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Faces of the Festival – 2019

We hope you enjoy our feature, “Faces of the Festival,” where readers can get to know some of the incredible people who make the Festival possible. Come back here as we will add to this list each day.

Day 1: John Keys, Hammered Dulcimer Musician

How many years have you been performing at The Grotto’s Christmas Festival of Lights? 15 years.

What inspired you to become a hammered dulcimer musician? I have been playing the hammered dulcimer for over 20 years, but I have played music since I was a kid. I love music and performing; music is the universal language and it is a passion of mine.

What is your favorite part of playing? Music creates emotion; it is a great way to connect with people. I love sharing the stories that music offers, both vocal and instrumental tunes.

What is your favorite part of participating in the Festival? The people, especially the children. I have met people from around the world and have shared the stories and how the music has touched them. We sometimes share a song together.

Is there anything unique about playing at the Festival vs. other places? Most of the time, I perform on stage and I do not get to personally connect with people. At the Festival, I sit down when I play, so people can gather around and watch. Often it is the first time people see a hammered dulcimer. They are always amazed and excited to see and hear this unique instrument that is relatively new to people in the Pacific Northwest.

Has anything changed since you first began playing at the Festival? The Festival continues to get better every year … more lights, new attractions, etc. But the thing that is consistent is the visitors and the people that help make the Festival the success it is. Countless hours are spent to make the Festival the unique holiday tradition for many. It is fun to see people returning and recognize me and now the hammered dulcimer!

Can people see you perform elsewhere? I perform with the Celtic group, Beltaine, throughout the Northwest. You can find our list of gigs on our website, beltainemusic.com.

Any fun facts to share about the hammered dulcimer? The hammered dulcimer is an ancient instrument with origins in the Middle East in about 900 AD. It is the predecessor of the piano and harpsichord.

What is your favorite thing at The Grotto’s Christmas Festival of Lights? The people, especially the children. There is a different feeling at the Festival from other events, a little more calm and relaxed and … it is all about the music! With five choirs a night, carolers, and other musicians, the Festival celebrates the Christmas season with music, lights, and great cheer! The Festival is a Christmas present to myself and it gets me in the mood for the Christmas season.

What is your favorite thing at The Grotto year-round? I love walking the grounds, especially the Upper Gardens.

What other things do you like to do? I do have a day job with a great company by the name of Embed, so that keeps me busy. I also like to read, play golf, walk, practice yoga, and spend time with my grandchildren.

Any advice for someone interested in playing an instrument? I encourage everyone to find your passion and run with it! If you like art, do art; if you like music, play music – even if it is at home, you do not have to perform. But if you want to perform at the Grotto, let me know!

How can people contact you? Email me at john@beltainemusic.com or visit our website, beltainemusic.com.We also have fun Facebook page, facebook.com/BeltaineMusicPortland, as well as Instagram and Twitter.

Day 2: Penny Walter, Puppeteer

How many years have you been performing at The Grotto’s Christmas Festival of Lights? 16 years. I was an understudy to Celeste Rose for 14 years, and took over last year.

How long have you been a puppeteer? I have been a professional puppeteer since 2002.

What inspired you to go into this line of work? I always have loved puppets, and was a huge fan of the Muppets when I was a kid. I even had a little puppet theater in the corner of my moms antique shop where I would put on puppet shows for the kids that would come with their parents. I kept doing that until middle school, when the other kids bullied me about playing with dolls. So I quit. I came back to puppets about 20 years ago when I was a teacher in a Kindergarten classroom and remembered how much I loved them at that age. Pretty soon the puppets were teaching all day long, and I decided to quit teaching and become a full time puppeteer.

What is your favorite part of doing what you do? My favorite thing about being a puppeteer is that I get to laugh with children everyday at work.

What is your favorite part of participation in the Festival? Of course I love the lights and all the beautiful music at the festival, but I really love how so many of the people that work at the Festival come back year after year. It feels like family. Also I love working on Christmas Eve. There is definitely love in the air that night.

