The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant Thrills Audiences With A Message Of Hope

A South Florida mainstay, the Emmy-Award-Winning Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant returns for its 36th season this year, focusing on “The Thrill of Hope.” And what’s more thrilling than the circus? “It’s Barnum the Musical meets the revival of Pippin and The Greatest Showman,” announced Service Programming Director at First Baptist Fort Lauderdale David Gross. Promising to bring plenty of nostalgia, Gross explained, “We’re lacing circus elements within recognizable Christmas music.”

Every number from the choir concert was inspired by Romans 15:13. “ Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe…” (CSB). This verse becomes the bedrock for the theme.

In development since the first of the year, Gross said auditions began in August with rehearsals for the solo performances and dance scenes immediately following. The full cast of about 300 people from small children to adults will begin rehearsing at the end of this month, including a formal choir and orchestra.

In his excitement, Gross occasionally broke into song as he described the scenes set to musical genres ranging from Motown to a waltz with a number of surprises in between. “Act I will be really colorful, just a lot of fun – a little bit of smiles – with a brand new finale.”

In Act II, “we’re going to take you all the way from Mary and Joseph to the birth, his ministry, the miracles all the way to death burial and resurrection,” added Gross.

Aimed at keeping the message of Christ in Christmas, Gross said, “We exist as storytellers to bring the gospel message to life. We don’t want the audience to leave unchanged.”

Presented by First Baptist Fort Lauderdale, perhaps the most astounding aspect of a theatrical production this size is that everyone involved The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant on stage, behind the scenes and front of house, is a member of the church. “Whether it’s the person opening the door for you or what you are experiencing in the auditorium, we want you to see Jesus,” said Gross.

“It’s just a work of the Holy Spirit… every time somebody leaves, God just continues to bring people. He has uniquely gifted our cast and crew to carry this ministry out.”

With a background in musical theater in London, Gross performed in shows like Miss Saigon and Phantom of the Opera before circumstances brought him to South Florida. He and has his wife, Kelly, met will performing on cruise ships.

Lori Chirafisi was on the road singing in California when her parents encouraged her to see the show. “I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe it!” she said. Then she realized she went to high school at Dillard Performing Arts School with the Creative Director at the time, Jeff Crevier. Incredibly impacted by the life of Jesus in Act II, Chirafisi said it changed her life and her entire family. “My father would not be in heaven right now if it wasn’t for this show.”

Over the course of its history, more than 1.2 million have seen The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant. Deanna Wielhouwer has faithfully managed ticket sales for years, coordinating with tour groups travelling from all over Florida and a few southeastern states.

What’s New This Year

James R. Welch

Stepping into the role of Lead Pastor at First Baptist Fort Lauderdale in March 2019, Pastor James R. Welch is perhaps the newest addition to The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant and will be adding his own special touch. After almost three years without a Lead Pastor, the search committee unanimously recommended Welch to succeed retired Pastor Larry Thompson. In accepting the call, Welch said, “We are humbled by this assignment from our Heavenly Father and eager to share with you not only the gospel but our lives as well.”

Coming to Fort Lauderdale from New Orleans, Louisiana, where they planted Harbor Community Church in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Pastor James was able to experience The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant with his wife Amy and their three teenage children, Addison, William and Blythe, during a site visit on December 14, 2018. “It was fantastic!” said Welch. “To see The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant mobilize a group of people toward a common goal is amazing. Obviously, the church has a great deal of creativity and talent… It was very impressive.” Compared to other Christmas performances he’d seen, Welch said, “I think what was most interesting about the Christmas Pageant here in Fort Lauderdale is the complexities of the dancing and just the creative risks they took.”

A fan of the cultural arts, Welch said his input to this year’s Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant relates to the general experience as a patron. “It was already amazing inside, so I wanted to expand the experience to the outside. We will be lighting a 30-foot Christmas Tree on the west side plaza on November 24th at 5:00 p.m. with a large choir singing traditional carols, creating a time for people of all backgrounds to come out as we host a greater Christmas celebration in the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale.”

There will also be more of an immersive experience outside during The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant, with a living nativity, a brass quartet playing timeless carols, and food concessions set up under bistro lights with beautiful streetscaping.

For many people in our community, The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant marks the beginning of the Christmas season. “It’s nostalgic and gives us the opportunity to present the story of Jesus to the community,” said Welch, extending an invitation to everyone to attend.

A 36-Year Legacy

Sandy Casteel

For many of the cast and crew, The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant is a labor of love that has them serving year after year. “We have five members that have been in all 35 shows in some way shape or form, whether volunteering front of house, singing in the choir, being stage manager or even being involved with the creation of the pageant from day one, like Sandy Casteel,” said Christmas Pageant and Special Events Manager Lorie Chirafisi.

“It is very much a legacy program,” agreed Service Programming Director David Gross, who took the lead after Jeff Crevier stepped down as Creative Director three years ago.  However, he said, “Jeff is still reading the book, so he’s calling the shots back stage.”

Sandy Casteel remembers how it all began. “Pastor O.S. Hawkins and our music minister Bob Reeder determined to do a special Christmas production. At the time about all you got were the Chipmunks, and they wanted to do something that really celebrated the Christ of Christmas. My job was to pull together 30 different chairs from our fellowship who would then put together this whole production.” As the pageant coordinator, Casteel was responsible for everything around the edges of The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant.

RockettesShe did the finances, provided food for the cast, costumes, police. The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant was originally held at War Memorial Auditorium. With very little area to put on costumes and care for the cast, the kids were bused over. “They had to arrive right at the middle, walk in the front door of the auditorium, do their bit, walk out the back door and go back to the church. And one of our wonderful experiences was when the animals got loose in Holiday Park at night and we had to try and catch them,” Casteel chuckled.

In 1990, Sandy was part of the team that flew to Texas to meet with the architects who designed their current stage and sanctuary to accommodate the pageant, considering everything from the hanging of the scenery to traffic flows. “That first year we were in our own home, there was so much more space and the demand was high,” said Casteel. “Over the years The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant has grown bit by bit like a youngster as God has blessed it.”

They began airing the show on PBS stations around the world on Christmas Eve, and sending it to our troops. “Before computer advancements, many of us were sitting at our desks on Christmas Eve responding to calls from people all over the country who had seen the show, received Christ and wanted to talk to someone,” Casteel recalled.

After 22 years volunteering, sometimes 5 days a week, as The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant Coordinator, Casteel continues to be involved wherever she is needed. You may see her serving corn dogs to the cast or sewing buttons on costumes. She’s served for all 36 seasons and has no plans to retire. “I’m 87 years old and I love what I do. It’s been a marvelous privilege to be involved and see people come to the Lord through this.”

The Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant is “South Florida’s largest Christmas Celebration.” This Broadway-style production opens November 29th and runs through December 15th. The performances sell out annually, so if you plan to attend, purchase your tickets now at ChristmasTickets.com.

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