By Linda Bloom
Photo: A camera operator lines up shots of lessons and carols during a pre-broadcast rehearsal for the CBS Christmas Eve special at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, United Methodist, in New York. UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin.
NEW YORK (UMNS) –– When members of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, United Methodist, were given the chance to produce a Christmas Eve special for CBS-TV, they pulled together their talent, money and prayers to make it happen.
The result, “A Christmas for Everyone,” intertwines a rich, festive service of lessons and carols with glimpses of the Manhattan congregation’s array of programs for the homeless, poor and marginalized and its interfaith relationships.
In many viewing areas, the program will be broadcast at 11:35 p.m. Friday, Dec. 24 on CBS.
To Ken Guest, a lay leader at St. Paul and St. Andrew — affectionately known as SPSA — “the opportunity to share with people across the country what we do here” was not to be missed.
“The church is for everyone,” he added. “This building is a place where people come to be healed, to be fed, to be sheltered, to be re-energized to spread the good news.”
Making the decision to participate in the Christmas Eve broadcast took a leap of faith, said the Rev. James “K” Karpen, senior pastor. “It had to be fun because it was clear it was going to take a lot of work,” he explained. “We had to come up with something that was worth showing to people.”
Asking the talent
They began to call on some of the talent at hand to see what was feasible. One of those people was Gina Boonshoft, who became acquainted with SPSA after her daughter started attending the church and officially joined about seven years ago. She had worked for years in film production, but has been on a self-imposed hiatus to attend to various family matters.
Boonshoft, who took on the role of SPSA’s producer/production manager, was sold on the idea at the first meeting she attended about the project. “From that meeting, there was such an electricity just talking about the possibility and what this could mean and how exciting it was,” she recalled.
Vicki Clark, a long-time member and Tony-winning actress, also felt that electricity, which she passed along when she presented the proposal to the congregation at the Sunday worship service.
“By the end of the service, we had collected an overwhelming number of pledges and gifts,” Guest said.
With congregational approval, Karpen and Shirley Struchen, a church member and liaison with CBS, met with Jack Blessington, executive producer of cultural and religious broadcasts at CBS, to refine ideas for the program. “A Christmas for Everyone” is presented by the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission in partnership with CBS, and produced with the cooperation of the National Council of Churches.
Afterward, in an e-mail, Karpen asked for the thoughts, concerns and prayers of church members, as well as their participation in everything from sprucing up the sanctuary to singing in the choir. “For God to send a strange opportunity like this, I figure that God must have something in mind for us,” he wrote.
Lining up support
While Boonshoft lined up volunteer support from the congregation, Clark pulled together the outside talent. Joe Locarro, with whom she had worked with long ago on “Cats” and “Les Misérables,” agreed to direct. Two other colleagues, Matt Berman and Matt Kraus, would handle the lighting and sound, respectively. “They’re all really at the top of their game,” she noted.
The real miracle was that, in the midst of busy schedules, everyone was available the weekend of Dec. 11-12, when the rehearsal and filming would occur. “The way the pieces fell into place, we have to think that God had a hand in this,” Clark said.
Those pieces included seven cameras; banks of high-powered LED lights that can project an array of colors against the high, arched front wall of the sanctuary; sound and light boards behind the last row of pews and a control room fashioned into the back tower.
As the production values rose, so did the budget — to roughly $50,000. CBS contributed $7,000 and the Metropolitan District of the New York Annual Conference donated $2,500, but the remainder came from the congregation itself.
On the afternoon before the service was taped, volunteers adjusted lighting, checked sound and rigged a jib — which displaced a row and a half of pews — to maneuver a floating camera for wide shots.
Meanwhile in the chapel, SPSA music director Frank Glass led the choir through a quick rehearsal of “Joy to the World” and other Christmas hymns. He stopped them during a section of “O, Come All Ye Faithful” to point out: “It’s not an ad for Oscar Mayer. It’s not Beth-le-ham.”
Locarro — who had been shooting a new series on wine for PBS about 20 blocks south of the church — moved his cameras and crew uptown for the weekend. “I think this is going to present its own challenges because it is a live service and we want to capture elements of that,” he said.
A plan was posted on the wall of the makeshift control room, breaking down the worship hour into 33 parts. Each camera was set to record separately.
“As much as possible, we figure out where shots are going to be,” Locarro said. “At the end of the service, we’ll have a rough edit of everything.”
On Sunday, the mood was as deeply joyous as the colors that stained the altar wall. New York Bishop Jeremiah Park brushed away sorrow with his reading of Isaiah 35. The choir and musicians led the congregation in seasonal choruses before Karpen offered his take on the Christmas message. Clark presented an electrifying solo of “O, Holy Night,” and small bells scattered around the sanctuary rang in “Joy to the World.”
Then, over the next two days, it was time to edit the rough cut. The biggest challenge: distilling what turned out to be an hour and 15 minutes into 57 minutes, plus an introductory segment.
“We just snipped where we needed to snip,” Boonshoft said. “We kept everything about what makes the church special.”
Karpen hopes that viewers of the CBS Christmas Eve program will “catch the message of Christmas — the message of the huge and radical nature of God’s love for us and everybody — in a way that is really meaningful to them.”
Bloom is a UMNS reporter based in New York.
By Linda Bloom