Is there anything unique about performing at the Festival vs. other places? Yes, performing the show four times a night is a unique challenge, but it also helps you really get to know the puppet characters and their little nuances. I learn something new about the puppets every show.

Has anything changed since you first started at the Festival? Yes, the lights have changed over the years … there are a lot more! Also, I think the quality of choirs has gotten better and better, and The Grotto Carolers are also always adding new songs.

Can people see you perform elsewhere? Yes, puppet shows are all I do. I perform at schools, libraries, private and public events and birthday parties all over the Northwest and beyond. I am proud to be based out of Portland, Oregon.

Any fun facts to share about puppetry? I am still discovering new characters and voices even after playing with puppets all my life.

What is your favorite thing at The Festival? When the audience participates and sings with the puppets. 

What is your favorite thing at The Grotto year-round? Its natural beauty. I love how serene it is.

What other things do you like to do? My favorite way to spend time is walking or playing with my dog Tater. He is a Border Collie/Aussie mix, so he is very busy guy.

Anything else you would like to share about yourself? I feel blessed that I get to share my unique gifts with the world.

Advice for anyone interested in being a puppeteer? There are great resources at your local library and also local puppet guilds and workshops. We are lucky to live in such a thriving art filled city.

How can people contact you?
Penny’s Puppet Productionspennypuppets.com503-282-9207penny@pennypuppets.com

Penny can be found performing her puppet show, “Little Mousie’s Joyous Night,” created for the Festival of Lights, each night at 6, 7, 8 and 9 p.m. in the tented pavilion at in the plaza. You won’t want to miss it!

Day 3: Julie Stewart, Director of The Grotto Carolers

How long have you been participating in The Grotto’s Christmas Festival of Lights? Since 1992. There are three of us still singing, Ron Rose (tenor), Bill Converse (bass) and myself.

How long have you been a professional caroler? I have been a caroler for 28 years. I have been the Director of The Grotto Carolers for 24 years.    

What inspired you to go into this line of work? I have been singing since I was a child. I love singing. It’s part of my life. I was a choir director before I moved to the Portland area. The minute I saw the audition notice for The Grotto Carolers, I knew it was where I belonged. 

What is your favorite part being a Grotto Caroler? I love conducting The Grotto Carolers on our opening night and closing night concerts. It’s like driving a Ferrari when I lower my hands and that wall of joyous sound emerges. (At those concerts, all the quartets come together to sing as a group.) Their love of singing and Christmas, combined with the acoustics of the Chapel, make it a powerful, happy concert! We have developed a fan base and it’s always fun to see them opening night.

What is your favorite part of participating in the Festival? I love singing in my quartet. It’s beautiful when four unique personalities unite into a single voice. It’s very special to take a Christmas Carol that people have heard their entire life and turn it into something exceptional by finding meaning in the lyrics when you sing. 

Is there anything unique about singing at the Festival vs. other places? We reach out and touch people’s hearts with our performances. We have more than 60 standard carols and 40 specialty numbers. It’s more than “caroling.” It’s celebrating the love and joy of Christmas through song. 

Has anything changed since you first started at the Festival? When I first started, we sang in a tiny tent that held one park bench. We later moved to the “actors’ shack” where skits about the birth of Jesus was performed. The only problem was that they “made bread” nightly and we had to be careful that our backsides were not covered in flour. A snowstorm destroyed the shack and we moved to our present location in the Pavilion Tent. It’s a glorious place to sing!! It’s also been significant to watch the Festival of Lights develop from a small event to a major event with more than two million lights!

Can people see you sing elsewhere? All the Grotto Carolers are professional singers and you can see them performing in musicals, concerts and various venues and churches throughout the Portland/Vancouver area.

Any fun facts to share about The Grotto Carolers? The Grotto Carolers sing “Here We Come a Caroling” while processing in the Chapel to introduce the Festival choirs. It’s estimated that the Grotto Carolers have, over the years, performed this song more than 30,000 times!

