Salem’s favorite festive tuba performance returns

This Christmas Eve, Tuba Holiday will return to the Elsinore Theatre for a brassy, interactive performance of holiday classics.

The annual concert first began in Salem in the late 1990s and puts professionals and newcomers side by side.

It has also seen novices become star talent through the years, including 81-year-old Dan Sewell.

As an 8th grader in Illinois, Dan Sewell wanted to play the trumpet so he could sit next to the girl he had a crush on. He let his band teacher know his central motivation.

“The next thing I knew, I was playing the bass drum,” he said. 

Still, he learned to read music with his peers and attended a local music competition. He watched his best friend play the baritone. 

“I’d never heard a baritone. And I thought, that is the best sound I’ve ever heard,” Sewell said.

That was 1954. He didn’t continue in band after that, but he never forgot what it felt like to listen to his friend play.

He went on to be a pediatrician in Salem. It wouldn’t be until his retirement in 2000 that he picked up a euphonium, which is in the baritone family. His wife gifted him five lessons with a local middle school teacher, where he learned alongside children. He recalled one boy asking his mom if the retired doctor had been held back. 

By the end of the lessons, Sewell could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and said he played it so much that his wife may have regretted the gift. He wanted to learn more. He called John Skelton, a former patient’s dad and a band director in the Dallas School District at the time. 

After some lessons with Skelton, Sewell performed in his first Tuba Holiday that year. He has participated nearly every Christmas Eve in the two decades since. 

Sitting new players next to professionals is one of the best parts of the Tuba Holiday Concert, said Skelton, the artistic director for Salem Symphonic Winds who organizes the event with his wife Toni.

“That connection between all those generations of musicians is a really special thing,” Skelton said.

Skelton will conduct the group of tuba, euphonium and baritone players on stage, who will be playing a variety of holiday songs arranged by friends.

“Once in a while we’ll geet an odd sousaphone that walks in, and we don’t make fun of them or anything,” Skelton said, and laughed. 

The Skeltons have participated in the Tuba Holiday concert for its 25 years of existence in Salem, and since taking over a decade ago they’ve found it a permanent home at the Elsinore Theatre and have transitioned the arrangements from expensive copyrights to donated arrangements by friends.

This year’s arrangers include Skelton, Ted Cory, Hinrich Muller, Andy Schanz, Valgene Phillips, Keith Weathers and Brian Wilson.

Salem has seen around 25 years of tuba holiday concerts in different venues throughout town including the Capitol building and the Armory.

Performing at the Elsinore was one of Skelton’s conditions when he agreed to take over the planning.

“It’s such a wonderful, warm feeling in that hall,” Skelton said. 

He also wanted to make it more accessible to young low-income performers. He opted to ask friends to arrange music for free use, parting ways with traditional copyrighted TubaChristmas arrangements used around the world.  

Any interested player can register at the Salem Symphonic Winds website for a $5 fee, regardless of skill level.

“It’s such a low-stress sort of event for musicians, and we want it to be that way,” Toni Skelton said.

“We do ask that they be able to move their tuning slides and that we attempt to agree on one or two pitches during the show,” John Skelton added, laughing.

Performers will be playing recognizable holiday songs including Christmas, Hanukkah and secular tunes. They’ll be projecting lyrics onto an overhead screen for an audience sing-along.

The concert will feature guest artist Jeff Witt, a local actor who teaches choir and theater at Central High School in Independence.

In the past, Skelton said lines for tickets have gone around the block to sell out the 1,300 seats at the Elsinore. It hasn’t been the same since the pandemic, but he’s hoping it’ll make a recovery this year.

The concert has been going on long enough that it’s become a multi-generational show, Skelton said. Three of his former students are playing, and their granddaughter joined the ensemble for the first time this year.

Twenty years in, Sewell will be among the older generation of players. He is now among a smaller ensemble that takes the spotlight for the more challenging pieces of the night.

“You meet good people, and it takes the stress out of your life,” he said. “If you’re a football player in high school, you’re not going to be a football player when you’re 30 or 40 or 50, in most cases. If you’re in the choir or if you’re in the band, you can do this until they haul you away.”

Tuba Holiday will return to the Elsinore Theatre at noon on Christmas Eve (Saturday, Dec. 24). Tickets are $10 online, or at the box office at 170 High St. S.E.. Proceeds are split between the theater and Salem Symphonic Winds.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.