published Sunday, November 25th, 2012

Chattanooga Boys Choir marks 50th Singing Christmas Tree

Vic Oakes leads this year’s Singing Christmas Tree choir during rehearsal at Second Presbyterian Church.
Vic Oakes leads this year’s Singing Christmas Tree choir during rehearsal at Second Presbyterian Church.
Photo by Tim Barber.
IF YOU GO

• What: Singing Christmas Tree 50th anniversary

• When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.

• Tickets: $10-$30, plus fees

• For more information: 642-TIXS

For 50 years, three branches of Robert Dugan and George Randall Jr.'s families have formed part of a huge tree.

Both grandfathers have been involved in production and sons and grandsons have stood among the singers on the 25-foot tiered Singing Christmas Tree performed by the Chattanooga Boys Choir. When the curtain rises Saturday, 65 robed choristers will fill the branches, or tiers, to mark the 50th anniversary of the tree.

ALUMNI RECEPTION

All former Chattanooga Boys Choir members are invited to a free reception on Friday from 5:30-7 p.m. in the Tivoli Theatre lobby. There will be a slideshow of highlights from past Singing Christmas Trees, information on what the choir is doing now and a chance to preview the anniversary show's stage set.

"The Boys Choir sang at my wedding 30 years ago," says Randall, "and later sang at my son, Andrew's, wedding."

Randall's father, the late George Randall Sr., was the tree's producer for 15 years. Randall and his three sons have all sung in the choir and been part of tree productions. Randall's wife, Stephanie, runs the choir's music theory lab.

'NINJA MOMS' OF THE SINGING CHRISTMAS TREE

Behind every Singing Christmas Tree are the moms who make sure the boys are fed, dressed and meet their cues onstage, and generally maintain law and order backstage among the 100-plus boys in the Chattanooga Boys Choir.

Moms line up the youngest choirboys for the Nativity pageant that traditionally concludes the first act of the Singing Christmas Tree and chaperone them in a room backstage when they aren't performing.

• "Everett O'Neal called the mothers behind the tree 'Ninja Moms' and enjoyed telling the boys not to misbehave or a Ninja Mom would get them. The boys loved it," recalls Bobby Dugan.

• Becky O'Neal Dagg says that, despite repeated warnings not to lock their knees while on the tree's tiers under hot stage lights, there were always those who did ... and fainted. Moms and dads underneath the tree would remove the singer as discretely as possible by lowering him off the tree between tiers. Now you see him, now you don't.

• The "angel" on the top of the tree is an honor voted on by the boys. One year a set of twins won, recalls Dagg. One twin was the angel for the first half, his twin took the second act.

• "It was always interesting the years it would 'snow' onstage," says Dagg, "because sometimes the snow wouldn't do right. It would dump in one big load, but the boys had to keep on singing, even with fake snow in their mouths."

• Rob Dugan recalled that, in order to keep the boys' heights the same on the tree's tiers, taller boys got to sit on stools. "You always tried to stand around shorter boys so that you were the one who got to sit," he says.

• "About five years ago, a boy complained of a tummy ache before we were about to go on," says Vic Oakes. "One of the nurses (moms) told him she'd get him some Sprite to calm his stomach. All of a sudden, half the tree had tummy aches."

Multigenerational families show how the Boys Choirs' production has taken root in Chattanooga's holiday traditions.

"We have invested so much of our lives with the choir and the choir has given so much to our family, that it's just a pleasure for us to be able to give back," Randall says.

And the Randall's roots to the tree will grow deeper this weekend. For the past 15 years, Gene Wilbourn has produced the tree, but he'll turn the production over to Randall at Saturday night's conclusion.

This edition of the tree is believed to be the first Chattanooga holiday event successfully presented 50 consecutive years by the same organization. While Chattanooga audiences have enjoyed a "Nutcracker" ballet each year, no one dance company has performed it that many years.

"It's pretty rare," says Ann Ball of Chattanooga Presents of the choir's milestone. Chattanooga Presents produces public events and concerts ranging from RiverRocks to the Grand Illumination to Nightfall concert series.

"This is a big deal for the same group to do something for 50 years and do it successfully and well. They have to keep thinking 'What will keep it fresh?' You have to know your audience and change with the audience over the years," Ball says.

Grandad Robert "Bobby" Dugan was one of the four dozen original charter members of the Chattanooga Boys Choir in 1954. He says he had "aged out" of the choir when the Singing Tree began in 1962, but the trombone player was among CSO musicians hired to play in the tree's orchestra. He later served 25 years as an assistant director with the choir.

