The Christmas season, along with all the other December holiday celebrations, is always a festive time—and what better way to celebrate than with a concert featuring holiday music performed by a fine wind band! The Municipal Band began providing holiday music to the Charlottesville and Albemarle communities from its earliest years. The Band presented its very first Christmas concert on December 25, 1923 at the Jefferson Theater on Main Street as part of Charlottesville’s Annual Children’s Christmas Party sponsored by Lodge #369 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. The Daily Progress of December 26, 1923 reported that members of the Lodge
…acted as hosts to nearly 1,500 children, white and colored, at the Jefferson Theater yesterday morning. Children from the Blue Ridge Sanitarium and The Children’s Home, Inc., were the special honor guests of the occasion. The holiday spirit was much in evidence and the youngsters greatly enjoyed the concert given by the Municipal Band…
Similar holiday concerts were held on or near Christmas Day every year for the next decade either at the Jefferson Theater, the Blue Ridge Sanitarium or outdoors in Lee Park.
The Great Depression of the 1930s and the War Years of the 1940s appear to have brought most December band concerts to a halt. After World War II the Band again presented sporadic late November or early December concerts a few times during the 1950s and early 1960s but it would not be until the early 1980s that the Band would resume regular holiday concerts.
Current holiday concerts can be said to date from the mid-1980s. In the fall of 1986 Music Director Jim Simmons and Band member Joe Goldsmith approached this author with a request. They recalled former Municipal Band Music Director Sharon Hoose starting holiday concerts with his high school band in the following way. The band would be seated on stage in near total darkness. Then, while playing Silent Night, the stage lights would slowly come up, illuminating the band section by section until the entire band was illuminated. Simmons and Goldsmith asked the author to create a new arrangement of Silent Night that would facilitate a similar opening scene for Municipal Band holiday concerts. Such an arrangement was made, and audiences greatly enjoyed the mood setting effect. The Band would employ this concert opening piece nearly every year for almost two decades.
Over the years the Band devised many different stage decorations and lighting effects for its holiday concerts. Naturally, decorated and illuminated Christmas trees were frequently employed, along with artfully placed bright red poinsettias. Images of various kinds were projected on the backdrop stage curtains or oversized cut-outs of holiday scenes or items might be hung behind the Band. But the one effect that immediately seized the audience’s attention and became an enduring annual tradition was the on-stage snow storm.
Again harkening back to a Sharon Hoose holiday concert device, the Band decided that it would play White Christmas near the end of each holiday concert—and during the latter half of the piece, there would be snow on stage. To that end French hornist and master builder Joseph M. Goldsmith constructed a “snow machine” that could be suspended in the fly space over the stage. At the proper time during White Christmas, Joe and one or two helpers would activate the snow machine which would shower the Band below with theatrical snow. Audiences loved it.
In actuality the snow machine only deposited snow along a line about four feet wide across the width of the stage. But for those Band members seated along that line, the snowfall was a veritable blizzard! The white stuff would quickly pile up on stands, cover music and instruments, and leave players looking like snowmen and women. Again, the audiences loved it, but the affected Band members were less enthusiastic. Over the years a variety of kinds of “snow” was tried with varying degrees of success. One year the snow was a very thin sort of plastic wrap cut into tiny squares. This material proved extremely difficult to extirpate from music folders and instrument cases, so much so that bits of that long ago “snow” are still occasionally found tucked away in pieces of holiday music. On another occasion the Band tried using finely ground Styrofoam as snow. This proved even worse than the plastic wrap, in that static cling instantly stuck the “snow” to everything, clogging instruments and coating hair and clothing. Had players not been extremely careful, bits of snow could have been ingested with serious health results. Needless to say, both plastic wrap and Styrofoam snow were never used again.
Another result of the annual snow storms on stage was that Band members seated directly in the line of snowfall began to bring winter hats and caps to wear during the playing of White Christmas in an attempt to keep the snow out of their noses and mouths. Over time, almost all Band members began bringing festive head gear to wear during the snow storm, whether they actually needed it or not. And this eventually morphed into all sorts of colorful hats with flashing lights and fanciful shapes and even a few reindeer antlers.
In 2001 the Band had to move its concerts to another venue. For the next five years they would perform in the Dickinson Auditorium at Piedmont Virginia Community College, giving matinee and evening concerts to accommodate the large crowds that came to see and hear the Band every December. In 2006 the Band again moved its holiday concert to a different venue, this time to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Performing Arts Center at Charlottesville High School, where the event has remained ever since. This 1,200 seat auditorium affords plenty of seating for the Band’s largest crowds of the year, plus a fully-equipped modern stage capable of supporting whatever guest artists and stage effects concerts may require. And, of course, there is a new and improved snow machine with Hollywood-style snow!
In addition to the full Band’s holiday extravaganza several of the Band’s small ensembles also take part in spreading holiday cheer to area audiences. Often, one or more ensemble has provided lobby music to audience members as they assemble for the band concert. In addition, various ensembles take their music on the road during December, performing for the residents of local retirement communities and for shoppers on the Downtown Mall and at any of several local shopping centers.
Like all its concerts, the Band’s holiday concert is completely free and open to everyone—the Band’s holiday gift to the community that so generously supports it year round. In recent years the Band has also asked those generous audience members to bring as their “admission” to the concert a non-perishable food item which the Band collects and takes to a local food bank for distribution to those in need. The audience response has been superb, usually enabling the Band to take close to 100 bags of food to the food bank each Christmas.
Finally, getting back to its original roots in a way, in recent years in addition to its annual grand holiday concert the Band has also sometimes presented programs at Charlottesville’s city tree lighting ceremony and at the Toy Lift Charlottesville events. This latter event collects toys for needy local children, much as the local Elks Lodge did at its Annual Children’s Christmas Party in the 1920s. The Band was there then and remains a vital part of local holiday celebrations today, just as it has for 100 years!