What is your favorite thing at The Festival? I love watching the babies in strollers react. Many times, it’s their first time watching live music. Their faces light up and they start bouncing and moving their arms to the music. Toddlers will dance during “Jingle Bells” and it’s a blast to watch them. Senior citizens sometimes surprise their families when they start singing “Silent Night” in German or “O Come All Ye Faithful” in Latin. The families hug each other; it can be very emotional. And beautiful. It’s always fun when we bring out a basket of bells for the kids to ring. They come up front and sing. It’s a wonderful moment for the kids and their parents. 

What is your favorite thing at The Grotto year-round? The Chapel. It’s a lovely place to pray. Sometimes before I sing, I like to go there and let the peace and quiet comfort me.  

What other things do you like to do? I had an incredible career with the Federal Government. When I retired, I became my father’s full-time caregiver.

Anything else like to share about your craft? I love studying Christmas music. I have hundreds of Christmas CD’s and love searching for perfect arrangements for The Grotto Carolers. My specialty is to find songs that a singer wants to sing.  Christmas music is amazing!

Advice for anyone interested in doing what you do?Learn how to read music. Learn your craft. Find a way to make a Christmas carol special. It’s all about connecting your heart and voice with the words. One of our current Grotto Carolers saw us performing when he was a little kid. He remembers that he came up and sang “Jingle Bells” with us. He told me it was one of his goals to be a Grotto Caroler. Now when I look at the little ones singing and dancing when we sing, I wonder which ones will grow up to be professional singers. It makes me smile. I hope they remember the music and the singing at The Grotto’s Christmas Festival of Lights. It’s such a special place to sing! 

Seven quartets make up The Grotto Carolers, including Julie’s quartet. They perform in the Pavilion tent four times each evening, as well as at the exit. They also introduce all the choirs who perform in the Chapel.

Day 4: Devon McMaster, Event Production Coordinator

Devon McMaster is the Operations Coordinator for Portland Event Productions. The P.E.P. crew design, put up and take down all the lights at the Festival. They also build all the tenting, do all the decorating, provide audio equipment, and run the concession stands. You will also find their crew each night managing the parking and traffic flow around The Grotto.

How long have you been coordinating the production crew for The Grotto’s Christmas Festival of Lights? This will be my third year. 

How long have you been working in event production? I’ve been working in the events industry for what feels like my whole life, but officially, five years. 

What led you into going into this line of work? I was a seamstress and property master when I met someone. I’ve come to see event production as a way of life … I love it! 

What is your favorite part of producing events? Seeing clients visions come true. It’s super magical to go from a vision to an end product.  

What is your favorite part of participating in the Festival? Seeing all the different forms of art expression from the Portland Productions staff.  

Is there anything unique about producing this Festival vs. other events? It is the longest running festival we produce.   

What is your favorite thing at the Festival? My favorite thing is seeing all the way-excited children experience things for the first time.  

What is your favorite part of The Grotto year-round? The bunnies upstairs in the gardens.  

How many lights are there? Over two million! 

How many man hours does it take to put them all up? Thousands! I know their were several weeks where I worked seven days per week during setup. 

When do you start working on the Festival? In October. Nearly two months just on load-in … whew! 

Any other fun facts to share? Over 100 employees and contractors were involved in the setup this year. I think that has been our biggest crew ever! 

What other things do you like to do? I love hiking, retro video games, film projects, sewing projects. 

Any advice for anyone interested in doing what you do? Make time to learn skills outside of your nine dots. Explore what life has to offer. Do something new every day!

You can find Devon roaming around the Festival each night. Her crew do much of their work in the cold and rain, especially the tear-down in January, so be sure to give them a smile if you see them. Just look for the bright yellow jackets.

Day 5: Lesley Bossert, Choir Director

Lesley has been bringing multiple choirs to the Festival for decades. She is pictured above with her grandson, Parker, who also loves to sing.