One of the fondest memories for Rob Dugan, his son, comes from the late 1980s when a comedic element was added to the song "Grandma's Feather Bed." As the older boys sang John Denver's rollicking song, a seemingly endless number of young training choir boys popped out, one after another, from beneath the quilt covering a large bed onstage, giggling and jumping on the feather-bed prop before hopping off.

The scene will be replayed this year, but this time the youngest generation of Dugans, 12-year-old Hunter Adams, will be singing.

"I think it's really exciting that 50 years ago my grandfather was in the same place I am," says the McCallie School sixth-grader. "When I first came into the choir, I barely knew anything about music, but as four years have gone by I've learned more and more."

'INTEGRITY AND COMMITMENT'

Anna Van Cura, co-director and owner of Ballet Tennessee, attributes the tree's continuity over five decades to "the integrity and commitment" of the boys and directors who have led the choir.

"It's that commitment by the directors to bring boys together from all over the community to sing and work together, leaders who really believe this is a quality investment of the boys' time," she credited.

As the tree marks its golden anniversary this year, Ballet Tennessee will also reach a silver milestone. The dance company has performed at the Singing Christmas Tree for 25 years.

Also joining the choristers this Saturday will be the musicians of the CSO Youth Symphony.

"When you look up and see about 200 talented young people onstage doing wonderful things, that's an awesome sight," says Vic Oakes, Boys Choir director.

Chattanooga Boys Choir Director Stephen Ortlip founded the Singing Christmas Tree in 1962.

"I got the idea from a singing tree I saw in Charlotte, N.C. It really turned me on, and I thought 'Why shouldn't we do it with the Boys Choir at the Tivoli?" says Ortlip, now 92 and living in Atlanta.

The late Everett O'Neal directed the choir for more than two decades. During his tenure, the choir's ranks grew to more than 200 boys. His wife, Genevieve O'Neal, says her husband liked to tie themes of his Singing Christmas Tree productions to the boys choir's upcoming summer tours.

"There was a Scandinavian Christmas, Christmas in Williamsburg and a Viennese Christmas the year we entertained the Vienna Boys Choir here," she says.

And, like so many others, the O'Neals' involvement in the tree spanned generations.

"Everyone in our family participated," she says. "Everett directed. David sang in the choir. Becky danced with Ballet Tennessee, and I chaperoned boys, helped decorate the Tivoli lobby.

"I think Everett thought the program was a good family tradition. Many families came every year who had no connection to the choir other then they enjoyed it and made it part of their Christmas traditions."

Becky O'Neal Dagg of Auburn, Ala., says she played "every role from the Virgin Mary to wassailer" during her years performing under her father's direction.

Dagg, now associate dean of Auburn University's College of Architecture, Design and Construction, says she danced several years with Ballet Tennessee in the holiday show.

"When I was little, one of the best parts was when you walked into the Tivoli Theatre, Santa and Mrs. Claus were giving out candy canes with their 'elves,' who were some of the littlest choirboys," says Dagg in an email interview.

"In the theater, there was a hush after the overture stopped. As the curtain went up, the audience broke the silence with a collective sigh because the tree was so beautiful. Then the boys would break the silence and sing."

NOD TO THE PAST

Every year the Singing Christmas Tree has a theme, and it is always different. Toyland, Appalachian Christmas and Americana were themes of the tree during the seven years Ron Starnes served as choir director after O'Neal.

Oakes says this year's theme will be a nod to the anniversary celebration. The choir staff polled alumni through social media, asking their input on favorite memories and songs of past Singing Christmas Trees. Many of those highlights have been incorporated into Saturday's show.

"Frosty the Snowman was a popular choice. One person recalled there was actually an oversized snowman with a slide that the kids came down. We're doing that because they remembered it so fondly," says Oakes.

Another post recalled the choir sang something from Handel's "Messiah" every year, Oakes says, so he has included three movements in Saturday's program. Favorites such as "12 Days of Christmas" and "Little Drummer Boy" are on the program, with the Ooltewah High School drumline joining the choir for the latter.

Preparation for this weekend's anniversary production began last spring, Oakes says.

"In August, we had parents going through buckets of Christmas tree lights, checking them and making sure they worked," he says.

An average of 100 choir parents will volunteer this coming week, handling everything from assembling the tiered tree and decorating it, to serving as nurses and chaperones backstage during Saturday's performances.

One reason the tree has endured five decades is it's time-honored history and parent power behind-the-scenes, Oakes says.

"This really is a wonderful collaborative effort with people singing, dancing, making the scenery. But everything that's done is to show off the boys and their music," he says.

about Susan Pierce...

Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...

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