It started simply to give audiences - and the cast - a break from "Pump Boys and Dinettes."
"We struck the 'Pump Boys' set and decided let's give our patrons something new to watch in December," Easy Street Productions cofounder Todd Hancock said. "We had no idea it would become a big annual event."
That annual event is "Miracle on Easy Street," which celebrates its 25th anniversary with four public performances this weekend at Powers Auditorium.
The Toy Soldiers number featuring the Easy Street Dancers is one of the most popular production numbers in “Miracle on Easy Street.”
That first production had the cast of "Pump Boys" and Tania Grubbs (who was one of the original Uptown Girls and the understudy for Easy Street cofounder Maureen Collins and Robin McCamy in "Pump Boys") performing some of their holiday favorites.
Some elements have been there from the beginning, such as Collins pulling children out of the audience for a sing along, Hancock's Charlie Chaplin routine and his appearance as Elvis Claus for the finale.
But around those bits, "Miracle" has grown into a show that now features 165 performers (thanks to two separate casts of ''Little Rascals") and has become "Youngstown's answer to the Rockettes' Radio City Spectacular," Hancock said.
WHAT: Easy Street Productions - "Miracle on Easy Street"
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Powers Auditorium, 260 W. Federal St., Youngstown
HOW MUCH: $28 adults, $23 students and senior citizens and $15 for children ages 12 and younger. Children of active duty servicemen and women are admitted free. Tickets are available in advance by calling 330-743-8555 and at the DeYor Performing Art Center starting 90 minutes before each performance.
The show started at the Uptown Theater in 1989, moved to Stambaugh Auditorium for a couple of years and did a one-year stint at the Youngstown Playhouse before settling in at Powers Auditorium in the mid-'90s, where it's been ever since.
The Little Rascals children's troupes and the Easy Street Dancers were added as the show grew to fill larger and larger theaters. Choreographer Megan Cleland started working with the dancers months ago to prepare for the show.
"We call her the miracle of 'Miracle on Easy Street,'" Hancock said. "At this point, coming out with an Elvis wig on as Elvis Claus doesn't require a lot of rehearsal, but she's been working with the dancers since October."
Many of those Easy Street Dancers have gone onto professional careers, performing in New York and Chicago as well as on cruise ships and at Disney World.
"It's a great springboard to a career in dance," Hancock said. "They really get a feel for what it's like to be in a full-scale musical. There's nothing like hearing 2,000 people applaud for you. It gets in their veins."
Because this year's performances fall so close to the actual Christmas holiday, Hancock said he's heard from many former dancers and Little Rascals who will be in town this year and are looking forward to bringing their own little rascals to see the show. And several former cast members will be returning for the first time in years.
Original ''Miracle" performer Grubbs will be singing Joni Mitchell's "River." Tommy "Cole'' Smolko and Katy Collins, both of whom have moved to Nashville to pursue music careers, are coming home to do a duet together as well as performing separately.
And Easy Street is bringing back some songs that it hasn't done for years, like "Be a Santa," which Colleen Chance will sing with a chorus of 20 Santa Clauses. Along with Hancock and Collins, the show will include singing siblings Janeen Williams and Eric and James McClellan, featured cast member Candace Campana and newcomers Natalie Sprouse and Cortney MacKay, all backed by music director Jeff Sanders and the Easy Street Little Big Band.
Because of the anniversary, the emphasis this year is on celebrating the past rather than looking for new routines, but Hancock said there is only so much they can change.
"There are only about 30 (Christmas songs) that people really love," he said. "That's why the Johnny Mathis Christmas CD is pretty much the same as the Frank Sinatra Christmas CD. But people want to hear those songs. You can mix it up a little, but they don't write them like they used to. People want to hear those songs that remind them of their childhood.
"The charm of the show is it's an annual tradition for so many folks. They expect it to be somewhat the same. The neat thing about this year is that with these folks coming in, we've been able to mix it up a little bit. But there's always going to be the Toy Soldiers and the things that people associate with the show and make it what it is ... Maureen and I look back and just shake our heads. We can't believe we're still here and so many of our friends are ready to get up on stage with us."