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Pop music legends The Lettermen dazzle, surprise GPAC audience

Story and photos by Wade Allen, Managing Editor

Lettermen_Tony Butala on stage
Group founder Tony Butala of the Lettermen.

Lettermen autographing 3
Donovan Tea, Tony Butala and Mark Preston of The Lettermen signing autographs. Tea and Preston joined the group in 1984.

Lettermen Tony Butala at table
Tony Butala is the only original member still with The Lettermen. He was a member of the group when they enjoyed superstardom in the 1960s.

Letter with Wade Allen
Mark Preston, The Pine Needle managing editor Wade Allen, Donovan Tea and Tony Butala reflect on music of the '60s at GPAC.

The Lettermen are pop music legends and have the gold records to prove it.

Over the course of the 48 years since the inception of the group, they've known fame and fortune, not to mention gaining millions of fans worldwide.

But upon speaking with 68-year-old founding member Tony Butala, you'll soon realize that worldwide acclaim has not influenced the attitudes of him or the group.

"It's a labor of love," Butala said.

The legendary Butala is accompanied by 53-year-old Mark Preston and 54-year-old Donovan Tea, both seasoned entertainers.

The group dazzled a crowd of more than 800 at GPAC on Dec. 9 with their older hits of the 60s and 70s, while keeping with the holiday spirit and performing many favorite Christmas songs.

The audience erupted in applause when all members of the group walked around in the audience during many of their songs, snapping photographs with fans and shaking hands.

"There's an invisible wall," Tea said. "We go out and see them. There's something about human contact that never goes out of style."

At one point during the show, the group performed The Twelve Days of Christmas and invited members of the audience to participate, bringing 12 people onstage to sing each verse.

The Lettermen proved themselves versatile musicians when they rolled a table onto the stage and began playing holiday songs with hand bells.

"This is something you won't see at the Andy Williams Christmas Show and something you won't see at the Kenny Rogers Christmas Show," Preston said.

Tea and Preston joined the group in 1984. Tea has been a member ever since, but Preston left for a period of time to travel and pursue a solo career.

"He just rejoined three years ago," Butala said.

"We have a great time," Tea said.

Preston worked with the best in show business before joining The Lettermen.

He was Phyllis Diller's opening act for several years in hotels and casinos around the country, but the iconic comedienne made sure that she was not upstaged by a younger talent.

"Phyllis didn't want me talking," Preston said. "What timing I learned, I learned from her."

Preston remains in contact with Diller to this day and admits, "I call her about once a month just to check up with her."

Butala is a celebrity himself, being the founding member of the Grammy-nominated group.

He could use his fame and fortune to influence the other two members of the group and be the spokesperson, but Butala said he "never wanted to be that role...I never use that," he said.

In 1950, he became a member of The Mitchell Boys Choir and appeared as a member of the choir in the classic 1954 film White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.

Anxious to reminisce about his earlier days in music, Butala candidly discussed his relationship with music icons of the past century.

Bing Crosby "was a star among stars," according to Butala.

"In the fifties, lots of celebrities went to the Great Shepherd Church in California. I have great memories of that," he added.

Butala had a short statement regarding Kaye, who was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1984.

"Danny Kaye was crazy," he said.

The Lettermen maintain a busy schedule throughout the year.

Tea estimates that about one third of their shows are at universities.

The goal of the group, according to Preston, is to provide a quality show and "see people enjoy themselves."


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Updated: December 11, 2008
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