The Singing Christmas Tree ‘boughs’ out

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Curtain comes down on a 50 year Edmonton tradition

One of Edmonton’s longest running Christmas traditions is coming to an end.

The Singing Christmas Tree – a 35-foot tall structure holding 150 singers – is being staged for the last time this December and chances are there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

Since it began in 1967, the production has evolved from a church-based Christmas concert conceived by Robert and Shirley Taitinger featuring the tree-mounted choir singing familiar carols to an award-winning Las Vegas-styled fundraiser complete with famous solo artists, dancers, a 50-piece orchestra, children’s choir, costumes and more.

In recent years the production has featured headliners like American Idol winner Ruben Studdard, the Canadian Tenors, country singer Brett Kissel and quickly rising local country singer Hailey Benedict.

John Cameron, the driving force behind the event, can trace his involvement back to 1983 when the Central Pentecostal Tabernacle at 107 Ave and 116th Street hosted the event in the church’s sanctuary, which was specially designed by architect Peter Hemmingway to accommodate the singing tree. The tradition continued until 2005 when the church closed.

In 2009, after a three-year absence, the Singing Christmas Tree was resurrected by the John Cameron Changing Lives Foundation and presented at the 2,538-seat Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.

But now, even the event’s second lease on life is coming to an end.

“It’s just the right time,” said Cameron, 56, about the decision to end the show. “It’s the right time for me. I’ve been discussing this with our board for about a year now. We just felt it is the 50th year in Edmonton and the 11th year at the Jubilee Auditorium and that it was time to move on.”

Although the 11,500 tickets for this year’s five shows were nearly sold out by late November, Cameron admitted it has been increasingly difficult to sell out the shows in recent years.

Although not the central issue, the province’s sluggish economy and the difficulty in attracting corporate sponsorships and individual donations are other factors facing the foundation.

Ariana Whitlow, the production’s entertainment manager and an international calibre singer, dancer and actor herself, says another challenge was keeping the show fresh and new for audience members who often return year after year.

“It’s not like doing Radio City Music Hall in New York where your audience is a constant flow of tourists,” says Whitlow. “In Edmonton, we really rely on repeat audience. Thankfully we do have a very loyal audience. They have turned it into a holiday tradition. It will be a sad thing to see it end especially for some families who watch it every year.”

Whitlow, the daughter of the late MLA Gene Zwozdesky and an alumnus of MacEwan University and Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, says the most challenging part of her role is coordinating rehearsals for more 300 people including the adult and children’s’ choirs, various soloists, dancers, orchestra members and even this year’s Edmonton Eskimos’ Esks Force Drum Line.

She will miss the many friends she has made over the years but will still be involved in other shows produced by the foundation.

One of those shows is Crescendo, a high energy, glitzy production, featuring classic rock tunes, an event to raise money for mental health initiatives.

“It is definitely bittersweet to see the Singing Christmas Tree end,” says Whitlow. “I know that I will still be seeing people because we will still be doing Crescendo in May and what ever else John has up his sleeve.”

Other key individuals contributing to the final production is musical director and conductor Mannie Fonte, (who flies in from Seattle to attend the shows and rehearsals), producer Donovan Robinson and marketing and administrative assistant Anika Gutowski.

One of the significant differences between the days when the show was held at the church and more recently at the Jubilee is that the event is structured as a charitable fundraiser instead of a free event to mark the Christmas season.

Under the direction of the foundation, thousands of dollars has been donated to Santas Anonymous, Edmonton’s Food Bank and the Boys & Girls Clubs Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton & Area. In recent years proceeds have been directed to other causes.

“For the last couple of years the foundation has decided to move all our proceeds towards mental health initiatives… specifically supporting the Addiction and Mental Health Access 24/7 at the Royal Alexandra Hospital,” says Cameron.

Depression is an issue Cameron has had personal experience with.

“I am firm believer that music is a doctor, that playing an instrument, or singing or dancing or even sports… helps the mind,” says Cameron.  “I have struggled for 18 or 19 years …. depression, some days you just don’t want to get on with the day.”

The end of the production will also be an emotional moment for choir members like Rick Winters and Faye Krawchuk.

Winters, 61, a semi-retired woodshop teacher from Leduc, has sung bass for the choir for five years. He admits that it was an emotional day when he heard the news the show was ending.

Krawchuk, 56, was first involved in the show back in the mid 1980s and reconnected with the show three years ago.

“I was really sad because it’s so fun for families,” says Krawchuk. “It’s a great Christmas tradition for lots of Edmontonians.”

“Every good thing, in my opinion comes to an end,” says Cameron. “Better to go out on the top.”

The final performances will be at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium at 7 pm on Dec. 19 and 20, 2 pm and 7 pm on Dec. 21 and 1 pm on Dec. 22. Tickets, if still available, can be purchased through ticketmaster.ca

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About Author

Terry Jorden is an Edmonton-based freelance writer and musician.