SALT LAKE CITY — A fax machine delivered the bad news: Angela Lansbury had declined the Tabernacle Choir’s invitation to be a guest artist for the 2001 Christmas concert. 

But sending that fax was something Lansbury quickly regretted, according to Scott Barrick, the choir’s general manager.

“She called the choir office and said, ‘Tear up that fax! I’m coming,’” Barrick recalled with a laugh, adding that this wasn’t long after the tragic events of 9/11.

Lansbury had changed her mind, deciding that performing in the concert would be a good thing to do in a time of need, Barrick said.

So the longtime actress, well known for her work on “Murder, She Wrote” and “Beauty and the Beast,” took the stage of the 21,000-seat Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City, offering her large audience Christmas cheer and a message of hope. 

“To see her walk out in a beautiful gown under all of the sparkling Christmas tree lights … and sing, she to me was just absolutely magical,” choir president Ron Jarrett said. “I loved her.”

Star of stage and screen Angela Lansbury sings with the Tabernacle Choir Dec. 7, 2001, during a Christmas Concert at the Conference Center. | Deseret News archives

Lansbury’s performance marked the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s second Christmas concert in the Conference Center — the first was in 2000, with soul singer Gladys Knight and “Touched By An Angel” actress Roma Downey.

Now, the choir is getting ready for its 20th Christmas concert, performing alongside singer-actress Kelli O’Hara and actor Richard Thomas. In previous years, renowned artists like Renee Fleming, Natalie Cole and Kristin Chenoweth have graced the Conference Center stage. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough and prominent news anchors like Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite — who even got to conduct the choir — have been narrators for the annual program.

Over time, the Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas concert — the largest undertaking of the choir’s 75 performances each year — has become a sold-out holiday tradition, drawing 63,000 people to downtown Salt Lake City. PBS has aired the Christmas special since 2004, and for 14 of the past 15 years, the concert has been the network’s top-rated holiday broadcast.

Here’s a look at how the concert has evolved from being not only “the choir’s gift to the community” but also a nationally televised tradition.

Attracting national talent

When the bubbly Chenoweth arrived in Salt Lake City last year for her performance, she wanted to make one thing clear: Singing with the Tabernacle Choir was a really big deal for her. In fact, it was an item on her “bucket list.”

“It’s the music that draws me in every time, so for me it’s part of my DNA,” she said at a press conference last year. “I’m so honored to be here. ... This moment in life has been a long time coming.”

Chenoweth came back to Utah this year to promote her Christmas album with the Tabernacle Choir. During the visit, she said the Christmas concert was a top three career moment — the other two being her Carnegie Hall debut and a solo concert at the Metropolitan Opera. 

“Kristin Chenoweth is already begging to be invited back,” Barrick said with a laugh. “But I have to let a couple of years go by at least.” 

Actress Kristin Chenoweth jokes with conductor Mack Wilberg while singing with The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square during their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Knight first heard the choir thanks to her high school music teacher. Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Cronkite enjoyed the choir’s weekly broadcasts because his parents were “one of the few people to own a radio back then.” Fleming’s father, a high school chorus director, often played the choir’s music for his family.

“Everyone that has said ‘yes’ and come to perform with us — whether it’s a vocal artist or one of our narrators — if you’ve talked to them at any length, they usually say, ‘Well, I’ve always known the Tabernacle Choir to be on some type of recording that I was listening to or on some type of program,’” Jarrett said. 

The choir has maintained relationships with many of its guest artists. (Barrick said Ron Gunnell, the assistant president of the Tabernacle Choir, sends Lansbury flowers on her birthday.) Norwegian soprano Sissel is a repeat performer with the choir, as is Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfel, a friend of Fleming’s. It saddens Barrick that four of the choir’s guest artists over the years have died: Cronkite, Cole, and actors Edward Hermann and Peter Graves. 

It was Cronkite, after all, who inspired the choir to expand the reach of its Christmas program, Barrick said. Seventeen years ago, an 86-year-old Cronkite arrived in Salt Lake City and told then-choir director Craig Jessop, “Craig, you know that I host New Year’s Eve with the Vienna Philharmonic every year. Vienna owns New Year’s. You should own Christmas.” 