How long have you been participating in The Grotto’s Christmas Festival of Lights? I started bringing choirs in 1996. I was the elementary music teacher at Lincoln Park in the David Douglas School District. I brought my 5th and 6th grade choir, the Floyd Light Choir, and Floyd Strings. We performed for four years. I then took the choir position at Parkrose High School. We continued the tradition of singing (Parkrose HS has participated in the Festival since the beginning) under my direction from 2000 to 2018. I retired 2019 but still bring my church choir, Parkrose United Methodist Church, who have been participating since 2005. So … long story short – 24 years! 

How long have you been a choir director? I started in college with church choirs. 44 years.

What other choirs have you led? I’ve had a great experience playing piano/organ and directing choirs in a lot of settings. I have directed church choirs as a teacher/choir director in South Dakota, spent 10 years at Wasatch Academy in Utah, three years at George Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge, one year at The Country School in Connecticut, five years at Lincoln Park, and 19 years at Parkrose HS. I am still the organist/choir director at Parkrose UMC, where I have been since 2001.

What inspired you to become a choir director? My experience in church choir starting in third grade. My director was amazing – we sang three-part and I fell in love with it! 

What is your favorite part of doing what you do? The wonderful people (of all ages) that I meet, and having the opportunity to spread the joy of singing and building community. 

What is your favorite part of participating in the Festival? The acoustics in the Chapel and the choir being blown away by the experience. 

Is there anything unique about performing at the Festival vs. other places? The acoustics! 

Has anything changed since you first started participating in the Festival? I believe the caliber of the choirs improves every year. 

Any fun facts to share about leading a choir? I love seeing or hearing from people that say choir kept them in school, or they made lifelong relationships through choir.

What is your favorite thing at the Festival? The choirs, of course … and definitely the lights … and hot chocolate!

What is your favorite thing at The Grotto year-round? The beauty of the grounds – a place to come for solitude and reflection. 

What other things do you like to do? I love sewing, golfing with my husband, walking with my Portland-to-Coast team, and sharing a meal with friends and family. 

Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself? I am blessed to have had parents that advised me to “do what you love and you will go to work happy everyday.” 

Is there anything else you would like to share about the Festival? Thanks to all the volunteers at The Grotto that give so willingly of their time, and give choirs the opportunity to perform in such an amazing setting. It’s such a special place to sing! 

Do you have any advice for anyone interested in joining a choir? Don’t be a shoulda-coulda-woulda person. Have no regrets and give it a try. It will bring you so much joy!

Day 6: Hobbs the Llama

Hobbs the llama is so popular in our Festival petting zoo that we just have to feature him. You may recognize him as his face appears on our billboards all over town.

Be sure to visit him when you come to the Festival. Admission to the zoo is included with your festival admission.

What is your name?Hobbs

What type of animal are you? Llama

How old are you? I am three and a half years old.

Are you a boy or a girl? I’m a boy.

What do you like to eat? I like grain, hay, apples and carrots.

What are some of the things you like to do? I love to protect my farm mates. I like hanging out with people, I like running around … and sleeping.

Where do you live? I live in Spanaway, Washington. It is near Tacoma.

Who takes care of you? A nice lady named Chelsea Gordon.

Who are your friends? Sophia the donkey, Bravo the Shetland pony, and goats and sheep.

Who do you like hanging out with at the Festival? Sophia the donkey.

Do you have a best friend? Bravo the Shetland pony.

What is your favorite part of participating in The Grotto’s Festival of Lights? The people and the lights.

Is there anything you don’t like? No!

What other places do you like to visit? I like to visit community events and the local petting zoo, Debbie Dolittle’s Indoor Petting Zoo.

Do you like being the star of our billboards? Love it!

Is there anything you would like to tell us about yourself? (Silence)

For more information about our petting zoo and our wonderful animals, go to indoorpettingzoo.com. They provide the love and care of our animals year-round.