APPLETON — The curtain rose for “Christmas Stars” for the first time in 1993. This year, the Fox Valley holiday tradition – billed as a “spectacular, holiday-themed extravaganza” – celebrates its 25th anniversary of entertainment.
Since 1993, there have been nearly 200 performances of Christmas Stars, with 1,628 cast members and more than 150,000 audience members. The show has raised in excess of $1.5 million to fund and promote fine arts for the St. Francis Xavier School System.
For the first four years, performances were held at Appleton High School West. There are nine people who have been part of the production since day one: John Biese, Karen Johanek, Van Vehrs, Carl Rippl, Greg and Jean Reed, Brian and Catherine Wallace, and Joe Bourassa. Sue Hahn, the production coordinator, and Craig Rueden, who plays the role of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, came on board in year two.
For Biese, it was the right place and the right time for him to join the Christmas Stars team that first year. “I live close to Xavier and I retired at the right time,” he said. “I was able to run over and do something. If someone wanted a key I could put it in my mailbox.”
Johanek said she got into the show by accident when her daughter Anna was cast. “Someone asked, ‘Can you sing?’ I said, ‘A little.’ They said, ‘Great, you’re in.’ It was kind of overwhelming, but I met so many people … from all over town. All different churches, all different religions. I have terrible stage fright, but I came back every year because I just couldn’t get away from the people. It really is like a family.”
“There are so many friends I have that the only time of year I get to see them is at Christmas Stars,” said Catherine Wallace. “We look forward to seeing each other. It’s such a family thing.”
For Catherine and Brian Wallace, it is a family affair. Brian’s parents, Clarence and Delores Wallace, donated the funds to build the fine arts theater at Xavier. Before they passed away they were able to enjoy many shows in the theater, including several with their children and grandchildren in the show. All six of Brian and Catherine’s children have also been in the show.
While Brian plays the role of the Grinch in the show, the majority of his time is spent backstage. “A lot of the backstage guys through the years have been dads of kids in the show or husbands of wives in the show, so it’s neat to bond with those guys and help our family members who are performing onstage,” he said.
For Rueden, it’s an honor to play the role of characters beloved by children worldwide. The white beard he sports is authentic. “I wouldn’t be Santa without (the beard) and I wouldn’t have been Santa without the ability to be St. Nicholas — which to me was the key,” he said. “Before each show I get to go out in the audience and be face-to-face with the audience. No matter what else goes on in the show, that’s the key part for me.”
Co-production coordinator and director Jim Romenesko joined the team when the show was moved to the new Xavier High School Fine Arts Theater in 1998. “I worked at Xavier directing shows from 1981 to 1986,” he said. “One of the reasons they brought me back here full-time was to do Christmas Stars when it was moving here.”
People from throughout the Fox Valley and beyond have been a part of the production over the years. “Some kids that are in the show now were the baby Jesus in previous years,” said Romenesko. There have been several marriages between cast members over the years and now some of the children from those unions are part of the show as well.
Hahn said the program’s marketing team has successfully promoted Christmas Stars.
“We now have 25 or so busloads that come from around the state and even out of state,” said Hahn. One of the most significant performances of the year is the final dress rehearsal, which is free for clients of various organizations.
“They’re just in awe. It makes you feel so good — you’ve touched these people’s lives, and given them an experience they wouldn’t have otherwise,” added Hahn.
“Christmas Stars is … very old-fashioned, it’s very wholesome,” said Romenesko. “It’s like the old TV variety shows.
“I always say we’d do the show if we didn’t make a cent because of the community building and the sharing and everything. It really is a great group of people. It really is fun,” he added.