Every Sunday, Melinda Miller works in the nursery at FirstSarasota, the Downtown Baptist Church. But Friday, Dec. 6, the 71-year-old Sarasota resident will once again take on a more seasonal role at her church. The soprano will don a red sequined collar over a green felt smock and take her place in the front row of a 30-foot-tall-by-25-foot-wide “Christmas tree” and sing during the church’s first Singing Christmas Tree performance of its 40th season.
“It’s my church family,” says Miller. “I love it; I look forward to it every year.”
Miller was one of about 90 cast members in the church’s 1974 inaugural performance and remembers when the tree — which is now made of sturdier metal risers covered in greenery — was made of wood.
The evolution of the tree is just one indication of the success of the performance, which continues to pack the 1,000-plus-occupancy sanctuary for multiple performances during the Christmas season. And, although the performance now offers a full-scale musical production, complete with lighting and effects, it, too, started with humble beginnings, just like the biblical story it tells.
Jim Martin, who became the church’s music director in 1971, had become accustomed to the Christmastime sonatas the choir would perform for the congregation. But, in 1974, when he brought the Singing Christmas Tree to Sarasota, he says a few other larger churches in the country were already doing it.
To bring the tree to life the first year, Martin enlisted the help of the church’s superintendent, Jack Headrick. Headrick used his knowledge of the production from his former job at the municipal auditorium in Charlotte, N.C. — the city and location credited with hosting the original Singing Christmas Tree — to build the original four-tiered wooden platform. The platform held 40 singers, while the other 50 stood around it. Since then, two additional tree structures have been used. Marvin Morris, of Marvin’s Woodworking, is credited with the construction of a second tree structure, which was also made of wood.
Today, the tree is made of metal, contains 12 levels and holds 115 singers. The majority of singers stand for the duration of the hour-and-15-minute performances, while some of the more senior cast members sit in the first level. Because spacing gets tighter at the top of the tree, the top-two spots generally go to smaller-framed ladies. Martin says the current tree is much more pleasing to the eye.
It features faux greenery, more than 10,000 lights and 50 bows. And, those who’ve attended the performance before can expect to see a new addition to the tree this year. A brightly lit star replaces the former angel tree topper.
“There are so many references to the star, I felt like it would be a nice addition. So, we went with it,” says Worship Director and FirstSarasota Music Director Shawn Gross.
Gross became the music director in August and was soon after tasked with directing the more than 300 people involved in this year’s production, including cast members, a full orchestra, ushers and a technical staff.
During the first few years of performances, the tree comprised all the church’s members, and the performances were held for members of the congregation. But, after a few years, FirstSarasota decided to open the performance to the community. Spots in the tree are available to the Sarasota community across all denominations, as well as to members of the music community.
In past productions, performers have only learned one or two new songs, but this year, 11 of the 14 songs are new. The 2013 performance also offers a completely different collection of music, which comes from
“The Nativity Symphony” album, as recorded by the London Symphonica. Gross says the performance is geared toward all ages.
“It’s narrated by a modern-day kid, and there are vignettes of the Christmas story,” says Gross. Audience members should also expect to participate; they will be asked to sing along to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” at the start of the performance.
Martin, who now lives in North Carolina, was in town visiting friends and on hand to watch a full dress rehearsal of the performance Monday night. He says the scope of the production has come a long way in the 40 years since he started it at the church.
“Originally, we just sang and that was it,” says Martin. “Now, there is pageant and storyline; it’s a very visual presentation … we have a come a long way, baby!”
The Singing Christmas Tree
When: First performance is at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6. Runs through Sunday, Dec. 15. See website for dates and times.
Where: FirstSarasota, the Downtown Baptist Church, 1661 Main St.
Tickets and info: 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday at 1670 Main St. or call 888-684-5272