Under the Tree with Beppy

By Minnie Lamberth
     Beppy Tiller is likeable. She is small of stature but has a big, friendly personality. She likes to laugh. She likes to tell stories. She smiles in a knowing way. It’s as if she is on to things said and unsaid.
     I got to know Beppy in the church kitchen, where we volunteer on Wednesday nights. I liked her because she’s so likeable, and I listened to the stories she likes to tell. That’s where I first heard about several experiences that I thought others should know about too.
     I interviewed Beppy. Or at least I tried. I went to her office and pulled out my notebook and pen. But when she started talking, she told me to put my pen down, so she could talk it through for herself before she answered my questions. It’s hard for a writer like me to listen while not writing, but I tried. At some point, I picked my pen back up and started writing anyway.
     Beppy has made a habit of longevity. She keeps doing things for years on end. She’s worked in the same job at her family’s real estate company for 47 years. She’s kept bed babies in the church nursery most Sundays for the last 42 years. And for 30 years, she has turned the organist’s pages during the Christmas program.
     “I stick with something until I get it right,” Beppy said.
     Beppy is 70 now, but there was a time when she was 39. That year, Virginia Figh was the organist at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, and she was preparing for a new kind of Christmas choir performance.
     Bill Roper, the minister of music, was launching his vision to put a live choir in an oversized metal structure shaped like a Christmas tree, built in the front of the sanctuary and covered with greenery, decorations and lights. Choir members would spend months over the fall rehearsing and memorizing music. Then when it was time for the hour-long performance, they would climb into the tree – row by row – and sing for two rehearsals and nine performances over seven days in December.
     That first year (and for the next 21 years after that), the Living Christmas Tree performances would be held in First Baptist’s 1905-built sanctuary, and this tree the choir would enter was positioned over the organ. That meant the organist was underneath the tree, with no way to see Bill or his direction without technical assistance. Page-turning assistance would also be needed.
     “Virginia was the director of older children’s choir, and I was one of the teachers and volunteers in there,” Beppy said. “She knew I had been a student of Dr. Rohlig’s (a widely-known organist in this community). She knew I could read music.” So that’s how Beppy got the request to turn pages during the performances – she had the right mix of ability and availability.
     Organ music has some extra details, Beppy explained. “There are three lines for everything because you’ve got a pedal line,” she said. All that detail requires concentration. “When you have two hands, two feet, three lines of music, you can’t think of anything else. And you have registration to think about because those change as you go along in the music.”
     For these performances, you would add in the fact that you can’t see the director and you’re sitting under 100 choir members standing in various states of discomfort within a metal structure. The people in the tree have about one-square-foot of space to move around, give or take. Some members stand on boxes, trying to maintain a universal height of six feet. In any year, a fainting spell or some other type of distress has caused someone to leave the tree during a performance.
     Being under the tree was not the most natural place to sit. There was a lot going on above and around. As they were preparing for the inaugural tree performances, Beppy saw one of the crew walking around with a level, seeming to test the surfaces to determine the viability of the structure. It gave her pause. “He had that level, and I said, ‘I’m not too sure about this – when someone is checking everything with a level.’”
     That first year, Beppy explained, they had an audio monitor and a video monitor. That’s how they could see Bill. “You could hear things going on around you – like if someone got sick and had to leave the tree – but you wouldn’t know what was happening,” she said.
     This state of having to rely on these two monitors – and not certain of anything else going on – is the set up for one of Beppy’s stories.
     “It was on a Saturday night,” she said. They were in the middle of the performance, all safe and snug indoors on a rainy December eve, until… “All of a sudden Virginia’s video monitor went out,” Beppy said. “I saw it the same time she did.”
     This unexpected occurrence called for quick action, but what? Beppy had to leave her place under the tree and go for help. “I crawled out through the scaffolding that holds the tree up,” she said. There were a number of choir members standing outside the tree (everyone couldn’t fit inside). Beppy crawled behind these members and across the floor to the choir loft door.
     “I reach my hand up where the knob is and turn it,” she said. “I crawl down the steps and somehow get the door closed.”
