Carolers carry on a joyful tradition

By Mike Genet

The pandemic stifled what normally would be a hectic November and December for the Dickens Carolers. 

But a portion of the seasonal troupe of metro-area singers has still managed to provide some melodic and harmonic cheer, albeit at times in non-traditional ways.

In a pre-pandemic year, a quartet from the Dickens Carolers, from left, Brad Zimmerman, Dalene White, Christina Brewer and Perry White, sing for travelers at the Kansas City International Airport. While the group’s performances have been drastically reduced this year, some carolers have done a few virtual performances and in some outdoor venues this year.

“We have been singing, but almost everything has been virtual or outdoors,” said Brad Zimmerman, the group’s founder and manager. “We’re doing about 10 percent of what we’d normally do. Almost all times we’re masked.”

Normally, that would mean about 250 appearances in one season – sometimes multiple events at once, as they often sing in quartets or octets, drawing from a roster of more than 50. They’ll sing at company parties, during strolls through a store, outside a storefront on big shopping days and at tree lightings.

For the past few years, the Dickens Carolers’ schedule included a quartet greeting at some Mid-Continent Public Library events, such as Gerald Dickens’ one-man show of “A Christmas Carol,” by his great-great-grandfather. 

“One of the biggest elements of ours is retirement centers because there’s so many of them,” said Zimmerman, who runs the Chestnut Fine Arts Center in Olathe, Kansas, and founded the Dickens Carolers in 1984. “We do a lot of lighting ceremonies. Anyone that’s wanting to light the tree and have a bit of a splash of music, they call us.”

But this year’s performance was a virtual show Thursday on the library’s Facebook page. Zimmerman noted another event with a care facility in which the singers were live in a chapel and residents watched  through the facility’s in-house broadcasting feed. 

A small group even participated in filming for a Lifetime network movie “My Sweet Holiday,” singing at the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City in the middle of the summer for the movie that is slated to debut on Christmas.

Caroler Val Fagan, a veteran of theater in New York and now the metro area after returning home several years ago, said she feels grateful for any opportunity this year. 

“It’s really the only place where you can perform,” Fagan said of singing. “You’re outside; you’re safe.”

Mark Murphy, who has taught music at Cler-Mont Elementary in the Fort Osage District for 19 years, is not part of this year’s singing gigs but has sung the previous 10 years and plans to renew participation next year.

“It’s one of my favorite things to do during the holidays,” he said. “I also do community theater, and a lot of people who do Dickens Carolers are part of the community theaters, so it’s good to see the people. You never know where you’re going to be caroling, and you never sing with the same people each time. It’s like a new show.”

Zimmerman said the idea of the Dickens Carolers grew from being part of a group of friends Fagan had gathered to stroll and sing carols at Macy’s stores, at the company’s request. 

“They needed caroling down on the Plaza, and I was kind of the person who would put it together,” Fagan recalled. “The woman who hired us said I want you to be in Dickens costumes.”

“Brad took it, and grew it into this great business.”

Zimmerman said he enjoyed the first experience so much, the next year he started to send out letters to various companies and locations, offering to provide some musical cheer for a nominal fee. 

“Every year we would about double our business,” he said. Prior to the pandemic, the 250-performance schedule had been the norm for about 15 years.

Outside of a face mask this year, the usual garb is English Victorian Era costumes, which Zimmerman said he has plenty in supply from years of running the Chestnut theater. 

Their repertoire includes far more than the English Christmas tunes from Dickens’ time. They do the long-famous carols that originated elsewhere in Europe (“The First Noel” and “Silent Night,” for example) and the usual fun, secular tunes such as “Frosty,” “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland.” 

“We have about 55 songs that we do,” Zimmerman said. “We cover the gamut of tunes; we know them all.”

Most everyone knows them, too, and Fagan said it’s hard not to enjoy simply hearing the voices in passing.

“People love to see carolers,” she said. “It’s that kind of music that … it just lifts your spirits.”