MUSKEGON, Mich. — Singing Christmas trees can be found all over the world. The first one in the United States was created in Denton, Texas in 1972, and it held 100 singers.
In 1985, a high school choir class in Michigan decided to one-up the Texas effort, purchasing a tree that was 67-feet high, holding 15 levels, over 850 pieces of steel covered by 5,200 feet of greenery, 25,000 LED lights and up to 270 students.
Thirty-five years later, the Mona Shores High School Singing Christmas Tree remains the tallest in America, selling out every annual performance, and drawing audience members and media attention from all over the country.
"On day one of each school year, we start preparing for the tree.," said Shawn Lawton, who has been the Mona Shores Choir director for the past 27 years. "I'm stunned by how popular this thing has gotten."
What's fascinating is that the performance that truly makes the tree 'sing' isn't the one the paying customers watch from their comfy Frauenthal Center seats.
Instead, it's the 'performance' that unfolds during each show simultaneously behind the tree by the volunteers who have come to be affectionately known as the 'Tree Monkeys.'
"The Tree Monkeys are really one of the most vital (roles we have) along with our nursing staff," said Tony Ross, who just completed his fifth year as the production manager of the tree. "If we don't have a specific number of Tree Monkeys, we actually won't put the performance on."
This group is needed because not every student is able to endure standing in one spot for two hours singing. The monkeys are spread out on every level inside the tree and are prepared for anything that happens.
"We tell the kids on the show days to make sure to eat and stay hydrated so they have the stamina to be in the tree and sing," said Lawton. "We also tell them not to lock their knees while they're in the tree because that's known to cause people to become light-headed and feel faint.
"But, teenagers don't often listen intently, and the tree does traditionally happen during exam week, so many of the singers are exhausted."
Lawton added that several of the singers also have preexisting health issues like diabetes and asthma and have to drop down during the performances to take medication.
The Tree Monkeys are made up of 16 to 24 volunteers. Many of them are parents of singers who are performing in the tree, Mona Shores alumni who once performed in the tree, community leaders and other who just want to do it.
"We won't operate with any less than 16 [Tree Monkeys] on a night because that's getting into a safety issue," said Robert Grevious who, along with his wife Darcy, have been the co-chairs of the Tree Monkeys since 2012. "We've had kids just faint and fall right down and somebody has to be there to catch them."
Before each program, the Tree Monkeys stock Tupperware bins with all sorts of items they think they might need if the singers drop down and need medical help.
"The bins have barf bags, wet wash cloths that are frozen, bottled waters and alcohol pads," said Robert. "Some of the bins have inhalers that belong to specific singers. We find out where they are in the tree and make sure the Tree Monkey near that bib has that inhaler in it in case it's needed."
Before each show, Robert and Darcy hold a safety meeting with all the Tree Monkeys to ensure they know what their responsibilities are. Many topics are discussed including how to assist the singers out of the tree, which is the most critical.
"The singers who drop out of the tree on the lower levels are usually easy to assist out," said Robert. "The ones on the higher levels require a special method.
"The monkeys are told to place the singer's arms around their shoulders. The singer is then lowered down one level at a time."
"It's not the brightest of conditions back there," added Darcy. "In fact, it's dark most of the time and we can't use any lights or they'll be seen through the tree by the audience."
During each performance, Robert and Darcy say on average six to eight singers drop from their position in the tree.
"They're asked to drop down when the house lights go off between each song so that the audience doesn't see them," said Darcy. "There's about 20-30 seconds between each song, allowing time for the singers to close the gap of the ones who have vacated."
Once a singer drops, they're allowed one full song to hopefully feel well enough to re-enter the tree. They sit on wooded boards called 'Faint Falls' inside the tree. If they don't feel well enough to continue, they will be helped off their level by the Tree Monkeys, taken back to the nurses' station and cannot return to the tree for the remainder of that particular performance.
"Some of the singers may just need a few swigs of water and they're good to go," said Darcy.
Tony Ross's responsibility during each performance is to be a spotter, scanning each level looking specifically for singers who appear to be struggling.
"Robert and Darcy are not stationary behind the tree," said Ross. "They're moving around with headsets on communicating with me or other people out front.
"If I see a singer who isn't singing, or look white or pale, I will communicate that to Robert. I'll say, 'I see so-and-so on level five, three kids from the left.'"
Robert will then relay that info to the monkeys, who will then ask the singer if they're okay.
"We've never really had a kid pass out to the point where they've fallen out of the tree," added Ross. "We have had kids black out."
The Tree Monkeys may operate in the shadows, but Shawn Lawton says their efforts deserve to be in the spotlight.
"I'm always concerned when I see a kid disappear, but I know they're in good hands back there," said Lawton. "When people realize there's a whole world behind the tree, it's pretty magical."
The 2019 Mona Shores Singing Christmas Tree wrapped up Dec. 7. The 2020 Tree will be Dec. 3-5 in downtown Muskegon.
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