TSO turns 20: Rock act returns to Youngstown with ‘Ghosts of Christmas Eve’

When Paul O’Neill created Trans-Siberian Orchestra and released “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” he “lucked into a Tchaikovsky.”

That’s how O’Neill described it in a 2010 interview with the Tribune Chronicle, comparing it to the Russian composer’s “Nutcracker” and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” works that audiences flock to year after year.

This year his “Tchaikovsky” turns 20, and TSO will spend the holiday season as it has since 1999, playing as many shows as it can between now and the end of the year.

This year the tour opens in Youngstown with two shows on Nov. 17 at the Covelli Centre. Instead of “Christmas Eve and other Stories,” the tour is built around “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve,” a made-for-television special that first aired in 1999.

Before the launch of the tour, O’Neill took part in a telephone press conference to talk about the upcoming show, which also will play Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland and PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh in December.

Here are some of the highlights (answers have been edited for length):

l On staging “The Ghosts of  Christmas Eve” in 2015 and deciding to do it again this year:

“As you know, it was a television special we did for Fox, who basically called us up one year and asked us to do ‘Beethoven’s Last Night’ for an hour. I asked ‘Why?’ And they said, ‘Well, Dec. 2 we had a show drop out.’ I said, ‘If you give me an hour, I’ll give you a movie.’ They said, ‘Do you have a script?’ I said, ‘I’ll write it tonight.’

“We took it pretty simple — runaway from the Midwest comes to New York City, breaks into an old abandoned vaudeville theater. There she was discovered by the caretaker, played by Ossie Davis, who uses the ghost and the spirits of the band and theater to turn her life around.

“We were really lucky because people like Jewel and Michael Crawford joined us to play some of the ghosts. It was only supposed to run once and then run again, but it did so well for Fox, they ran it multiple times. Then it took off in syndication, and between public TV and all these different stations, it runs pretty much every year.  After we’d done all three of the rock operas from the trilogy, a number of fans asked if we were ever going to do the television special. … We weren’t sure if it was going to work, but it worked so well that we decided to do it again this year.”

l The importance of technology and special effects to the live show:

“I got them employed because I saw Pink Floyd, I think it was in ’96 or ’95. The band was kind enough to give me front row seats, and they blew my mind. I simply had never seen a show that good where every time you thought you saw the ultimate gag, they had 10 more lined up.

“Professional curiosity, ‘I wonder what it looks like in the nose bleed?’ I went all the way back to the further seats in the back, and it was just as good.

“It was different, it was more cinematic, but with Pink Floyd, I basically learned you can design a show, as long as you don’t care about the budget, where there is no such thing as a bad seat in the house.

“God bless Pink Floyd because they were doing it in the ’90s. They didn’t have the advantage of all these computers, etc. We know all the pyro companies, we know all the lighting companies, we know all the special effects companies. They all know that if they invent great special effects that are insanely expensive, there is one band that is dumb enough to buy it and that’s us.

“It’s also always important for us that we get it right away when it first comes out because … the look on the kids’ faces when they see an effect that has never been done before, it’s just worth it.

“We do a lot of other silly things. One of the reasons we put the stage in the back of the arena is so there’s always going to be a point during the show where you’re like in the best place to see the show. I remember the first time we did it, the accountants  going, ‘Paul, you can’t do this. You are killing seats. You are killing floor seats.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but it looks really, really cool.’ True story.”

l On mixing new singers and musicians with TSO veterans each year.

“You need the old-timers … They help mentor the younger ones. The majority of the band is between 25 and 45. Basically, it’s at the peak of their careers. We always make sure that we have a certain percentage between 18 and 25. The youngest we’ve ever had is 17.

“We’re over 60 now. We’ve had our fun on the flight deck. In some ways, it’s more fun watching these kids taking it to another level. With the death of the label system, there’s so few chances for musicians to go out there and tour, especially in the big arenas. But when they join TSO, all they just got to do is come to rehearsals, know their songs, get on the bus and then we’re off and running.”

l A dollar from each ticket sold in Youngstown will benefit Akron Children’s Hospital Mahoning Valley. How do they pick the local charities they support at each tour stop?

“When we started in the ’70s, usually at the end of every year we would write a check to a charity that we thought did good work. Then one year our accountants audited the charity and found out something odd, it was 96 cents out of every dollar went to overhead, and 4 cents went to the needy.

“When TSO started to tour, I think it was one of the agents said, ‘Paul, instead of writing one check at the end of the year, why don’t you take $1 or $2 from every ticket that you sell and write it for a local charity. This way, if you make a mistake, it won’t be a total disaster.’ I thought that was a great idea.

“Then somebody said, ‘You know what? We should get the radio stations involved because they live in the cities, they’re in the trenches, they know the charities that are real and they know the ones that are cons.’ We started asking the radio stations, what are the best charities?”

l What experiences from high school days influenced and inspired O’Neill?

” When I went to see The Who at Madison Square Garden in the late ’60s, I decided that I wanted to be a musician. Then I saw them a couple of years later. They come out and they opened up with ‘Baba O’Riley’ and the place goes nuts. They do another song, and the place goes nuts again. I tell all my friends, ‘They peaked on the second song, where are they going to go from here?’

“The third song they go even higher, then they go into this medley of, I think, ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’ Madison Square Garden went so insane. They literally drowned out The Who’s sound system. I got up to leave.

“My friend said, ‘Paul, are you OK?’ I’m like, “No. They are so good, I can’t stand watching them.’ I literally wandered around New York City literally depressed. Then, about five years ago, (Who lead singer) Roger (Daltrey) came out and did three encores with us and I got to tell him that story. He thought it was funny.”

l Is the audience mostly returning fans or newcomers, and how do you design the show to satisfy both?

“We noticed it’s a mixture of both. There’s a lot of times where half the audience has been to the last 10 shows, and half the audiences could be newbies.

“I love rookies. You can always tell rookies because I think when they go to the show and hear ‘orchestra’ at the end of the name, they think it’s 50 people in folding chairs with 20 lights on or off. When the lights dim and this massive hard rock lighting system starts to assemble itself, they realize, ‘Wow, this is going to be something different,’ and the roller coaster is off.

“The more we can blow their minds, the more I enjoy it. Again, the whole trick is just always when they think that they’ve seen the ultimate trick, you have five more in your back pocket.

“We try to put so much action between the front stage, the back stage, the walks and everything else going on that it’s not unusual for us to see somebody in one city and then see them the next day in the next city because they drove 300 miles to see the next show. We take that as an ultimate compliment.

“Again, the key is never to get complacent, never to forget that the people that own this band are the fans, and the minute we forget that is the minute the band starts to decline. Again, that’s true for corporations, that’s true for governments, that’s true for anyone. Again, we just feel really, really lucky that we get make our living doing this instead of being stuck in a cubicle making widgets.”