'Bring me a dream'

Marjorie Needham Latzko, former member of The Chordettes, recalls her days in the limelight

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  • A current photo of an attractive, vibrant Marjorie living in Delaware with her daughter. (Photo provided)

  • The Chordettes (Marjorie is front and center)

  • Young Marjorie Needham as a stewardess. (Photo provided)

“I packed my worldly belongings to embark on a life not knowing where I was going to live, how much money I would make or where I was going to be singing."
Marjorie Needham Latzko

By Geri Corey

— If you’re part of the generation that began watching television when it was still in its infancy, you most likely vividly remember the name Arthur Godfrey. He was a popular radio and television broadcaster, and an entertainer, in the 1940s and '50s.

Godfrey’s show, “Talent Scouts,” which ran from 1948 until 1958 — often simultaneously on radio and television — was responsible for bringing the talents of many young performers to national attention. Among them was a gifted quartet of young ladies called The Chordettes who sang barbershop-style.

The Chordettes first appeared on “Talent Scouts” in 1948 and were an instant hit with the audience. They were also a favorite with Godfrey and appeared regularly on his show. They were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Grammy Hall of Fame for “Mr. Sandman” in 2002.

A member of The Chordettes, Marjorie Needham Latzko, lived in Blooming Grove for 56 years.

On July 1, 1953, Marjorie Needham joined the quartet by replacing its founding member, Jinny Osborn. In 1954, Needham, along with Carol Buschmann, Janet Ertel, and Lynn Evans, recorded what was to become a huge hit, “Mr. Sandman." It sold more than a million records and earned them a Gold Record and a Billboard Award.

A musical family
To understand how Needham became a member of one of the most recognized female singing groups in America, you have go back to the beginning of her story. Needham grew up in Berwyn, Illinois, with her parents and two younger brothers, Bob and Dick. Music was a part of her growing up years, as her father, an electrical engineer by trade, played the piano and guitar as a hobby. Her mother was active in community theater. She played the piano by ear, and loved to sing barbershop harmony. Needham and her mom actually took tap dancing lessons together, lessons she was glad she had when in later years she tap-danced in a Chordettes’ nightclub routine.

While at J. Sterling Morton High School in Cicero, Illinois, which had an excellent music program, Needham sang in the choir and studied music theory. When her parents bought her a piano at age 16, she began taking piano lessons.

After graduation, it was off to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where Needham majored in piano, took voice lessons and sang in the college choir.

“I joined Alpha Chi Omega music sorority. I can remember being disappointed when I was not selected for the sorority’s 'Double Quartet,' but I got even, didn’t I?” she says, displaying a wide all-knowing smile.

As an attractive young woman, Needham received other honors. She was named Mirage Queen for the school’s yearbook, Mirage, two years in a row and was also named Phi Kappa Psi fraternity sweetheart. Between high school and college, Needham won two hometown beauty contests and was awarded many prizes, including a modeling school scholarship.

After two years in college, Needham decided to leave.

“I realized that I wasn’t talented enough to give a senior piano recital," she said.

But at age 45, she returned to college and got a bachelor of science degree in sociology with emphasis on public administration.

From sky to stage

While working in the personnel department at the Sunbeam Corporation, a fellow worker suggested that Needham apply for a job as an airline stewardess. She did apply and was accepted by United Airlines.

After a year working out of La Guardia and Newark Airports, Needham transferred to Chicago to be closer to her family. She flew out of Midway Airport before O’Hare was built.

Returning to her hometown proved to be the right decision. It changed her life in two ways: she met a man who introduced her to the Chordettes, and consequently she met Walter Latzko, the man who would become her husband.

She and her mom had formed a quartet and frequented the Ship’s Café in Chicago, where barbershoppers would congregate and sing. One of the other singers, Bob Haegar, well-known throughout barbershop circles, was friends with The Chordettes.

She recalled: “On Wednesday, late June of 1953, Bob Haeger called me and said, ‘How would you like to sing with the Chordettes?’ I replied, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ I was such a big fan of theirs.”

Needham met with the other women and auditioned for them. When they asked her when she could start, she knew she had done well. After working a few more scheduled flights, she quit her airline job.

“I packed my worldly belongings to embark on a life not knowing where I was going to live, how much money I would make or where I was going to be singing,” Needham said.