Getting on PBS

Cronkite lit a fire, and the Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas concert went to PBS for the first time in 2004, thanks to a working relationship with KUED — a PBS member station serving Salt Lake City. The network first aired the 2003 concert featuring opera singers Terfel and Frederica von Stade.

Ratings provided by PBS show the choir’s Christmas special to consistently outperform “Belmont at Christmas,” another long-running Christmas program PBS airs that has featured country artists such as Trisha Yearwood and Kathy Mattea. 

Former CBS Nightly News anchor Walter Cronkite speaks during a press conference at the Relief Society Building Friday, Dec. 13, 2002. | Jason Olson

The Christmas concert saw a significant spike in household ratings in 2015, when PBS aired the 2014 concert featuring Santino Fontana — the voice of Prince Hans from “Frozen” — and the Muppets from “Sesame Street.”

“Having the Muppets here was huge,” Barrick said. “Someone may argue with us whether or not we own Christmas, but we certainly do have a strong tradition of broadcasting.”

The choir partnered with KUED for a number of years to have its Christmas program aired on PBS. When that contract expired, Barrick said the choir chose to go with BYUtv — a surprising move since BYUtv dropped its PBS affiliation in 2018. While owning a PBS station wasn’t a priority for BYUtv, Barrick said, maintaining PBS relationships was important. So BYUtv reached out to WGBH in Boston — a station Barrick said has a “huge reputation in programming PBS content.” 

“We have coverage in every single one of the top 50 media markets in the country. Most of those markets, 94% of them will re-air it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day,” Barrick said, adding that the re-airings are in primetime. “Over 200 PBS stations in the country will air the broadcast.”

Santino Fontana and the Sesame Street Muppets perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City Friday, Dec. 12, 2014. | Deseret News archives

Last year’s concert featuring Chenoweth will air in a 60-minute special Dec. 16 on PBS. A 90-minute version will premiere on BYUtv Dec. 19, and the complete version can be found on DVD. Over the years, CDs, DVDs and books from the choir’s Christmas concerts have also helped expand the broadcast, as the choir has sold close to 1 million CDs, half a million DVDs and half a million books, Barrick said. He added that Christmas music as a whole represents nearly 40 million views on the choir’s YouTube channel. 

“Christmas is a big part of what the choir does,” he said.

A turning point

At the start, though, the choir’s Christmas concerts were produced on a significantly smaller scale — well before the 21,000-seat Conference Center opened in 2000.

In the Salt Lake Tabernacle, the Christmas concerts were initially for employees of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jarrett said. But when Jessop became the choir director in 1999 and the Conference Center opened the following year, the scope of the Christmas tradition changed. (Late Church President Gordon B. Hinckley was also adamant that the new Conference Center be used for large productions in the community.) 

And the choir got big artists right out of the gate. Within the first three years, Knight, Downey, Lansbury and Cronkite had all participated in the Christmas concert — although it took a couple of years to get to the point where concerts sold out.

The demand for tickets really increased in 2010, when David Archuleta was announced as a guest artist, Jarrett said. The combination of his success two years earlier on “American Idol” and being from Utah drew a lot of attention to the event.

David Archuleta performs with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the annual Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 17, 2010. | Brian Nicholson

“I think at that particular time, getting a concert ticket was such a premium that it became quite an event to try and get those tickets,” Jarrett said.

Since then, the choir’s annual Christmas concert has become an even more sought-after ticket — hundreds of thousands of ticket requests are received each year. Whether it’s little candy-filled parachutes floating down to the audience or Big Bird walking out on stage to wish everyone a Merry Christmas or the 4-foot-11 Chenoweth ringing a big bell, the choir’s Christmas concert has proved to be a one-of-a-kind special.

“There were just those moments, and people would say, ‘I want to be a part of that,’” Jarrett said.

“You have the collective experience of 20 years now. It’s amazing that this is the 20th year that we have done this program,” Barrick said. “All of the success that has accumulated has gotten people to the place where they just know that this is the highest level of live quality entertainment that they can get at Christmastime.”

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