Arts

After 40 Years of Fa-La-Laing, a New York Caroler Hands In His Bells

He has been heckled, slapped by a drunk Wall Street banker and ignored altogether. He has performed in the cake section of a Bronx supermarket, serenaded commuters on frigid Manhattan subway platforms and sung from inside a claustrophobic display window at Bloomingdale’s.

Being a Christmas caroler in New York City is not for the fainthearted. Just ask Tom Andolora, a onetime elf at Macy’s Santaland, who has spent the past four decades leading the Dickens’ Victorian Carolers, which he founded in 1982.

Now, after a long career in which the Carolers have tried to spread a little comfort and joy to sick children at Harlem Hospital, provided the soundtrack for wedding proposals at Rockefeller Center and serenaded several first ladies at the White House, Andolora, 65, is caroling for the last time this Christmas, before turning in his bells and retiring.

“Caroling is a dying art form and I don’t know if New York caroling will even be around in a decade,” he said, wistfully flipping through old photos of himself, in his top hat and Victorian dress.

“People don’t want religion or tradition anymore,” he worried. “I’ve given up my Christmases for 40 years. I’m done.”

The lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic; holiday playlists that are now heavier on Mariah Carey than the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; competition from younger upstarts who can rap “Jingle Bells”; and the closure of storied New York department stores like Lord & Taylor and Gimbels were all making traditional Victorian-style caroling increasingly untenable.

Andolora said the caroling business had never fully recovered from the coronavirus. “We are still getting cancellations,” he said. “People are getting Covid or are afraid of getting it.”

Bretana Turkon, Andolora, Rebecca Reres and Justin Tepper in 19th-century garb.Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Carols and caroling dates back at least to the Middle Ages in England, when people would go “a-wassailing” — singing Christmas songs in the streets in return for an alcoholic drink known as wassail, traditionally made with warmed ale, wine or cider, blended with spices and honey.

In New York, the caroling tradition has existed for decades, with dozens of groups who take to the streets in all five boroughs, bringing a little Christmas cheer to grumpy department store shoppers, neighborhood churches and soulless corporate parties, sometimes for as much as $1,500 an appearance.

Andolora began his Christmastime career as an elf.

The year was 1981 and Andolora, the grandson of Italian immigrants, had recently arrived in Manhattan from Jamestown, N.Y., eager to make it big in show business like another Jamestown native, Lucille Ball. To begin with, however, he had to pay the rent, and was soon wearing a jaunty green hat, a green velvet tunic and red knee-high boots at Macy’s Santaland.

He quickly worked his way up from “Tree Elf” to “Cashier Elf” before graduating to “Photo Elf” — positioning sometimes screaming children for their photos with Santa. He taught acting at Brooklyn College for a time, and also adapted and directed a gothic play about the secret lives of the dead.

But inspired after hearing caroling groups he found wanting, Andolora, a powerful baritone, decided he could do better. And so the Dickens’ Victorian Carolers were born, a quartet clad in 19th-century garb — black top hats, lace collars, capes, hoop skirts and white gloves — which has drawn its ranks from cruise ships and Broadway productions like “Show Boat.”

It turns out there is a crowded field of Dickensian carolers, apparently inspired by “A Christmas Carol,” and it has sometimes been difficult for the Dickens’ Victorian Carolers to stand out. There are the Dickens Carolers of Seattle, the Dickens Carolers of Kansas and the Original Dickens Carolers of Denver.

“I added the word ‘Victorian’ to our name to try and be different,” Andorola explained.

Andolora paid his dues (and the rent) as an elf at Macy’s Santaland.Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Looking back on his caroling days, Andorola said there had been mirth but also some Grinch-worthy moments, including a shopper who jeered, “That was terrible!” On more than one occasion, a member of the quartet has belted out “Twelve Days of Christmas” with stentorian gusto when the group was supposed to be singing a soulful version of “Silent Night.”

Some years ago, at a private Christmas party in a Park Avenue penthouse, Andolora accidentally shoved a porcelain Buddha with his foot during a spirited rendition of “Deck the Halls.” He dislodged the statue’s arm, which fell with a thump to the floor.

“It was mortifying,” he said, adding that the host, a wealthy impresario, forgave him.

There have also been high points, like when a New York State Police officer proposing to his fiancée hired the group to gather nearby and sing “Congratulations!” as he got down on one knee.

“He still sends me a Christmas card every year,” he said.

The Carolers have also performed at the White House during four administrations. Andolora recalled that Nancy Reagan’s party was impeccably run, that the Clintons never showed up to take their photo, and that President Barack Obama teased the group about its oversize hoop skirts.

Whatever the challenges of caroling in the Big City, Andorola said he had no regrets.

“I have loved caroling since I was a kid,” he said. “It can bring people to tears.”

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