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Originator of “Sing!,” a NYC high school tradition, dies

Bella Tillis taught at Midwood for 30 years

April 23, 2013 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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The Brooklyn teacher who started the tradition of “Sing!,” an annual student-produced satirical musical comedy that became a tradition in New York City high schools, recently died 15 days short of her 100th birthday.

Bella  Lipson Tillis, who taught at Midwood High School for 30 years, died on April 7, 2013 in Haverford, Pennsylvania. She was born in Brooklyn on April 22, 1913, to immigrant parents, went to local public schools, and started studying piano at the age of 10. In junior high school, she won a citywide music competition.

At Thomas Jefferson High School, she worked on the student newspaper, where she met David Daniel Kaminsky, who later became the famed entertainer Danny Kaye. She also met Bernard Tillis, who eventually became her husband. In addition, she did some entertaining in the Catskills in the summers and became friendly with several famous theater professionals, including Imogene Coco, Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg.

Mrs. Tillis attended Hunter College and became a substitute teacher in the New York school system, then settled into her career as a full-time high school music teacher.  She later earned a masters degree in music education from Teachers’ College of Columbia University. Initially teaching at several other high schools, Mrs. Tillis transferred to Midwood High School in Brooklyn when it opened in 1941.

In 1947 she conceived and directed “Sing!” The concept, which also had the school’s classes competing against each other, spread throughout New York City and is still going strong in many schools.  The 1989 movie “Sing!” was based on the traditions that Mrs. Tillis had started.  Mrs. Tillis remained at Midwood as a music teacher and, eventually, director of the Music Department until her retirement in 1971.  

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After her husband’s death in 1995, Mrs. Tillis funded the annual Dr. Bernard P. Tillis Award for Excellence in Dental Journalism at NYU to honor his 22 years as editor of the New York State Dental Journal.

She is survived by her sister Stella Handler; nephews, Stanley H. Lipson, Michael Handler, Robert Handler, and Thomas Handler, and niece, Margaret Handler-Kaminsky; 11 grand-nieces and nephews, four great-grand nephews and one great-grand niece. Memorial donations in her name may be made to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden or the Midwood High School music program.

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