Early in his career, Mannheim Steamroller mastermind Chip Davis was told by retailers not to create Christmas music because that spells doom for anyone’s career.
“‘When they can’t think of something else to do, they’d write a Christmas album,’” he recalls them saying.
But that wasn’t the case for Davis. He and his indie label, American Gramaphone Records, recently released Mannheim Steamroller 30/40, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of Davis’ first Christmas record and the 40th anniversary of the debut of the iconic Fresh Aire series.
He attributes his success to two things: The multiple generations who enjoy his performances and the fact that Mannheim Steamroller only tours once a year.
“When you come to a Mannheim concert it’s not unusual to see grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, and the kids,” Davis says.
“The mom and dad of today are bringing their kids and they were the kids of before. You’ll see three generations all at the same concert sitting together. Another thing that’s key is it only comes at Christmastime. It’s not like when a hit record comes out and, for a year, the record company pounds it down everybody’s throats and you get to where you can’t escape it. Ours is only out there for six weeks.”
Davis figures that his two teams of touring bands perform about 100 concerts a season. He won’t personally be in Arizona when Mannheim Steamroller plays ASU Gammage on Friday, December 26.
“There are two bands out traveling and then, in December, I am in Orlando being a third company doing ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas’ for Universal Studios,” he says.
“This will be my seventh year and they want to extend it another three. So I’ll be there 10 years. It’s a fun thing to do because it’s just on weekends.”
If he wasn’t doing “The Grinch,” he probably still wouldn’t be touring, says Davis, 67.
“I couldn’t do that at this age,” he says with a laugh. “That’s a younger man’s game. They’re traveling on buses, sleeping on buses. It’s difficult. They’re at an age when they think it’s adventurous.”
Nevertheless, the shows will still have Davis’ touch. Fans can expect “the usual types of things.”
“Of course we have the live performance of the music, an orchestra and the multimedia show that goes with it,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll have background visuals, like a full film that’s the size of the whole stage, synchronized lighting and special effects, like fog when it’s appropriate. That’s what I’ve done for several years. A lot of things, they change, but it’s the same basic idea.”
That includes some of his favorite merchandise like his cinnamon hot chocolate.
“It’s hot chocolate made with Madagascar cinnamon,” Davis explains. “We’ve sold 80 tons of it over the years. Particularly around the Christmas season, it’s kind of nice to have hot chocolate around.”
Each year, though, Davis adds new technology, that is researched by his team of engineers who constantly are reading manuals about upgrades.
“I’ve got two engineers, one works with me every day,” he says. “I wrote a track for a horse the other day. We have to send it out to the trainers in California today.”
The show boats a full venue experience. Past shows have included the scent of flowers when they appear on the large screen.
“We try to hit all the senses,” he says. “I have a really fun time designing all these crazy things, finding different ways to hit the senses. I want to make people laugh, make people cry, reach into the heartstrings, bring back some memories from the past. At the end when we play ‘Silent Night,’ it’s been around so long, people go back to memories of their families and Christmas.”
Mannheim Steamroller, ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe, 800.745.3000, ticketmaster.com, Friday, December 26, 8 p.m., $36-$101