BACKSTAGE PASS: The Ditchfield elves


BACKSTAGE PASS: The Ditchfield elves


Date: November 30, 2011
by: Heidi Kurpiela | A&E Editor



Good luck finding a place to sit at Lee and Nancy Frayer’s dining room table.

The table is covered in homemade wedding centerpieces and an array of stage props. The space, which doubles as a workbench for the couple’s theater design and event-planning projects, is packed with so much stuff the Frayers had to serve Thanksgiving dinner on the back porch.

“Our friends and family excuse the mess,” Nancy Frayer says. “They know this is our season.”

If only they had a basement.

The couple can’t remember the last time they used their fine china in the winter. The cabinet is so buried in arts-and-crafts materials that just the thought of moving the clutter seems exhausting.

And, for the record: The Frayers don’t exhaust easily.

In addition to working full-time jobs, the couple has constructed theater scenery out of their modest Kensington Park home for more than four decades.

Through bum legs and crushed vertebrates, they’ve built, set up and torn down more shows and events than some union stagehands.

Last week they produced an event at the Rosedale Golf and Country Club, where Lee Frayer also works full time as a maintenance man.

Over the next four weeks they’ll stage five more events, two in which they’ll perform.

Nancy Frayer, 68, sings with the Magic of Manatee Sweet Adeline Chorus. Lee Frayer, 73, sings with and directs the Venice Gondolier Barbershop Chorus. Together they have more than 80 years of barbershop experience.

“We’re knee-deep in it,” Lee Frayer says of barbershop singing. “It’s not a hobby. It’s a way of life.”

Barbershop performances are what sparked their interest in set design, lighting and stage management. It’s also what introduced them to Stephen Ditchfield, the patriarch of the Ditchfield Family Singers and the former music director of Chorus of the Keys, the Sarasota chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society.

In 2000, when the Ditchfields presented their first Christmas show at the Sarasota Opera House, it was the Frayers who called the show and designed the set and lights.

They’ve worked on every Christmas show since.

“We really do feel like we’re a part of the family,” Nancy Frayer says. “We’ve watched the family grow. Our sons started having children at the same time. For a while I ran a preschool in the back of my house. I had two Ditchfield grandbabies running around here.”

For the purpose of this interview, the Frayers set up a mock set in their living room — stage lights and all.
Although they claim to be amateur set designers, their handiwork is impressive.

Yards of green-and-red fabric drape from the ceiling, framed by wooden cutouts of Christmas trees and gingerbread men. A 10-foot-tall backdrop painted to resemble a city skyline looms in the background.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the Frayers were staging plays in their house.

Among the scenery is the usual lived-in décor of a couple who has been married for 48 years, including a wall of black-and-white family photographs.

“The truth of it is we don’t always agree,” Nancy Frayer says. “It’s not easy when you’ve got two creative minds working at once. Sometimes I feel like he’s on one planet and I’m on the other.”

Lee Frayer nods his head in agreement.

The couple has a tradition of eating at Perkins after every Ditchfield Christmas show. It’s where they go to wind down and discuss the nuts and bolts of the production — what worked, what didn’t work, what they’ll do differently next year.

Some shows have as many as six different scene changes, and if there’s one thing the Frayers agree on, it’s that they never design a show the same way twice.

“We like to go for the wow factor,” Lee Frayer says. “There’s a lot of entertainment options in Sarasota, and our job is to make sure the Ditchfields are on the same level as any other group.”

The Ditchfield Family Singers will perform “Home for Christmas” at 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 10, at the Riverview High School Performing Arts Center. For tickets, call 923-2013 or visit


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