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SEASONAL PAGEANTRY
WITH PREPARATIONS ALMOST FINISHED, IT'S ABOUT TIME TO VISIT THE HOLIDAY'S RELIGIOUS PRODUCTIONS

It's Timmy the donkey who remains the most memorable.

Of all the characters who populate the Bethlehem Village at St. Paul's Catholic Church in Kenmore each December, Timmy reigns.

Four years ago -- the first time the parish turned its gymnasium into Bethlehem -- Timmy rebelled. "He looked at the stairs and just sat down," said Jeanne Wantz, one of the church's religious education coordinators. "So we put three men on each side and just coaxed him along."

Dealing with a stubborn donkey is just one of the elements of putting together the living mangers, pageants and other productions that churches undertake each Christmas season.

Employing lots of volunteer help, these church members sew costumes, build scenery, spend hours rehearsing, gather props, sell tickets and tend to publicity. They even salvage sets from other theaters such as the Chapel does from Studio Arena Theater.

Then, there's the issue of booking the camel -- who becomes a much-sought-after figure at this time of year for the living manger scenes.

"We always work our schedule around the camel because another church uses the same one," said Debbie Beers of Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church, which creates an elaborate drive-through manger scene. New there this year is an audio track that can be heard on the car radio as drivers go past each scene.

One of the most important parts of the preparation is the search for a Holy Family with a newborn.

"I start looking around for pregnant women in September," said Wantz. "I tell them I'm looking for Jesus."

Those who put such productions together are mostly church members, along with some paid staff, who put a good deal of their energy and time into these annual events.

At St. Paul's, at least 100 people, including members of other local churches, participate in creating the Bethlehem village. Someone portrays the rabbi, who preaches as visitors walk past; others play merchants, who are making deals and there's always a servant girl who inquires of all she meets "Have you seen him?"

"We try to make have the sounds and smells to make it seem authentic," said Wantz, describing how visitors meet in church to listen to carols. Then they are escorted to the village by guards and asked to sign a census as they arrive.

"We take them past the inn and down a countryside pathway to the live Nativity," said Wantz. "It makes for an awesome start to Christmas week."

Building Bethlehem requires lots of help at the last minute. Construction doesn't begin until Friday afternoon when the school day ends, and a cadre of volunteers arrives to construct the stalls, an inn, the manger and, mostly, to disguise the gym.

"We hang thousands of yards of fabric to cover the ceiling and walls," said Wantz.

With each year, Wantz said, they add a new twist. "This year, I'm enlarging the infantry," said Wantz, "so my daughter-in-law gets to sew more guard costumes."

Few churches could come close to the full-scale production of "The Living, Singing Christmas Tree" at the Chapel, which involves months of preparation and the participation of 500 people, including staff members who are experienced in putting on big musical productions. This year's effort began in the spring as Jody Casper started writing the script. Next, the creative team with its musical director, choreographer, costume designer and drama coach met with the technical people.

"We talk about different directions the tree can take," said choreographer Judy Kauderer.

"The main thing is to make sure we are organized and on the timeline we need to be on and making sure the communication is good and clear," said musical director Russell Freeman, who will oversee a choir with 110 voices and an orchestra of 40.

Rehearsals begin in earnest as the leaves start falling. Recently, Chrystine Tedeschi and Dana Hensley spent two hours going over a scene of a mother and a daughter who look through a hope chest filled with mementos and memories.

Kauderer cued them about moves and posture, slowing them down, speeding them up, repositioning them. "Never let the move die," she said to Hensley. "Don't just toss the letters back. You don't have to rush. We're just trying to get the timing down now. Later we'll put more face into it."

Though the scene takes four minutes and two seconds, Kauderer estimates they'll spend eight hours rehearsing it.

Tedeschi, a dancer, said she has never acted before, but she decided to try out because she trusts the directors. "The comfort zone is important to me," she said. "Big time."

Hensley and her then husband-to-be played in the crowd scenes last year and then found themselves repeating the lines after the show, so they were eager to participate again, she said.

But this is the first time she has played a solo part. "I haven't been in a play since I was Betsy Ross in kindergarten," Hensley said.

As actors go over their scenes and a team of seamstresses finish costumes, others are assembling the tree-shaped stand in the sanctuary, where the choir will stand. Electricians check the 100,000 mini-lights that decorate the tree, and the tech staff coordinates computers to synchronize the lights to music.

Throughout the expansive Chapel building, there are several rooms dedicated to props and equipment to pull off this production: a large technical booth, a library room with drawers of sheet music, along with costume rooms overflowing with sequined outfits, wigs and angel wings.

"When I started, we had 10 angels; now we have 60," said Kauderer.

Organizers say that although they dedicate lots of time to the production, it isn't even meant primarily for their congregation.

"Our main target group is people who don't go to our church or to any church," said Casper. "This is our outreach to them."

COME, ALL YE FAITHFUL
The following are among activities planned by local churches:

The "Bethlehem Village" at St. Paul's is open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 19 at Delaware Avenue and Victoria Boulevard, Kenmore. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.

"Road to Bethlehem" is a drive-through living Nativity from 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 8, 9 and 10 at Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church, 8445 Greiner Road, Clarence. It includes six scenes including Mary riding a donkey, angels and shepherds around a fire, the Three Wise Men.

"The Living, Singing Christmas Tree" at the Chapel will hold 11 performances between Dec. 6 and 21. Regulars know that they have to buy tickets well in advance because the shows sell out quickly. Call 634-4676 to see if tickets are available for this year.

Randall Memorial Baptist Church, 6301 Main St., Williamsville, does "The Pilgrimage to Bethlehem" from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 2, 3 and 4. Groups go through the church and youth center, where there are scenes portraying the birth of Jesus.

Parkside Lutheran Church, 2 Wallace Ave., at 4 p.m. Dec. 12 has young people in costumes portraying a Living Manger, along with a petting zoo, a horse-drawn wagon that goes around the neighborhood, cookies and hot chocolate, followed by a pot-luck supper.

Hamburg Wesleyan Church, 4999 McKinley Parkway, Hamburg, presents "Not That Far From Bethlehem" at 7 p.m. Dec. 10. It's described as a timeless Christmas story told in a contemporary way using drama and music. It's free and open to the public.

Orchard Park Presbyterian, 4369 S. Buffalo, Orchard Park, will hold a dinner, followed by a Celebration of Light, at 6 p.m. Dec. 9. The program will feature music by singer and guitarist Doug Yeomans, ending with a walk through an Advent garden, where participants will place candles to symbolize light coming out of the darkness.

For tickets, call the church at 662-9348. The recommended donation is $5, adults and $3, children, with proceeds going to Interfaith Hospitality Network, a program that houses homeless families.

True Bethel Baptist, 907 E. Ferry St., will hold a Living Nativity from 5 to 7 p.m. Dec. 19 in the church parking lot.

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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