We have been booked at a few events lately where the headlining act was Santa Claus. It's somewhat akin to being booked as the opening act for Lady Gaga or something. Sure–you're there–and you're playing; but nobody actually came to see you.
Our first Christmas gig of the year was the annual bacchanal at St. Joesph's Hospital in Nashua. We've done Christmas shows there in the past and they've always gone very well. This year, perhaps in response to how well they've gone in the past, the organizer decided to scale up.
In the past, Steve and I have been sequestered in a sort of community room in the basement of the hospital, somewhere between the morgue and the kitchen. To locate the room, you were required to take an elevator to the basement and follow a twisting, winding series of subterranean corridors for several miles. I suspect that the difficulty of finding the room was merely an effort to limit the number of thronging fans who normally swarm to our shows.
Despite the myriad obstacles thrown in their way, there was always a decent crowd. But the rabid fans never got out of control. The proximity of the morgue and the ever-present fetor of industrial strength cream of mushroom soup worked together to keep the crowd subdued and relatively under control.
Plus, we didn't have Santa to contend with.
This year, however, everything changed. They moved the event from a small room, buried deeply in the bowels of the hospital to the large, spacious lobby of the hospital. There were gifts, a giant Christmas tree, crafts, ballerinas, toys, games, candy, snacks, face painting, and us: two sweaty guys at the back of the lobby singing some Christmas tunes.
For a magical few hours, the hospital lobby was transformed from a quiet space populated by tear-streaked people, sadly contemplating whatever calamity had brought them to the hospital to a glorious winter wonderland of Christmas joy, populated by tear-streaked people, sadly contemplating whatever calamity had brought them to the hospital and a couple hundred howling, sugar-fueled kids.
When we arrived at the hospital, we were immediately confronted with the very real problem of where to set up our stuff. The clusters of tear streaked people all over the place limited our options. We were shipped off to the far end of the lobby, near the gift shop.
"Don't block that door," we were told, "It's a fire exit and needs to be kept clear. And don't stand too close to the gift shop door, because people will be going in and out. And keep this pathway clear. And don't run cords or cables where people can trip over them. We don't want anybody getting hurt."
I couldn't understand that. It was a hospital, after all. You'd think they'd be used to injured people.
Steve immediately went into deep thought mode where he carefully contemplated every possible variable of every possible arrangement of our equipment. I helped by strewing cables, cords and microphones in all directions saying, "Right here is fine. Seriously. Let's just set up."
We eventually settled on a spot directly in front of the gift shop, but not blocking the fire exits and not too close to the gift shop door. After setting up the equipment, Steve decided that we were, in fact, too close to the gift shop door and he was risking bodily harm by overly enthusiastic shoppers who might plow him over on their way into the gift shop.
So we relocated. We moved much of the sturdy lobby furniture, displaced a few weeping visitors, and set up our equipment in a spot 15 feet from where we had been. "I'm not sure I like this angle," Steve said, after we were all set up. He was testing the wind and mentally calculating all the acoustical challenges that that this new location would offer. "Let's try moving down that way about ten more feet."
So we relocated. Again. We moved the furniture again, displaced the same weeping visitors that we had displaced before, and set up our equipment in another spot. We were settling into our new location when the doors behind us–which were NOT the fire exit or the gift shop doors, I must add–swung open and an officious looking hospital staffer appeared. She gave us a bewildered look and said, "There's going to be a gurney coming through here."
Steve and I have played in many places and in many situations, some more challenging than others. We are seasoned veterans capable of handling nearly any situation with professionalism. Despite that, neither of us wished to be midway through a happy Christmas song, in front of a crowd of happy, dancing children, and have doors burst open directly behind us to admit a gurney, festively adorned with a badly injured accident victim, trailing IV bottles, spewing bodily fluids, and followed by a phalanx of tear-streaked people.
We picked up our equipment and, once again, moved it. This time, to exactly the same spot we had been in originally. "Yes," Steve said, "I really think that this is the best possible location."
After lugging all that equipment around, Steve and I were both disheveled and sweaty by the time we were scheduled to perform. Our sweat-soaked armpits and festive holiday aromas added immeasurably to the delightful atmosphere of holiday merriment.
Steve turned on the speakers and we were ready to start. He leaned over to me just before switching on his microphone. "I guess we should have figured out what we were going to play, huh?"
He laughed and strummed his guitar. His voice echoed through the hospital lobby. "Hey, everybody! Merry Christmas!"
"SANTAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA" screamed the hundreds of sugar-fueled children who had congregated in the lobby while we were lugging equipment.
They descended upon us in a tidal wave of writhing, candy cane-smeared bodies.
"I'm Steve Blunt and this is..."
"WHERE IS SANTA?!?" they screamed as one voice.
"My buddy Marty Kell..."
"WE WANT SANTA!!!!!"
After we explained that neither of us was, technically speaking, Santa, we still managed to retain quite a large crowd of kids. Steve has a dedicated and passionate fanbase. Not as dedicated and passionate as Santa's fanbase, but darned close.
We began playing and the response was overwhelming. Kids were twirling, dancing, running, jumping, diving, and spinning. During my college days, I attended many, many hardcore and heavy metal concerts with swirling, sweaty, angry mosh pits that were like visions from hell. Every single mosh pit in my vast experience paled in comparison to the fervent activity in the hospital lobby that afternoon.
Candy + Santa + Music = Mayhem On A Scale Never Seen Before In the History of Mankind
I thoroughly enjoyed myself and at a few points during the show, Steve had to physically restrain me from trying some stagediving into the crowd.
"They're small and weak," he said as I climbed onto my chair, preparing to dive, "You'll kill them."
"But there are so many of them," I answered, "I think this will work."
He talked me down and we continued playing.
Despite all the chaos and music and jingle bells, there were some people who didn't seem to understand that there was actually a show taking place. At one point, mid-song, as I was honking away on the harmonica, a lady walked up to me and held out one of my books, for sale on a nearby table. "Can I pay you for this now?" she asked, rooting through her purse.
She was quickly washed away by the swirling maelstrom of toddler bodies that was raging through the lobby.
A few minutes later, just as we finished really winding the kids up into a frothing frenzy, Steve announced that I was going to read a story to the kids.
Steve enjoys doing this to me, I believe.
Because toddlers who have been loaded up on candy and who have been dancing like howling dervishes are known to be especially receptive to sitting quietly while some guy reads a book to them.
Amazingly, they did sit, much to Steve's disappointment, I'm sure. It was possibly from sheer exhaustion, but I was not in a position to question motives, only results. I was about half way through the book when a kid rose from the crowd and began clambering his way through the kids seated on the floor, waving one of my books over his head. His voice rang out loud and clear.
"Excuse me? Excuse me? I have your book. I brought it from home. Will you sign this for me?"
I quietly explained that it wasn't actually the best time for me to sign a book, as there were 150 twitching, barely seated toddlers staring at me.
He turned, hung his head and was quickly subsumed by the quagmire of kids carpeting the floor.
We played a few more songs and finished our set just as the doors at the side of our stage area swung open and a gurney came wheeling out. I'm not sure who was more surprised at that point: the audience of sweaty, dancing children crowded into the lobby or the unfortunate, inadequately covered old lady strapped to the gurney and moaning discordantly.
"Merry Christmas!" Steve sang into the microphone, as the kids screamed and ran away, "And to all a good night."
Coming Next: Christmas Concert #2