     But then… “It’s raining. I have no raincoat. Nothing. I run out the side on Scott Street and run around the corner.” She is spotted by ushers who recognize her and know her for her page-turning role. “They saw me run up the front steps. Huffing and puffing (I was younger then), I said, ‘video.’”
     That one word was all she could get out. A man named Jimmy saw her first, she said, and when he did, he knew that the worst thing that could have happened would be no video.
     In this first year, Beppy explained, the wiring wasn’t under the floor, so Jimmy began crawling on his hands and knees following the extension cords through the sanctuary. “He went under all those pews and found it under the front pew. He attached it.” Apparently, someone in the congregation that night had accidentally kicked and loosened the connection, causing the blank screen. In the meantime, Beppy had gone back under the tree to tell Virginia, “They’re working on it.” And the performance continued.
     In the dark, with little space, in the middle of a performance, even simple requests can be large undertakings. About the second or three year, Beppy said, “Something went wrong with the lights on the tree.” Somebody from the crew crawled toward her to ask her to find a choir member who had worked with the electrical connections. All Beppy knew was that he was singing on the front row, and her way of finding him was by looking from the back for the right pair of legs standing just above her and facing the congregation.
     “I have to get out of the organ bench, and I had to go between everybody till I could find that person. I pulled on his leg,” she said. At first, he ignored her, assuming she was just messing with him. But Beppy kept pulling on his pants’ leg. Finally, he leaned down, and she said, “When it gets dark, scoot down. We’ve got a problem.” When it got dark, he stepped down and worked on the problem.
     Sara Jo Bagley has been the organist during all but the first few years of performances. Beppy says they have a ritual to start each performance. As the pastor, Jay Wolf, prays at the beginning, Beppy pats Sara Jo on the knee, says “God bless you,” and then “Let’s get after it.”
     While the two were in their positions under the tree, Beppy recalls one other incident involving a headset and a pair of glasses.
     “None of the organists have ever had headsets. They depend on the person next to them to know what’s going on,” Beppy said. “I had headsets that had an antenna.”
     During one of the performances, Beppy explained, the wire flipped out of the antenna and got caught on Sara Jo’s glasses. “Every time I turned a page, her head went too.” But they couldn’t stop the music. “I’m crying I’m laughing so hard, but we had to finish the piece.” As soon as it was over, she said, Sara Jo “took her glasses off and got us untangled.”
     In 2004, First Baptist opened its new sanctuary, and the organ was no longer within the choir loft but to the side. As the Living Christmas Tree performances continued – now led by minister of music Chip Colee – the organist and her page turner left their unique vantage point underneath the tree and moved out into the open.
     As the organist page turner, there are a lot of things to deal with. In the old sanctuary, for example, the temperature was kept very cold to keep the choir from getting too hot in the tree. “We’d do everything to keep our hands warm,” Beppy said.
     At times, she’s turned two pages. She also knows that everything in the area is “hot.” All the keyboards, all the pedals. She doesn’t touch anything. “You have to be able to read music pretty fast,” she said. “You have to keep your place.”
     In any performance, Beppy said, “The most nerve-wracking part is loading the tree.” The organist plays music as the choir takes up to 15 minutes to load the tree from bottom to top. “When they load the tree, I have to have communication on where they are,” Beppy said. As needed, she’ll turn back a page in the music to keep it going. But she has to watch to make sure they don’t change keys.
     Because the current sanctuary is so much larger than the old one, the performances were reduced from nine over five days to five over three days. Beppy comes in during the first in-the-tree rehearsal and meets with Sara Jo. “She and I go over her books. She’ll tell me ‘we’ve done this before’ or ‘it’s a new piece.’”
     And being out from under the tree and out in the open has its advantages. “When you can see Chip and the choir, it’s much easier doing it where we are,” Beppy said.
     There’s no telling how many pages this page turner has turned in 30 years of Living Christmas Tree performances. Like the hairs on our head, only heaven knows that answer. But Beppy said, “That’s my Christmas. It’s a way of praising the One Who’s our Savior. I never get tired of hearing it. I never get tired of being with the choir.”
“Under the Tree with Beppy” was the first in a series of stories by Minnie Lamberth called People I Met at Church. Originally posted October 2012 at www.minnielamberth.com.