Christmas in the Park has a special place in our hearts
It’s 25 years old, making it something of an icon, but one of Christmas in the Park’s most prominent faces is questioning how much longer it will last.
Frankie Stevens remembers being known as ‘‘the Godfather of Christmas in the Park’’. He wasn’t particularly fond of the title and it wasn’t something he sought to achieve. Still, five years after completing his 19-year stint with New Zealand’s biggest Christmas show, Stevens says he believes in the spirit of Christmas in the Park.
But he’s worried it might be coming to its end. ‘‘From year to year, they’re never quite sure whether it’s going to happen next year,’’ he says.
‘‘You don’t want to be found ‘back in the day’, or in memories. It would be sad if it was gone, kids love it – and that’s what Christmas is about.’’
The reality for Christmas in the Park is that it is reliant on Coca-Cola’s funding.
That funding is understood to be reviewed each year, and confirmed around February.
Stevens and Jackie Clarke, two long-serving Christmas in the Park entertainers, left the show when it turned 20. Year after year, Stevens says the organisers would invite them back. Between the pop singers and TV personalities of the moment, Christmas in the Park was made up of a tight-knit ‘‘family’’ of entertainers and backstage staff.
It was people like Stevens, Clarke and Jason Gunn who New Zealanders watched each year, alongside almost every local celebrity and musician who would perform with kids’ dance crews and budding musicians.
In 2013, Stevens saw a changing of the guard. ‘‘It was just time to go,’’ he says.
‘‘I think it’s changed a little. Back in the day I think it was all about Christmas,’’ he says.
‘‘It’s aligned itself more with the Coca-Cola brand, today, as opposed to the brand of Christmas. It’s more poppy now.’’
The vibe of Christmas in the Park definitely has changed. It was born out of Opera In The Park, a relatively short-lived free concert started 27 years ago.
At the first Christmas show, in 1994, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra played with Dave Dobbyn. It was the coming together of popular and fine culture.
Alison Mau was there that first night, alongside Simon Barnett. Although the concerts have taken a sharp turn to focus on pop acts, she says some things haven’t changed.
About 240,000 people attended that first event. When Father Christmas arrived, Mau remembers the waves of excitement travelling through the Auckland Domain.
‘‘I wasn’t expecting something that big at all,’’ she says. ‘‘Back then, it was new, it was a big deal that year – the biggest live event Auckland had ever seen.’’
The Christmas show remains one of Auckland’s biggest events. It draws at least 100,000 people each year. Some reports say it still attracts about 250,000 people, but given it’s an open-air, free event, it’s hard to get exact attendance numbers.
Television viewing numbers are clearer. The show peaked in the 1990s, when it achieved a massive 55 per cent market
share of viewers aged 25-54.
Last year, that share was a reasonable but significantly smaller 9.2 per cent. These days, if a show has double-digit market share it’s doing well – the mostwatched documentary of the year, Stan, had 32.5 per cent of viewers tuning in.
Its smaller viewer numbers could be down to a proliferation in television options, and what Mau calls its move from being new and exciting to ‘‘a tradition’’.
‘‘I am a bit shocked it is still going,’’ she admits. ‘‘It’s a tradition, now. A regular yearly gig for people in the performing arts.’’
The survival is something of a miracle, most admit. Even event producer John Searle, who has been with the show since it started, is surprised.
When it launched, its founder, Alan Smythe, declared ‘‘the Christmas concert will be back’’. But Searle didn’t expect to be working on it 25 years later. ‘‘You wouldn’t have thought it would end up like this,’’ he says.
Now, about 1000 people are involved in the concert each year – 200 performers, as well as security, volunteers and stage crew.
Searle is standing with the crew when we talk, awaiting containers which have made it through landslips and rough seas from Christchurch.
The 17 containers are in Auckland, but the rain is delaying stage set-up.
The long-serving producer is optimistic about the weather for tomorrow’s show at the Auckland Domain, but he’s also asking himself, ‘‘Why am I doing this?’’
He’s looking forward to hosting some well-known talents – this year’s headliner is Stan Walker – and also younger, lesser-known dancers and musicians. ‘‘This show has always been a platform for emerging talent,’’ he says.
As a teenager, chart-topping vocalist Hayley Westenra made her screen debut at Christmas in the Park and Searle is passionate about keeping this festival, a talent incubator of sorts, alive.
Although the artists may change, the show is still about Christmas, raising money for the charity Youthline, and bringing together fresh and old talent.
‘‘For better or worse, that appeals to me,’’ Searle says.
As long as people keep showing up, he hopes those three ‘‘core principles’’ of Christmas in the Park – charity, community, and quality talent – will be enough to keep it going.
I think it’s changed a little. Back in the day I think it was all about Christmas. It’s more poppy now. Frankie Stevens, left
The annual Christmas in the Park is a platform for emerging talent.