On the eve of what could be its final run, “An Altared Christmas” founder Rhan Wilson looks back on the show’s eight-year history
Once upon a time, a group of disheveled community members gathered to celebrate the holidays—dragging feet, feigning smiles and secretly praying for the whole thing to be over as soon as possible. Then, like a message from God etched upon Tupperware, a fruitcake appeared. As they ate it, the disillusioned crowd became family, discordance became harmony in a minor key, and colors brightened every doorway.
That myth is the foundation for the wildly successful “An Altared Christmas” holiday show, which has enjoyed an eight-year run locally. And, the aforementioned fruitcake was baked in the imagination of one of Santa Cruz’s bright-eyed musical chefs, Rhan Wilson.
As an infant, Wilson moved to rural Branciforte Drive in Santa Cruz with his family. “That was a very special time,” the multi-instrumentalist recalls. “I grew up on the creek playing in the river and learned to entertain myself.” Wilson’s father was a visual artist who worked for the Santa Cruz Sentinel and the San Jose Mercury News. His mother was a flamenco dancer and an artist. “In our house, there was flamenco music, Indian music, Western music and a lot of Middle Eastern music,” says Wilson. Artists were always hanging around the house, including authors Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac, who were friends of his mother. But it was music that fueled Wilson’s passion.
“My dad gave me a little guitar when I was 7 and told me that when I learned ‘Camptown Races’ he would buy me the electric guitar I wanted—I learned it over the weekend,” says Wilson. The budding guitarist played in a power rock trio, called The Paisley Pudding, while in sixth grade at Happy Valley School. Wilson gained more formal training in the orchestra in elementary school, junior high and high school, where he played violin and drums. “My teachers let me play anything I wanted,” he says.
From these humble, albeit unusual, beginnings, “An Altared Christmas” took root. “Back in high school, I heard a guy play the Gilligan’s Island theme in a minor key and I thought it was the funniest thing in the world,” Wilson remembers. Years later, he would take a similar approach to “Deck The Halls” and “Silent Night.” Wilson was so pleased with how beautiful and absurd the classic songs sounded in a minor key that he went on to record two albums. He never dreamed of performing his quirky renditions live, until one night local impresario Ukulele Dick dragged him to the Ukulele Club to show off his skills.
From the Ukulele Club, to the former Cayuga Vault in Santa Cruz, to its current home at The Rio Theatre, “An Altared Christmas” has grown into a 20-person ensemble, which performs familiar holiday songs in a minor key. Wilson is a firm believer that only in the minor key are people able to really appreciate the lyrics to the classics. “When I perform ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ with Grammy nominee Tammi Brown, we slow it down and it makes the song even more beautiful,” says Wilson. “The minor key takes something so familiar and allows you to hear it again, as if for the first time.”
One of Wilson’s “Altared” family, Patti Maxine, was inducted into the Western Swing Hall of Fame, and is known for her breathtakingly weird performance of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” as well as her incredibly long and full silver mane. This year, Maxine and Wilson are putting her long locks to good use via the Patti Maxine Living Wig Foundation. In an effort to raise funds for WomenCare, a local nonprofit that provides support to women with cancer, Wilson will Photoshop the face of anyone who donates onto a photo of Maxine. A percentage of the money raised at this year’s “An Altared Christmas” show will also benefit the cause. “Being able to give back to the community is what the true meaning of Christmas is for me,” says Maxine.
Living wigs and fruitcakes aside, Wilson assures the community that the intention of “An Altared Christmas” is not to mock the holiday season. “I am not making fun of religion,” he says. “I’m trying to present the familiar in a different way so that it can be appreciated. I think our shows encourage spirituality. Our show is about love and getting back to that message.”
If the show sounds like your cup of spiked eggnog, make haste, because this year’s performance may be the last.
“I’m not saying I will never do it again,” says Wilson. “But, I’m ready to try something new. I would like to create a more theatrical version.”
‘An Altared Christmas’ will begin at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 423-8209. Visit altared.com. Photos: Paul Schraub