NORTH TONAWANDA – As December begins with a swell of Christmas shows, one producer calls music the holiday tradition with the contemporary power to bring people together.
“If you think about it, Christmas is the only time of year when the entire country comes together and listens to the same type of music,” said Gary Latshaw, 54, a Greensburg, Pa.-based producer who has brought a holiday performance to the Riviera Theatre for about four years.
This year, his 20-piece Latshaw Pops Orchestra – with its 30-member assortment of singers, dancers and musicians – performs a two-hour show at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
“We try to cater to a retired audience,” he said. “Hence the 2 o’clock show.”
A producer and promoter since 1982, Latshaw focuses on performances that appeal to older people with an affection for orchestra music. After the Christmas show tour, the pops orchestra will reconvene next year to put on a Viva Las Vegas show and a “Salute to American Bandstand.”
Famous performers in his 2013 lineup include Vicki Lawrence, the comedian who became famous on the Carol Burnett Show. She will highlight her satirical “Mama” character for a matinee and evening performance at the Riviera on May 14.
Latshaw’s career started when he helped a hotel-owning friend book shows to attract more guests. He has had many encounters with famous performers, including Englebert Humperdinck and Lawrence Welk.
His experiences include finding a way to clean a tuxedo in an hour and led him to this philosophy: “What I have noticed is the people with the most talent are the most friendly, because they’re secure with themselves,” he said. “The exceptions usually come about when I sense that the people aren’t as secure in their own talents and abilities to perform. Then they tend to be pretentious.”
Why is an old-fashioned holiday show like yours still relevant?
In a day and age when so much of music is overly processed, this is returning to more of the acoustic sound of an orchestra. That makes it sound a little more like a motion picture soundtrack. I find that real music played by real musicians is what is used by the biggest motion pictures that stand the test of time, if you will. Artificially, pre-recorded music may be better for dancing but not as good for a Christmas show.
So a show like this is a good excuse to get out of the house and feel connected to the rest of the world?
When I was a kid, everyone watched the same television shows. … Look how fractured it all is. People have hundreds of choices, not three choices. There’s an awful lot to keep people in their homes. There’s certainly enough TV channels.
With Christmas songs played by professional musicians, everyone would be pretty much able to enjoy the same songs in pretty much the same way. A concert event like this matters because it’s a chance for people to come together as a community and enjoy and celebrate the familiar music. Music has a way, as all art forms do, of really touching a person’s soul.
Why do you focus on the older-than- 45 crowd?
They’re into the music from their life. Music touches the soul, usually when people are young. They have a very real attachment to the music of their high school and college years. That attachment to that music stays with them. Our music is sort of bringing back music from their time.
They think of the Beatles, they think of four musicians on stage. … Music all throughout the ’60s – most of the popular songs from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s – there’s an awful lot of orchestration on them. That’s kind of what our orchestra does well.
Can you tell me another story that stands out?
In one year’s show, we did sort of a jazz version of the Nutcracker. We were doing it in a popular old nightclub that was in Pittsburgh. The stage lights were very low. In this version of the Nutcracker, the wooden soldier was stationary. For the first two numbers, he remained perfectly still. The high intensity lighting above his head was heating the hat to the point where it was catching on fire.
The Raggedy Ann doll came to [the] rescue. He didn’t realize he was on fire. She was able to improvise her role. She came to life and was able to escort him to another area so it didn’t seem out of place.
What about a time when things went terribly wrong?
I did have a situation that did occur … at the Palace Theatre at Greensburg, where my offices are located. I had a completely sold-out performance. The performers were Tammy Wynette and Chet Atkins. And Boots Randolph. He’s famous for playing “Yakety Sax.” The main headliner was Tammy Wynette, and it was towards the end of her career. The show was scheduled for 8 o’clock. We had a big storm move through the area. Literally at 8:15, the lights went out. We had a power outage.
So I’m gong to say the year was the early 1990s. She did die shortly after that. The people had really paid their money, and they had come to see Tammy Wynette, 1,500 people. They’re all sitting in the dark for me.
The financial ramifications, if you think it through, could be really horrible. I will say I said my prayers that night.
Boots Randolph played saxophone in the dark. He told stories and did whatever he could. He kept the people entertained. The lights were out for over an hour. No one complained. For me, that’s one of the dangers of being a promoter. Imagine if I had to refund everybody. On top of that, some of these artists would expect to be paid.
I owe the late Boots Randolph. He didn’t have to do that for me. He was from the old school. The show had to go on, and he realized he had the skill set and the instrument. He was a professional entertainer as well as a musician. So he knew what to do.
I was panicked. The entire time he was on, I was still hoping those lights would come on more quickly. In our show, he was maybe going to do 20 minutes. But he stayed on for an hour and half. You could imagine, a solo saxophone could get boring, but it didn’t because of his abilities.
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