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Singing like the Dickens, pro carolers bring cheer
wherever they may roam
By Gianni Truzzi
Special to the Post-Intelligencer
December 18, 2003
In the elegant holiday setting of the Hunt Club lounge
at Seattle's Sorrento Hotel, a darkly clad pack trolls for targets.
In top hat
and bonnet, bustle, mourning coat and cravat, the quartet stops at
to dispense their gift, a precisely harmonized and modulated rendition
of "Silent Night." Conversation continues elsewhere; the
singers croon for the two ladies alone. The serenaded women lean
over their china teapot, their rapt attention drifting with the swell
the bass voice.
As assignments go for the Dickens Carolers, a 25-year-old
business in which Victorian-costumed singers are dispatched to create
cheer, this regular engagement to entertain the hotel patrons is tame.
They will sing where asked, and although that usually means entertaining
guests at malls, corporate events, office or home parties, there are
Bobby Lowe, above left, of Bellevue enjoys the entertainment
of the Dickens Carolers at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle. This group
consists of, from left, Tom Cooper, Ali Matack, Ann Snow and Cam Matack
(brother of Ali). Scott Eklund / P-I
One quartet will be driven on a tour of the city's
dental offices, a holiday gift from an oral surgeon to his colleagues
referrals. Another will sing to visitors in the elevators of downtown
office towers. Dickens Carolers also look forward to singing at the
holiday gathering of mystic J.Z. Knight, known for channeling the
ancient spirit Ramtha ("One of our best audiences," the
firm's owner gushed.)
Even a seemingly straightforward booking can have its twists, as
one group discovered on arrival at a private party. They were asked
sing outside, after the affair had begun, and found themselves serenading
no one except themselves -- which they did with professional verve. "I
guess the neighbors enjoyed it," said soprano Julia Swindle.
Christmas and its attendant cheer doesn't just happen on its own; it's
created by determination, tradition and work. The Dickens Carolers
are one of the many kinds of paid bearers of holiday spirit we have
come to rely on to help get us in the mood.
The company's co-owner, Nathan Rodda, also has spent nine years as
a caroler, an activity he refuses to give up. He enjoys performing
and loves the response he gets from people. He not only gets to create
a pleasant fantasy for his clients, he gets to inhabit it as well. "It's
like living in a musical," he said.
Eric Grimes of Federal Way, Kimberly McNeil of Bothell, center, and
Elizabeth Hott of Seattle delight customers at a Washington Federal
Savings branch. Meryl Schenker / P-I
Unofficially, carolers like Rodda and his employees
are also witnesses to the season, observers of the varied ways we
celebrate, and of how
vital this holiday can be.
"Some people are really into their Christmas parties," he
marveled, recalling private occasions where his quartet was only
one of many
simultaneous entertainments, including a Santa Claus and a pianist.
An especially extravagant corporate party he once attended as a caroler,
held in the upper floors of an Eastside office tower, even included
pony rides led around the workplace cubicles.
Most events, however,
are far simpler and sometimes poignant. A gift-giver may book a quartet
just to sing to his or her family. On those occasions,
Rodda said, "we measure our success by how many people we make
Retirement homes and hospitals are another frequent
venue for carolers, and they can present their own challenges. Swindle
at a hospice facility for patients with end-stage respiratory disorders. "They
were all on ventilators, and they couldn't speak," she said. "You
knew this would be their last Christmas." It felt solemn, not
joyous, she remembered, but their audience responded with tears or
a gesture as simple as taking the hand of a visiting loved one.
For the company, the holiday season begins in August, with auditions
to build its quartets. This season, Dickens Carolers consists of 11
groups, but the total number will vary depending on what talent is
available (tenors are the scarce commodity).
Although the working season
is short, rehearsals begin right after Labor Day, and continue every
Sunday night until Thanksgiving, in order
to memorize more than 140 pages of music, and be prepared to sing "The
Dreidel Song" as readily as "Away in a Manger" or "Jingle
Bell Rock." In truly embracing spirit, they even learn "O
It takes more than the ability to read notes and sing
to become a Dickens Caroler. Rodda, co-owner Jason Meredith and the
company's two music
directors also look for love of the music, for pride in creating ensemble
harmonies. Personality counts too, and not just as a cheerful performer
-- carolers have to spend a lot of time together in cars.
of the carolers spans a wide range. Of the quartet that performs at
the Sorrento, baritone Mike Leach is a flooring contractor,
soprano Krystal Kaald is a massage therapist, and alto Elizabeth Hott
is a law firm secretary. Only tenor William Bone works in entertainment,
but he drives in from Tacoma. Rodda said his roster also includes a
retired dentist and a Boeing engineer with a Ph.D. in physics.
Although the singers get paid by the hour, that's rarely their motivation.
In fact, when Swindle first auditioned three years ago, she thought
it was a volunteer position. Rodda confirmed that is not uncommon;
the first time pay is mentioned, some applicants are surprised. "I
don't know anyone who's really doing it for the money," he said.
That enthusiasm for music of the season is what caused
what had been a sideline business for a singing telegram company to
spin into its
own entity, as the singers themselves built it into something larger
than the original owner envisioned. For most of its life since 1978,
the business' succession of owners has been from the ranks of its carolers.
The average tenure for singers is over three years, which Rodda attributes
to satisfying experiences.
During one of her quartet's many performances
in retirement homes, Swindle noticed a wheelchair-bound woman, slumped
to the side, seemingly
unaware of her surroundings or the oxygen tanks she carried alongside.
When the quartet sang "O Holy Night," however, her head lifted
to attention, drooping back to her shoulder only after the song concluded. "It
seemed like we had touched some kind of nerve that reminded her of
Christmas," Swindle said.
In a way, that's what these evangelists
of good cheer do for all their audiences. They ignite sparks of memory
through these all-too familiar
songs. Yet it becomes clear that the listeners are not the ones most
convinced. By the end of a performance, the people most moved, it
turns out, are the ones doing the singing.
Gianni Truzzi is a free-lance writer who covers film, theater and
the arts. He may be e-mailed at email@example.com.