Christ­mas in the Park has a spe­cial place in our hearts

Taranaki Daily News - - Entertainment - Glenn McCon­nell

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.

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