Recent Comments

    Camels and Lasers and Loin Cloths, Oh My!

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    In my now semi-retired state, the holidays are so much different than the last 70 years. I was on stage non-stop for holiday shows, productions, concerts, or church services. For the first time, I’m getting to go hear others do the holidays from a comfortable seat in the audience!

    We know we are destined to repeat the sins of the past. My childhood holiday memories are all about being busy. My mother was a professional singer and would run from singing the solos in a Messiah one night to donning the costume of a poor Biblical era woman for the opera Amahl, and the Night Visitors. My brother and I had church youth choir and I was in orchestra. That is why I have always squeezed in way too much each holiday. I didn’t know any better.

    There was one big difference from my first 35 years to the next 35 years: Jesus, “the reason for the season.” Even the Radio City Christmas Spectacular team can’t help themselves. The Rockettes rush breathlessly to the dressing rooms to throw on Biblical era robes over their costumes and voila: shepherds! Apparently, the shepherds in Bethlehem were all petite and wore heavy makeup and stylish dance shoes instead of sandals. Regardless, the incognito santas, elves, and toy soldiers all join in worshipping the newborn king.

    Putting on a show like that at Radio City is the dream of any musical impresario. They are lying if they say it’s not. I never got to do anything on that scale, but I was certainly a part of some whopper productions in the two churches I “served.” I first worked at the 2nd Baptist Church of Houston, “Fellowship of Excitement.” It was a mega church. They claimed to have the world’s largest living Christmas tree. Some 200 singers would climb up into the 40+ foot tree and sing. It did look like Muppet heads. It wasn’t enough, however, to deliver the gospel with the gusto needed. They added a huge Living Bible next to the tree. Characters from the Bible would literally walk out of the pages and tell their stories, encouraging the attendees to repent and turn from their wicked ways. Merry Christmas.

    Then, I moved over to a bigger church, the 1st Baptist Church of Houston. Their pageant was legendary. They did 12 performances with approximately 30,000 attendees. The choir had 300 members, full orchestra, huge bell choirs, fabulous décor, and multiple costume changes—for everyone! My wife and kids were stars of the shows, too.

    Much like Radio City, we made a magically smooth transition from Santa, “the other reason for the season,” to Jesus. The manger processional was out of this world. They set up a little farm area in one of the parking lots for the live donkeys, camels, and sheep. Church members found their ministry was picking up camel poop! Bless their hearts. The shepherds shepherded the sheep. Mary rode the ass. The camels joined the outrageously costumed kings and entourages. Each group was festooned in ruby, amethyst, or emerald color palettes. There were ample robes, headdresses, gift bearers, jewels, and even ostrich feathers. It was much gayer than anything I ever did with the gays!

    Once everyone got to the manger, the ruby king scared the Bejesus out of a live baby by lifting him or her up like Kunta Kinte. The baby was lily white and about 3 months old. Never mind that the wise men probably didn’t arrive until Jesus was a toddler and he most definitely was not white.

    We then segued into one other Bible story. My big solo piece was “Rejoice, Rejoice, my son is coming home again.” I played the Prodigal Son returning to the fold after a life of debauchery. I’m pretty sure folks who remember still hope that I’ll put on a robe and sandals and head back for the fatted calf they have waiting for my return. That’s another whole article.

    Suddenly, behind the scrim were 3 men hanging on crosses. In loin cloths. Small loin cloths. Merry Christmas. It was before the days of spray tans, so an entire station was set up to smear them, head-to-toe with Egyptian body makeup. I wanted to volunteer for that job. The man who played Jesus was one of my good friends. In a “you can’t make this up,” he dated my ex-wife after the divorce. My kids and I had some fun with their mom dating Jesus, whom we had all seen in his a tighty whitey loin cloth.

    Then came the big climax. The incredible internationally renowned set designer Peter Wolf built a plexiglass diving board-like structure coming out of the baptismal pool above the choir loft. When it came time for Jesus to resurrect, there were smoke and lasers. Yes, lasers. So, when Jesus walked out on the clear diving board, it appeared as if he was floating in air.

    Both churches spent incredible amounts of money to create these extravaganzas. One such set of shows far exceeded the annual budget of most gay choruses. But it was always rationalized as bringing people to church who might join or needed to be saved. The hundreds of thousands of dollars spent were worth it “if just one person” responded in either of the options.

    When I started conducting a gay men’s chorus in 1987, I found a mentor in Dennis Coleman, the Artistic Director of the iconic Seattle Men’s Chorus. He, too, had been a Baptist minister of music before coming out. His advice to me was to make the holiday concert the “not to be missed” event for the community. He basically gave me permission to be big and outrageous. The agenda was to gather our larger family together at the holidays. We wanted to get everyone in a room to feel the warmth and acceptance and celebration of who we are.

    Queer choruses are incredibly lucky that people love what we do—especially at the holidays. They are experiencing huge crowds and sold-out shows. In San Francisco, the chorus welcomes around 10,000 people to its holiday festivities—over 4,000 at the three shows on Christmas Eve at the iconic Castro Theater. That number represents 10k friends, family, fans, allies, and lots of first timers—many of whom walked in not having a clue what they would see. They wouldn’t leave strangers after the huge musical holiday hug they got from the singers on stage.

    As I said at the beginning, I am seeing holidays from a new perspective. It’s the perspective you all experience every season. I’m getting to see five queer chorus concerts this season and am having so much fun. I now know why you all show up! I am eternally grateful that you do. Wherever you are, support your local LGBTQ+ choruses. They need and deserve your support—and not just at the holidays.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    TLC: Tears, Laughs, and Conversation
    Published on December 15, 2022