Meet Neal Wilkinson, singer. For eight years now, with help from friends, Hales and Wilkinson have combined stories and songs to create “A Christmas Tradition” in Salisbury that’s becoming just that:
A tradition. At 7 p.m. Dec. 10 and 11 at The Norvell, narrator Hales, vocalists Wilkinson and Leslie Dunkin and pianist Susan Trivette will provide the stories and music of Christmas.
The free performance is their gift to the community — in exchange for gifts.
There is no admission charge, but those attending are being asked to bring at least one canned food item for Rowan Helping Ministries. In the past, the event has raised hundreds of pounds of food for the community ministry.
“Not bad for two country boys coming to the city,” Wilkinson says.
Hales, a retired speech and communications professor at Catawba College, is known far and wide for his deep, articulate and beautiful speaking voice. Countless times, he has served as public address announcer, storyteller or master of ceremonies — from college athletic contests to public school classrooms and spelling bees.
Likewise, Wilkinson has relied on his tenor singing voice to take him places across the county and country. He has sung the national anthem in several different major league baseball parks, at college basketball games and NASCAR events.
In 2005, the longtime friends decided to combine their talents for the first time in a Christmas performance at Catawba College’s Keppel Auditorium. The weather for the one-night event didn’t cooperate, though about 100 people still managed to brave snow and ice to attend.
For the next six years, Hales and Wilkinson moved their show to a smaller venue, the Meroney Theater, and eventually offered “A Christmas Tradition” over two nights instead of one.
“What always intrigued me,” Wilkinson says, “was it seemed natural to blend music with his stories. It just seemed to be a natural fit.”
Singers who have joined Hales and Wilkinson over the years have included Dr. Julie Chamberlain, Dunkin and teenager McClain Miles.
Miles’ family has moved to Alabama, so she won’t be part of the group in 2012. Chamberlain was part of the show in the early years.
Now Wilkinson and Dunkin join each other in duets, along with their solo spots.
For many years, Zebbie Bondurant played the piano. Trivette took over that job last year.
The show lasts about 90 minutes. This year’s version at The Norvell, located at 135 E. Fisher St., combines 11 songs with 10 or 11 stories.
“We blend the secular and the religious,” Hales says.
But he stresses that it’s a Christmas show, and the most important thing for all the performers is celebrating the birth of Christ.
“It becomes Christmas to us when we do this,” Hales says. “This is what makes Christmas come alive for me.”
Wilkinson says everybody gets so caught up in the marketing and secular side of Christmas — and the plain “activity” behind it — that they hope their show provides a chance to pull back, have a good time, yet stay reflective.
Hales, who draws from a filing cabinet full of stories, says most of the ones he chooses are designed to pull on the heart strings.
Every year brings new stories and music, though Wilkinson says “O, Holy Night’ is always included as a song.
Wilkinson’s normal singing approach is no-nonsense, true to the music. But the secular music included in the show allows him to have some fun.
“It gives me an opportunity to do some things I don’t normally do,” Wilkinson says.
In the past, for example, Wilkinson has worn antlers, dressed up as Elvis for “Blue Christmas” and donned a blinking red nose.
One year Wilkinson had an adventure with some printed placards as he sang “Nuttin’ for Christmas,” especially when he realized the cards were out of order to the song he was singing.
Because of the crowd reaction, he incorporated the mistakes into the act the next night.
“It is live theater,” Wilkinson says. “Anything can happen.”
The performers meet, of course, for rehearsals, but Hales says his introductions to songs often vary, depending on what he senses from the crowd and the moment.
“We go with the flow — whatever happens, happens,” he says.
People routinely approach Hales and Wilkinson to tell them how much they look forward to their Christmas program, and they always see familiar faces in the audiences from in town and out of town each year.
Hales, Wilkinson and their friends surely have built another Christmas tradition.
“The true memory of Christmas drives us,” Wilkinson says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.