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Arts & Culture
Thu December 5, 2013
Muskegon is home to America's tallest, singing Christmas tree
A major holiday performance happens this weekend in West Michigan. Students, teachers and parents at Mona Shores High School have spent thousands of hours preparing for the event, where they create a living breathing, and singing Christmas Tree — that’s five-stories tall, and holds more than 200 student singers.
It’s getting lots of national attention. In 2011, TLC featured the tree on its aptly-titled holiday show, “Extreme Christmas Trees.” This year, it’ll be highlighted on the Travel Channel.
The show is now in its 29th year.
Almost 300 hundred students from Mona Shores High School have been practicing for this show — held at Muskegon’s Frauenthal Center for Performing Arts — since Labor Day.
For an hour every day, they run through songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” 25,000 Christmas lights brighten up on beat with each number.
According to Shawn Lawton, the Mona Shores Choir director, it’s not just working around five-story tree that makes the production ambitious. Even the music the choir performs is challenging.
“What we’re doing here is difficult,” Lawton says. “It’s college level literature, almost all of it.”
But, Lawton says, “When they get in that tree, there’s magic that take place that’s undeniable.”
The event kicks off the holiday season in the Muskegon area every year. And it’s a pretty big deal.
It all begins with the tree. It's a 67-foot steel structure that looks like a Christmas tree.
So, imagine this five-story structure is on stage. It has 15 tiers that the kids stand on. It's decorated just like grandma’s Christmas tree: twinkling lights, garlands, bows, and big shiny angels.
The scale of this production is massive. There are hundreds of volunteers, parents mostly, who do pretty much everything, from building the 67 foot tree, to chaperoning, to handing out props and to dressing the kids.
Theresa Vredeveld is the Volunteer Coordinator. She directs the mayhem backstage. Each job has a committee and a chairperson.
“I have a Candle Chair that takes care of the candles for the opening number,” Vredeveld said. “There is a Tree Monkey Chair who takes care of the people that climb into the tree and makes sure that the kids are safe. And help kids who faint out of the tree if they need help.”
Wait, kids faint? Yes, Vredeveld says. It’s hot under the stage lights, especially when you’re surrounded by 25,000 Christmas lights, 67 feet off the ground. Combine the heat and the height and —
“Sometimes the kids get a little woozy,” Vredeveld said. “Then we have them sit down so that they can get some water.”
But, Lawton says kids jump at the opportunity to get involved with the production.
“Seems like just about every student prefers to go as high up in the tree as possible — everybody wants to be up on the top,” Lawton said. “Over the years, I’ve developed a system where the seniors get to go the highest, followed by the juniors, the sophomores, and then the freshmen boys, while the freshmen girls end up being off to the side of the tree.”
Of course, not everyone wants to be up that high. Some kids are afraid of heights. Lawton’s daughter Meghan is now a sophomore and she was pretty nervous about moving up into the tree this year.
“As I was climbing up there, my heart was racing,” Meghan said. “I was really nervous because I wasn’t sure how it was going to be standing up there. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to sit down because I was too scared, but when I finally got up there I was with my friends and I looking around and found out it was pretty cool up there."
Katie Beemer, a senior at Mona Shores, got picked to stand at the tippy-top of the tree for her fourth and last year performing in the show.
“At first I thought it was going to be very scary, but it’s actually really, really fun to be up there,” Beemer said.
Lucas Cooper will get the chance to move up the tree next year. Cooper is a junior at Mona Shores High School.
“Being here is awesome,” Cooper said. “I want to do this for the rest of my life, but I can’t.”
Cooper won’t be able to sing in the tree after next year. But he can join the many Mona Shores alumni who come back to see the show year after year.
The Mona Shores Singing Christmas Tree will perform four shows this weekend at the The Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts in Muskegon. And for those who won’t be able to catch the show in person, it will be featured on the Travel Channel’s “Jingle Brawls,” this Sunday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m.