On July 1, 1953, she joined the Chordettes at a hotel in Cleveland, Ohio, where they were doing a club date. In 10 days, she miraculously learned 16 songs and their club routine, with choreography.

“There was a flurry of activity to get gowns, outfits, shoes and jewelry for me," Nedhams said.

But everything got done, and the Chordettes, with their new member, headed for Minneapolis, where Needham made her debut as a Chordette at the Radisson Hotel. On their way, the quartet stopped at the Ship’s Café, where Needham admits she performed “nervously” for her friends.

After the gig in Minneapolis, the group was on the road for almost a month doing state fairs and club dates.

Down the aisle

Finally they arrived in New York City, where on Aug. 1, 1953, Needham met the Chordettes’ arranger and coach, Walter Latzko, face to face after seeing his name listed as arranger for many Chordettes’ songs.

After a brief courtship, Marjorie and Walter were married on Dec. 5, 1953.

“The other three Chordettes and Arthur Godfrey’s secretary were my bridesmaids," she recalled. "We lived in White Plains for our first four years of marriage, and life was very busy with rehearsing, picture-taking, shopping for clothes, TV and radio shows, DJ appearances, recording, and personal and club date appearance requiring lots of traveling."

Needham said she never thought about being in show business, but that her stardom came because she was in the right place at the right time. It gave her the opportunity to do the exciting, glamorous things that people who long to be in show business want to do.

A whirlwind of excitement dominated her life for quite a few years. She sang for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, at a Ford family (of automobile fame) birthday party in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Besides appearing on the Godfrey show, The Chordettes were on the Robert Q. Lewis TV and radio shows, the Ed Sullivan Show, Perry Como Show, Dick Clark show, Sammy Kaye; Eddie Fisher, Alan Fried Rock ‘n Roll Show, and the Jack Benny Show.

The barbershop quartet made special appearances at the Chicagoland Music Festival before a crowd of 75,000 at Soldiers Field, and at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Winter Festival, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concert, Steel Pier in Atlantic City, Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas, and the Mrs. America Beauty Contest.

“By December of 1956, I was not enjoying show business that much,” said Needham. “Walter and I had been married since December of 1953, and I was away so much that we missed each other terribly. We began to think we wanted to start a family.”

Luckily, the singer who Needham had replaced, Jinny Osborn, wanted to come back, so it worked out perfectly for both performers.

Says Needham, “Jinny made the Chordettes’ second biggest hit, 'Lollipop,” so we each had a big hit,'” she said.

The Chordettes continued to make more recordings, appear on TV and other shows and have club dates, including appearances with George Burns.

“I was out of the limelight,” Needham said.

A life in Blooming Grove

In 1957, Marjorie and Walter settled at Tomahawk Lake in Blooming Grove and had three children: Jeffrey (1960), Curtis (1961), and Melanie (1965).

The couple was brought to Blooming Grove through a friend, Godfrey's head writer, Chuck Horner, who owned a vacation home at the lake. Liking the area, Walter bought a home there with bachelor buddy, Hank Miles. Later, after he and Marjorie married, they purchased their own home in Tomahawk Lake.

“I loved the beauty of the area, and I made wonderful friends,” Needham said.

Walter was a writer for the Jack Sterling CBS radio show, then for Garry Moore, Durward Kirby, and Arthur Godfrey. He branched out into advertising, and his last position was with the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen.

For 42 years, Latzko was an organist and choir director for four different Methodist churches, the last one the Goshen United Methodist Church.

He had an illustrious career in the musical world as director of the Orange County Classic Choral Society for 32 years. He was inducted into the Barbershop Harmony Hall of Fame for arranging. He arranged eight albums for the Buffalo Bills who appeared on Broadway and in the film “Music Man.” He died in Sept. 2010 at age 86.

After she retired from her singing career, Needham’s life took a whole new direction. Using her college degree in sociology, she dedicated herself to helping people in the Hudson Valley.

“I love helping people,” she said.

After 56 years in Blooming Grove, Needham decided to leave the home she loved and move to Lewes, Delaware, to live with her daughter. Music is still a part of her life. Her daughter Melanie has a master’s degree in music. She is a talented pianist and organist/choir director, and plays for many musicals.

Needham recalled the wonderful experiences she’s had in her life: parents who let her go her own way, a wonderful, talented husband, people who influenced the direction of her life, caring children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and many old and new friends.

“God has been good to me,” she said.

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