It may not have quite the star power of "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve," but the annual Los Angeles County Holiday Celebration is an even older tradition. Friday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in fact, Henry Winkler and Elayne Boosler will be hosting its 45th edition -- a free six-hour party featuring more than a thousand singers and dancers from about 40 local performing groups. And they'll all be in good hands.
Which way will the wind machines blow? Should the Donald Brinegar Singers walk through the aisles with flaming candles? Will Hollywood Klezmer yield the stage to the Westridge Glee Club in a timely and efficient fashion?
Or, as one attendee asked at a planning meeting last week: "Who, exactly, does the snow fall on? The Mariachis or the Gay Men's Chorus?"
These matters and many more will be handled by Chris Christel, the longtime Music Center production director, who facilitates shows at the center's four venues but gets his starring role at the holiday pageant. This year's will be his 15th.
Christel is a creature of headsets and checklists whose job as stage manager is to make sure that no detail goes unchecked and that hundreds of people, including some who've never been to the hall before, get in and out -- and onstage -- properly.
Somehow, he does it without breaking a sweat.
"I find Chris to be extremely gentle," says Gary Smith, executive producer of past Tony and Emmy awards broadcasts, who this year will direct the live broadcast of the production on KCET.
"I've not heard him raise his voice. There are a lot of people who use their experience to batter you -- they think they have the authority to come on very strong. I find Chris, though he has all this experience, to be very much the gentleman."
In person, Christel is low-key, balding, nearly professorial -- he seems to lack edge almost entirely. "I really enjoy the challenge of putting a show on," says the Wisconsin native, who acknowledges, when pushed, that he both dreads and looks forward eagerly to the big holiday production each year. "I've always been interested in the nuts and bolts.
"If it all goes well, it's a smooth, mechanical process. The six hours go quickly." Of course, there are tense moments, as when a group is about to come offstage with no replacement in the wings. Or a curtain doesn't open, or the wrong music is played as a dance troupe takes the stage -- things that have happened in the past. "That's a panic situation," he says. "The goal is to never have one -- I try to keep as cool as I can."
Christel's workday Friday will begin much earlier than the show's 3 p.m. start time: By 5:30 in the morning, he'll be putting signs in the elevators so performers will know where to go, making sure the place is ready for the fire marshal and checking with guards to see that the right rooms are unlocked. Then, if the past is any indication, events will continue accelerating until show time.
As arduous as the job is -- Christel has worked as late as 4:30 the next morning, overseeing the trucks that load out equipment -- it's just a day's work for a guy who spent a decade touring with rock bands.
A long and unusual path brought Christel to his position at the Music Center -- one that he calls perfect training for putting on events like the holiday celebration.
"You know how you have experiences in life that stick with you forever?" he asks. "I remember, oh gosh, I was in high school, being at an outdoor concert where there were problems with the sound system" -- problems eventually solved by the sound man.
"I had no idea who that guy was, but he was obviously a pivotal person in the production. I was impressed with that. I aspired to be someone who was behind the scenes but nevertheless someone the entertainers knew was critical to putting their show on."
While Christel pursued an engineer's education and career -- designing kilns for a cement manufacturer, working in a bottling plant for one of Milwaukee's many breweries -- he also played in rock cover bands that performed in local bars. When his group the Louisville Sluggers broke up in the mid-1970s, he held on to the sound equipment, and he began to rent it out for local shows, soon starting a small company.
"We provided a sound system at clubs for bands that were on their way up -- and on their way down." He had a few brushes with greatness: His system was used for the first American tour of a new band called the Police.
Before long, Christel hooked some bigger fish. "I kind of fell into, for better or worse, heavy metal bands," he says. "Big sounds, big lights, lots of touring. I lived in tour buses for a long time." He served as Quiet Riot's production manager, toured as sound engineer with Southern rockers Blackfoot and handled merchandise for Van Halen.