Greensburg native pays tribute to storyteller, musician Harry Chapin
Growing up in Greensburg, John McMenamin recalls spending his spare time acting and directing plays at the former Cabaret Theatre in Hempfield.
The graduate of Greensburg Central Catholic High School and Saint Vincent College says a performance by the late Harry Chapin at his college alma mater inspires him to this day.
“I was a big fan of his. I had seen Harry and his band in concert five times — once at Saint Vincent College in 1976, twice at what was the Stanley Theater (in Pittsburgh) and two solo shows at The Palace Theatre in Greensburg,” McMenamin says.
Three of the five shows were benefits, with concert and merchandise proceeds benefiting WhyHunger, a charity Chapin founded in 1975.
On Oct. 13, McMenamin will play a concert at the Ramada by Wyndham Greensburg Hotel & Conference Center, produced by the new Cabaret Theatre in Latrobe, to benefit WhyHunger. The concert features guest artist Rob DeVitis.
Organizers of “Remembering Harry Chapin” ask those attending to bring canned and boxed food donations to benefit the Westmoreland County Food Bank.
It will be McMenamin’s first performance in the area in more than 10 years.
“The way I got into doing his music was I was a regular theater performer with Cabaret productions. The performers would stay after shows and play for audiences. So I would bring my guitar, and I really liked (Chapin’s) music,” he says.
It was not music one heard constantly on the radio and he enjoyed introducing people to Chapin’s songs.
Chapin died in a car accident in 1981 on his way to a performance.
McMenamin says he approached John Carosella, Cabaret Theatre founder and artistic director, and his high school musical director. He suggested playing a set of Chapin’s music and making a donation to his charity.
McMenamin, 60, teaches art and technology and directs a school musical for grades four through eight at New Hanover Township School in Wrightstown, N.J.
Recalling earlier tributes
John Horanic, Cabaret Theatre’s chief financial officer, says 125 people attended the first “Remembering Harry Chapin” tribute in October 1981.
After Chapin’s death, Horanic says, McMenamin expressed interest in performing a tribute concert.
“He (McMenamin) had people crying. He had people captivated,” he recalls.
“He has an uncanny resemblance to and (sounds like) Harry, the way he reproduces the artist’s stories,” Horanic adds of McMenamin’s concerts.
A fan’s interpretation
“It’s always a very special night, with a lot of good feelings, a lot of good people,” McMenamin says of the tribute shows.
He has played four benefit concerts with members of Chapin’s band, he says, including original drummer Howard Fields and bassist “Big” John Wallace, who contributes the falsetto vocal in “Taxi.”
“It felt like baseball fantasy camp,” McMenamin says.
“I never made any money at this. I get all my joy out of presenting the music to people who loved Harry and supporting the cause,” he says.
“We do all of the familiar songs and dig out some that are a little more obscure,” he says.
Along with favorites like “Taxi” and “Cat’s In the Cradle,” he says he realized early on Chapin’s comical sing-along “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” (which gives a shout out to Scranton ) has to be part of his repertoire.
“He was a great storyteller. You could tell he loved what he did,” he says.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-836-5401, [email protected] or via Twitter .