Stars of Bethlehem

 

Stars of Bethlehem

 

Date: December 2, 2009
by: Heidi Kurpiela | A&E Editor

 
 

It’s 7 p.m. the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. The Ditchfield Family Singers are inside a rehearsal studio rented by The Players Theatre off a desolate stretch of Tallevast Road. The group sings Christmas carols a cappella and kids with one another in that lovingly wholesome way that has endeared them to Sarasota audiences for 17 years.

They’re rehearsing for their annual Christmas concert — their 10th at the Sarasota Opera House — and waiting for Michael Ditchfield and Taylor Zea to get off work.

“Taylor is on her way, and Michael doesn’t get off work until 8 p.m.,” says Bernice Ditchfield, Michael’s mother and the 56-year-old matriarch of the eight-member ensemble. “He has a wedding in February to save for.”

Stephanie, Regina and David Ditchfield exchange sly smiles.

Stephen Ditchfield, Bernice’s husband and the 57-year-old patriarch of the group, explains that when Regina was pregnant two summers ago, they asked 20-year-old Zea, a church acquaintance, to fill in during Regina’s maternity leave.

Zea fit in so well with the family, Stephen asked her to sign on permanently. A year later, she and Michael were engaged.

Fans and friends joke that if you want to marry into the Ditchfield family, you must first audition to be a member of the Ditchfield Family Singers. After all, Nathanael Ditchfield met Regina in 1993 after the family asked Regina to sing soprano following eldest daughter Christin Ditchfield’s departure.

Now at eight members, the group is the largest it’s ever been.

“The other day,” says Bernice, “David said, ‘Eight is enough, but where does that leave me?’ And his father said, ‘We can pray that the good Lord sends us a young girl who can drive the bus.’”

David’s face flushes. At 21, David, the only redhead in the family, is eloquent and mature beyond his years. A baritone and tenor, he also plays the piano, a skill Bernice likes to brag about and David likes to dismiss.
“I can play ‘Christmas Time is Here’ — the ‘Charlie Brown’ song,” he says flatly.

“He’s accomplished,” Bernice says.

Lowering his voice, David puts one hand to his mouth and whispers, “That’s mother talking.”

The Ditchfields have come a long way since they started singing Christmas carols at The Tabernacle Church’s annual nativity pageant. They’ve become more business-savvy and more marketing-savvy. They now perform at least 100 concerts statewide a year, in addition to shows in New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia.

“We love traveling,” Stephen says, “but it’s getting expensive with eight adults and four children. We’re turning into a tribe.”

They’ve appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club” and will headline three concerts next month on board a Royal Caribbean cruise ship.

Recently, the family’s version of “Shenandoah,” performed in front of a crowd of Christian Broadcasting Network board members, grabbed the attention of Derric Johnson, director of Voices of Liberty, a 10-part a cappella group that performs at Walt Disney World. Johnson was so impressed with the Ditchfield’s version of the American folk song, that he expressed interest in producing the group’s third album.

“With everything that’s happened in the last couple years, it’s symbolic of us moving into a bigger arena,” David says.

But before David can go any further, his father cuts in and explains that he’s still in the beginning stages of that discussion. Still, it’s a thrilling prospect. The buzz in the studio is palpable. Johnson will be at the Ditchfield’s matinee Christmas show Dec. 12.

Zea walks in, tired from a long day of work. She accidentally drove to the Players Theatre in downtown Sarasota instead of its off-site rehearsal space on Tallevast Road.

“I didn’t know we were rehearsing here,” Zea says breathlessly, before joining the rest of the family in an enchanting version of “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful.”

Stephen was right about Zea. She seamlessly blends into the family. Joining the semi-circle of Ditchfields, she cozies up to Stephanie, her future sister-in-law, a nail technician who is still dressed in the black smock she wore to work. Between carols, the two women giggle.

The group’s star might be rising; but its songs remain the same. And its act — characterized by old family stories, inside jokes and imperfect appearances by toddlers dressed as cotton-ball sheep — is still, no matter the group’s popularity, authentically “Ditchfield.”

“When you’re singing together you have to be in harmony,” Bernice says. “You can’t just go out on stage and fake it. The many relationship dynamics within the family, you’ve got to work them out. You’ve got to settle arguments and make things right. When audiences see us, they’re experiencing us as a family.”

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at hkurpiela@yourobserver.com

Bernice Ditchfield’s top 5 songs
‘It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’
“It’s become a kind of theme song for us. It’s our concert opener, our specialty.”

‘Little Drummer Boy’

“If someone has a favorite Christmas song, nine times out of 10 it’s ‘Little Drummer Boy.’”

‘O Holy Night’
“We polled people at our ninth annual Christmas show. We put an insert in the program asking for their favorite three Christmas songs. ‘O Holy Night’ was what they all wanted to hear.”

‘White Christmas’
“It’s from our favorite family movie. It gives me the warm and fuzzies you get from sitting around as a family, having popcorn and watching Christmas movies together.”

‘The Prayer’
“It’s a duet (originally) performed by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion. Gina and Stephen get a standing ovation every time they sing it. It gives you goose bumps. It’s such a powerful number.”

IF YOU GO
The Ditchfield Family Singers will perform “A Christmas To Remember, a 10th Anniversary Celebration” at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11 and at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12. For more information, visit www.ditchfieldfamilysingers.com. For tickets, call 923-2013.
 

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