Sometimes a trip to Walmart at Christmastime can yield the elements for the perfect package that will continue to delight year after year.
And so it was the case for beloved entertainer Tony Orlando who, in 1993, walked into that store in Branson and discovered a white-haired, white-bearded, bespectacled gentlemen who looked just like Santa Clause. Wanting to do a Christmas show for his new theater in that city, Orlando enticed the man, named Dave Thompson, to join him in the venture. And together they have, for the past 26 years, delivered the gift that keeps on giving – the true spirit of Christmas wrapped up in a beautiful Christmas vehicle.
From, December 19-22. “Tony Orlando’s Great American Christmas” show will be headlining the South Point Hotel Casino and Spa. It will be the star’s 20th year of doing the show in Las Vegas at a property owned by Michael Gaughn with whom Orlando has a personal relationship. In fact, when Orlando first brought his production to the Orleans in 2001, which Gaughn owned back then, it was virtually the only Christmas show in town and the first bonafide Christmas show ever in Las Vegas, It continued to play year after year until Gaughn sold his properties and bought the South Point where Orlando now regularly performs and the show continues to bestow the true spirit of the holiday in utmost entertaining fashion.
“It started out as a musical play in Branson and has gone worldwide to places such as Malaysia, Taipei, and the Philippines, and in the U.S, to cities such as New York, Bethlehem (Pa.), and Las Vegas,” Orlando explains, “It’s half musical theater with dialogue and half concert because I do my hits and other songs, too. I couldn’t do it as a musical, play because the cast and sets didn’t work on the road. But Dave Thompson, who has been doing it with me since the very beginning, was the Sears Santa and also did some Santa work for Coke. And this year, I have a wonderful singer named Michelle Pardo in the show who, when she performs her part, \brings everyone to their feet.”
“The purpose of the show is twofold,” he continues. “The first is for the audience to experience the child in them and relive their memories. I’m 75 and I still remember my mom taking me to Macy’s to see Santa and getting up on Christmas morning and finding the presents under the Christmas tree. The second is to recognize that there is a true meaning to Christmas and that is the birth of Jesus. The show incorporates the two sides of Christmas -- the holy Christmas and the Santa Christmas. In one part, Santa gets upset with me because he doesn’t see a nativity scene on stage and he gifts me with one and says, ‘Put it where everyone can see it.’ For the past 26 years, people who have seen the show have been coming up to me and saying that they have put theirs where everyone can see it.”
Orlando reveals that from the gitgo, Gaughn had the courage to stand by using the word “Christmas” in reference to the show.
“I still feel it’s right to say ‘Christmas’ instead of ‘the holidays,’” Orlando maintains.
It goes without saying that Orlando is an artist whose dynamic musical and entertaining gifts thrill audiences all year round. As he enters into 2020, besides his touring and performing, he will also be continuing to work on a Broadway show about his life that he says will be on the Great White Way in 2021. The show, entitled “Rooftop Dreams,” for which he is co-writing the book with Susan Maneo, contains 15 original songs written by him, his brother David, and Michael Omartian, who has won multiple Grammys.
“Michael won seven Grammys for Christopher Cross’ album ‘Sailing,’” Orlando relates. “He wrote ‘She Works Hard for the Money’ for Donna Summer and he produced and arranged for Donna. He also received an Oscar nomination for the theme song for the movie ‘Arthur.’ We’re the only ones writing original songs for a Broadway show.”
“The show is my story of how my sister, Rhonda, who was disabled, inspired my life,” he adds. “I left school in the eighth grade and spent my childhood taking care of her with my mom. She had cerebral palsy and was mentally retarded and she died when she was 21. But she was responsible for my career because the only thing that made her happy was my music. The show also delves into Tony Orlando and Dawn and my comeback in ‘Barnum’ on Broadway after my nervous breakdown when my good friend Freddie Prinze died. It goes from when I was 10 years old to that time on Broadway and ends there. “
Orlando’s success with Tony Orlando and Dawn was unprecedented in many respects. The trio was the first multi-racial group to ever have a primetime TV show and are listed among the Top 100 artists of all time. Billboard listed them as one of the Top Three Selling Groups of the 1970s. And every Wednesday night, for four years from 1973-1977, 40 million people tuned in to watch their TV show that had started as a summer replacement.
His Broadway book may end with “Barnum” but Orlando ‘s career has gone on to great success in solo mode backed by a band with each member being talented in his or her own right. This coming weekend, he’ll be rocking around the Christmas tree with them and other cast members and wishing a Merry Christmas to all – and giving to all a wonderfully good night.