Holiday fave: Singing Christmas Tree performs Dec. 13-14

For 60 years, Charlotteans have lined up at Christmas to stand for two hours in spaces narrow as an airline coach seat. Their bodies, shielded by greenery and decked with green capes, can neither sit nor move more than a few inches in any direction. They can’t even raise their arms.

And this brings joy to the world? Audiences and performers for the Singing Christmas Tree say it does.

The annual show at Ovens Auditorium, Dec. 13-14 this year, imports talent: Grey Seal Puppets, Eddie Mabry Dancers, country singer Caroline Keller, a string quartet and emcee Mike Collins will be there. But without music director Peter Leo leading 100 singers on a 32-foot metal tree in sacred and secular favorites, the show might blend into the wallpaper of all the holiday extravaganzas.

“We’re not the first singing tree in America,” says Sue Wheldon, executive director of parent company Carolina Voices. “Belhaven University created the tradition (in 1933). We call ourselves the original Singing Christmas Tree production.

“Alice Berman directed the first tree on the steps of a funeral parlor (Harry and Bryant on Providence Road). After Ovens opened in 1955, we moved in there and did a full show.”

Any conversation with Wheldon will reveal the breadth of Carolina Voices. Its Festival Singers, a chamber-sized choir, specialize in concerts with spiritual and social content and perform annually at Charleston’s Piccolo Spoleto festival.

Impromptu, a smaller ensemble dedicated to a cappella jazz and pop, has sold out concerts at Spirit Square. The group sponsors Carolina Kids’ Voices camps in singing and movement every summer.

Associate executive director Bev Seitz has broadened Carolina Voices’ message over the last few years from its basement offices at Myers Park Baptist Church. Yet the tree remains the centerpiece of the brand.

There are two performances for adults, two one-hour matinee abridgments sold as “The Singing Christmas Tree for Kids,” even an invitational Sneak Peek Preview. Carolina Voices makes free tickets available to 200 social service agencies and their clients for that show. (704-374-1564 or carolinavoices.org for details.)

Do audiences know 12 to 15 people labor for a day and a half to assemble that tower of unistrut steel and iron? Tom Griesmer does. Besides adding a bass voice to the musical mix, he’s been in charge of getting it up and down for 30-plus years. (It comes apart faster: About 30 volunteers disassemble it in four hours.)

“Our old tree could have held up a bridge,” he says. “It was structural steel, and we needed steel erectors to rig it up and take it down. We bought the new one (in 2004) from a place in Texas, and it’s easier to install.”

But what’s it like to be on that two-story apparatus?

“The steps are 30 inches apart, in semicircles curling away from the director,” says Griesmer. “You can’t hear any other singers except the guy right behind you, so it can feel like you’re doing a solo. You really have to know your music.

“Any movement shakes the tree a little, so we don’t even tap our feet. The greenery and lights cover everything, and you’re visible only from the neck up. You have to convey all the emotion and meaning of the music with your face.”

Leo picks the material, duplicating only a few numbers each year from recent shows. Carolina Voices hires a professional lighting designer (Eric Winkenwerder) and sound designer (Sven Giersmann) and has added digital projectors this year to create backdrops.

“The cost of rentals and designers means the Tree doesn’t bring the big profit it did when we were the only show in town,” says Wheldon. “But it has touched thousands of people – one person has attended for 56 years – and it’s still the thing for which Carolina Voices is best known.”

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