alongside each other. Founding member Marielaina Sundo DeRose (CAS ’91) recalled Phantom Singers’ first performance at the Cherry Tree Massacre as a pivotal point in the group’s transition to an established a cappella group, joining the all-male Chimes and all-female GraceNotes.
“It was a very small musical world at the time, so Cherry Tree and the GraceNotes and the Chimes were all people really knew,” she said. “The Cherry Tree Massacre opened the door to us being accepted by the Georgetown community.”
The Phantoms, whose members were all originally in the Bicentennial Choir, first got its name while caroling at the office of former College Dean Fr. Royden B. Davis, S.J.
“We walked into Fr. Davis’ office, and we were singing for the staff there, and we had around dozen Christmas carols that we memorized in harmony,” founding member Tom Steinthal (CAS ’90) said. “We sang those, and someone asked what we were called, and Travis, one of the tenors, said ‘Oh we’re the phantom singers because no one knows who we are, where we’re going to go or where we’re going to show up next, including us.’ Over the next couple of days, we thought that was a good name for us.”
The Phantoms named Margo Heher (FLL ’91) as president and Huey Jin Soon (CAS ’91) as musical director in January 1989. In its early stages, the group, which had two members to a musical part, focused on finding new members, forming an identity and building a repertoire of music.
“I think the most important thing I can say about the whole experience is that it started as being friends who wanted to do this,” DeRose said. “I’m shocked that 25 years later, it is what it is. It’s almost astonishing that it’s just a huge part of Georgetown.”
With Phantoms established, Soon set out to create original arrangements for the group to sing. Soon said that she most enjoyed arranging “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” by Simon and Garfunkel and “Africa” by Toto, which Phantoms still perform today.
“It’s funny because you guys are so used to your computers and all that technology now. But you have to understand that back in our day and age, I sat in the library with a cassette tape and earphones and wrote out the parts that I heard,” she said. “I’d have to write out music by ear and figure out the arrangement by ear. I would have a basic arrangement written down, and as we sang it, we might change it or add to it.”
Soon said that one of her favorite memories of the original group was when they sold “Valengrams,” students serenading on Valentine’s Day to raise money for music and equipment.
“We actually sang to a lot of professors,” Soon said. “There was this one science professor that everyone loved, and we walked in and sang a love song to him, and the whole class was cracking up.”
Current member and Business Manager Nick Oki (COL ’14) joined Phantoms as a freshman two decades later. Though he said audition week was one of the most stressful of his time at Georgetown, Oki quickly found a community within Phantoms.
Oki said it is especially appropriate that The Phantoms get together once a year to carol, because that’s how the group originally started. Caroling at the White House was one his favorite memories with Phantoms.
“We stand inside the lobby, right in front of the front doors of the White House, and people are walking by looking at the Blue Room and the East Room ... and they can hear us caroling the whole time. If you go to school at Georgetown, you get a lot of exposure to the monuments and the government, but it’s very rare to be singing in the White House,” Oki said.
Looking to opportunities like Oki’s, Soon is proud of how far the group has come since she helped establish it.
“The group has gone far beyond our imaginations. For all of us who started it, we didn’t know where it was going. We just thought it was cool, that it was what we wanted to do and that it filled a big, huge gap at the school,” she said.
With all eight original members dispersed around the globe, Steinthal said he is impressed that the group still exists at all.
“It’s amazing that when we left and moved on or went off to different parts of the world, the spirit of Phantoms remained at Georgetown,” he said. “That’s a testament to the power of the group.”
Reflecting on the growth of the group, DeRose said that she does not think that she could become a Phantom if she auditioned for the group as it exists now.
“I would have to say that probably today, I would not get in the group. That’s always the way a successful group is,” she said. “It’s remarkable to me that a group can get so good, and I am happy to watch them and cheer them on.”
Phantoms alumna Caitlin Cassidy (COL ’11), who hopes to attend the 25th anniversary event, said she is excited to reunite with multiple classes of younger and older Phantoms, as well as Phantoms she performed with, whom she considers family.
“The best part of it for me was that it was a real family, which is hard to find,” she said. “I never would have thought that I would get to do a cappella, but it turned out to be the best thing I did at Georgetown.”