Roberto Centron may be the newest member of this choir group, but they are already treating him like family — that is to say, ready to adore and embarrass him, all at once.
The music to Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” begins. And as Centron leans into the lyrics “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” with a smoldering, resonant baritone, the women of the City of West Palm Beach Employee Choral Group squeal and feign swooning like girls at a Justin Bieber concert.
He manages to keep his composure. When he’s through, he receives a standing ovation and several “we’re not worthy” bows.
“We need security over here!” someone jokes.
They’ve heard him practice a dozen times since September, when the group reunites to begin preparing for their annual holiday performances. They catcall him every time. And every time, the tips of his ears redden.
“When we come together, we joke, we laugh, we love each other and we have fun,” said Charles Nesbitt, one of the group’s longest-standing members.
Communal laughter and good cheer fill their practice space at the Wilson Community Center in Riviera Beach every Friday and embolden the usually reserved Centron. That’s what you do for family.
The choral group, made up strictly of current and former city employees, has been singing together every holiday season since its director, former records clerk Carolyn Wilkins, formed the group 27 years ago. They perform at halfway houses, nursing homes, children’s hospitals, all places where yuletide can bring good cheer.
Their performances culminate with their annual performance at the West Palm Beach library on Clematis Street on Wednesday.
Only three original members remain. But the many longtime members recruit new singers for Wilkins, 71, who keeps them coming back year after year.
“Once I get them, they’re mine,” Wilkins said. “The main thing I want is for them to have a good time.”
The members rarely see each other throughout the year. They work in areas spanning the city government. A look across the hall where they practice makes it obvious.
Centron, who works in maintenance, has a pair of work gloves hanging out of his back pocket. Nesbitt, who works in heavy equipment operations, keeps a walkie-talkie under his chair, chirping quietly every so often while he switches between singing and playing the keyboard. Among the 30 members here to practice, there are city uniforms, polo shirts, office dresses and women’s pants suits.
But whatever separates them in their working lives, music brings them together. Leroy Dennis, 57, of Loxahatchee, hasn’t worked for the city since the ’90s. But even when he left to pursue a career in broadcasting — and moved to Washington, D.C., for a stretch — he would fly down for the weekend performances.
When they see each other in the fall, it’s like a family reunion.
“We’re hugging each other, high-fiving,” Dennis said. “It’s just a grand reunion.”
It’s clear why he comes back.
Before they began practice, Wilkins reminded the group it was member Shirley Simpson-Wray’s birthday and the choir sang the most harmonic, melodious rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
During practice, a baby starts to cry. Loretta Bedford — the group’s top soloist who has several commercial albums out, including one now available on iTunes —babysits her goddaughter every Friday. But today, Nylah McCalla — looking cherubic in her afro puffs — was “trying to sing along and got a little too loud,” Loretta said.
Mary Ptak picked up the baby and bounced her on her hip while Bedford sang.
Wilkins runs rehearsals and the show like something out of the USO — for which she performed, stateside and overseas, for 54 years.
“We have a great group of people. Everybody has a personality; we’re all kind of nutty and we all get along,” Dennis said.
“Where’s the ensemble group for ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’? Get your butts up here,” Wilkins says, always keeping practice sessions on track.
The group loves Wilkins’ benevolent dictatorship. When she fought breast cancer a few years ago, other group members stepped up to run the holiday show. When she fell and broke her thigh bone, others again made sure the holiday tradition continued.
They continue to be there for each other. When one member passed away, many of the chorus reunited to sing at the funeral.
Whatever their connection, it spreads to the groups for which they perform.
Bernard Willis came to Fern House — a home for men recovering from drug or alcohol addition — as a homeless drug addict in 1997.
He remembers gathering at Fern House’s auditorium that December when the city choir came to perform. They not only sing as a group, but interact with the audience, singing serenades and coming down from the stage to dance with the audience. Willis is still moved by the memory of how alive they made him feel.
“It had been a long time since I felt like I did that evening,” Willis said. “I felt I had been missing something and they were giving me that back.”
Today, Willis is Fern House’s executive director. And that choir performance, he said, was part of what turned his life around.
“A lot of guys will have a spiritually profound experience. I did,” said Willis. “I’ve seen it happen year after year. … They come and they sing their hearts out for us.”
Other groups have similar stories. One year, while Dennis sang a duet with Darlene Snowbomb at a nursing home, a woman who had been unconscious woke up during their song.
“I like to think we make people’s lives a little better,” Dennis said. “We see people who have lost so much and this gives people something that cheers them up for a while.”
“You look out at the audience and see tears rolling down people’s faces,” singer J.C. Chandler said.
It flows both ways. When Willis, the Fern House director, heard that Wilkins’ home had caught fire, almost 40 of the Fern House men went to her house to help clean up.
“She’s the kind of person where if you know she needs something at 2 in the morning, you say, ‘I’m there,’ ” Dennis said.
After their big performance, they’ll reunite in January to watch video of their event over a big family dinner. Then, everyone goes back to their lives and jobs until the following holiday season.
“She makes you feel like you’re part of something,” Dennis said. “We’ll all be back next year.”
IF YOU GO
West Palm Beach Employee Choral Group concert
Where: Mandel Public Library, 411 Clematis St, West Palm Beach
When: Wednesday. Children’s dance performance begin at 11 a.m.; choir performs at noon and 1:15 p.m.