Iconic Dickens carolers spread harmonic Christmas cheer through Vail
For more than 30 years now, the Vail Dickens Carolers have been an iconic part of the local holiday scene.
Clad in their Victorian costumes as they stroll the streets of Vail and pop into various pubs and restaurants, members sing Christmas cheer.
“It’s fun to make other people’s Christmas special,” said Nancy Gamble, one of the charter members of the Vail Community Chorale, the carolers’ official name. “We have been in so many people Christmas pictures over the years.”
Three decades strong
The chorale got its start back in the late 1970s as a Colorado Mountain College course. Local music teacher Anne Lamb was the first director and Jon and Nancy Gamble were among the original students.
Ultimately the folks who signed up for the class decided they didn’t need the formality of a course schedule and they formed the chorale. Early on they started caroling in Vail — adorned in Vail hats and scarfs.
“No one took us seriously,” Gamble said.
Then someone had the idea for the group to dress up in Victorian costumes. That made all the difference.
Today, the group has its own set of costumes, but in the early days the costumes were rented by a Front Range venue where the group performed.
“You never knew what you were going to get, costumewise,” Gamble said.
One particularly notorious ensemble was the “Kermit suit” — a man’s costume that featured a vibrant green hue.
A number of local seamstresses have been called into service to make costumes for the group and members have scored special deals over the years. Gamble recalled how she stopped by a Denver tuxedo shop one day and snagged a number of ruffled shirts and big bow ties that the shop no longer wanted.
The costumes are beautiful, but they do present some logistical challenges. It’s hard to pack the group into a small space when the women are attired in hoop skirts and members seldom enjoy perfect temperature conditions.
“You can’t dress for warm or cold. You have to dress for in-between,” Gamble said.
Over the years the Vail Community Chorale has performed at the Phipps Mansion in Denver and the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. The chorale has been booked as the entertainment for society events.
Today, the chorale sticks close to home. This week marks their most ambitious scheduling. Beginning Monday, Dec. 18, members will be caroling around Vail with special appearance planned Tuesday, Dec. 19, at 6:30 at the Vail Public Library and at 7:30 at Vistas. On Thursday, Dec. 21, at 7 p.m. the group will perform its annual concert at the Vail Interfaith Chapel.
It requires dedication to be part of the group. Rehearsals begin shortly after Thanksgiving and the group starts the holiday season by performing at the Minturn Markets. They also sing at the Edwards Chapel and the Eagle Senior Center during the course of the month.
Member Mary Cunningham has been singing with the chorale for more than 30 years. She had just moved to the valley her first year with the group and she was missing friends and family.
“It just made Christmas, Christmas for me,” she said.
She also laughed and confessed one of the big reasons why she wanted to be part of the group.
“I originally joined the chorus because I wanted to wear the costume,” Cunningham said. “It is a whole lot of fun.”
While the Vail Community Chorale has a cadre of long-term members, the group continually welcomes new voices. Because they perform in bars, and at times accept the offer of libations, members must be 21 years old. The current roster spans from ages 23 to 88.
The chorale has become a generational tradition for many families. Gamble noted that all three of her sons sing with the group. When they head home for Christmas, they don their top hats and hit the streets to carol because they literally grew up singing the group’s repertoire.
Chorale members need to learn approximately 25 songs from memory. “Carol of the Bells” is likely the group’s most requested song. But “Silent Night” is Sheika Gramshammer’s favorite and at their concert, the chorale performs Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and invites anyone who knows the piece to sing along.
Therein is the secret to the group’s success — it’s fun to sing with others and it’s fun to hear your favorite seasonal music.
“It’s fun to make everyone’s Christmas,” Gamble said.