Purdue Christmas Show: History

Even before the acquisition of Fowler Hall as the new home of Purdue Musical Organizations, Al Stewart had been staging different performances and productions in the Fowler auditorium for several years. Of these early offerings, one has grown and remains one of Purdue’s and Indiana’s finest traditions: the Purdue Christmas Show. Garnering a small crowd of only 200 people during the first performance in 1933, the Christmas Show slowly but surely crept into the holiday consciousness of students, friends, families and community members, appealing to audiences of all ages. With the completion of the state-of-the-art, 6,000-seat Hall of Music in 1940, the Purdue Christmas Show took on a life of its own. By 1947, a second performance was added, and in 1954, a third performance and an admission cost of $1.50 for adults and 50 cents for children were added, intending to help defray any production costs and potentially limit the size of the crowds.

In spite of inevitable price increases and the addition of even more performances annually, the Purdue Christmas Show continued to attract and inspire throngs of people each year. In 1964, an additional show was again added and all seats for this holiday extravaganza evolved from a first-come, first-served basis to reserved seating. As the years went by a fifth and sixth performance were added until 1972, when a decision was made to reduce the number of performances in observance of the efforts of student performances and their ever-increasing academic demands. The number of performances has again seen a change as the world of entertainment and instant-access has affected the lives of everyone through the Internet, satellite television, multi-media offerings, and home video and recording devices. “Live” entertainment is seen and valued in different ways by each individual, and while the excellence, professionalism and magic that is shared by Purdue’s brightest and best is truly unmatched in most collegiate settings, the costs associated with producing a high-caliber production of this magnitude also continue to rise. Today, the Purdue Christmas Show offers four public performances each year and the additional morning matinee offered for elementary through high school students.

Elaborate sets, intricate and specially tailored musical arrangements of sacred and secular holiday favorites, the introduction of new and soon-to-be Christmas classics, and dramatic and comedic skits and dialogues continued to enthrall nearly 30,000 audience members annually. Radio and television soon came calling, and the Purdue Christmas Show was now available to millions of people across the nation and beyond through Public Television and the Armed Forces Radio Network. The addition of professional instrumentalists and set designers and the innovative use of the latest audio-visual technologies have also played an important role in the longevity and popularity of one of Purdue’s most excellent offerings. Although musical tastes and styles have experienced significant change since 1933, the Purdue Christmas Show (regardless of specific show format or blueprint) has remained a stalwart of quality music, inspirational messages and wholesome family entertainment for more than 75 years.

  • The First Christmas Show was in 1933 in Fowler Hall. It was free of charge, and seats were first-come first-served. Only 200 people attended.
  • In 1940, the show moved to the new Elliott Hall of Music, the 6,000-plus seat auditorium that houses the show today. By that year, the show was “standing room only.”
  • A second performance was added in 1947 and a third in 1954, which was also the first year that admission was charged — adults were $1.50, while children and students were 50 cents!
  • Reserved seating began in 1964 after the rushing crowd nearly trampled a woman, who, ironically, was Ethel Stewart, mother of PMO’s Director Emeritus Al Stewart.
  • Just five directors have led the Christmas show in 75 years: Al Stewart, who created the first show; Bill Luhman, Bill Allen, Brian Breed and the current PMO Director, Bill Griffel.
  • Today, with five performances in three days, the show is seen by more than 15,000 people live.
  • Contrary to popular myth, PMO does not use Elliott Hall of Music for free. PMO rents the hall and its services, just like any outside professional show would.
  • Another misconception is that PMO students are music majors. In fact, Purdue doesn’t have a school of music. PMO students do not receive academic credit or compensation, and they major in everything from engineering to art to botany. They sing because they love it!
  • You can enjoy their beautiful voices all year with PMO’s merchandise. Merchandise is on sale in the lobby of Elliott Hall of Music before and after each show, at bookstores near campus and by order from PMO.

  • How many ways has Santa Claus made his grand entrance in the Christmas Show? He’s flown in like Superman, on a blimp and on a goose. He’s come down the chimney. He’s rolled in on a skateboard. He’s even popped out of a jack-in-the box. What’s the mode of transportation this year? Come join us and find out.
  • The beautiful faces and vibrant costumes are not only on Purdue’s campus. Did you know a one-hour video version of the Christmas Show is broadcast on PBS stations around the country during the holiday season? Many people share in the magic this way. Check your local listings for times in your area.
  • Even if you’re in the Hall of Music, you can still journey away. The Christmas Show has featured a Dickens village, the big city, the country, the tropics and a toy shop!
  • Of course, children are the key to the Christmas Show. The PMO Kids Choir, made up of PMO staff children and others, steals the show. The kids range in age from 8 to 12.
  • Construction on the sets begins in the summer. It takes three months to build the set, two weeks to put it on stage and fine-tune things, hundreds of gallons of paint, and nearly 1,000 yards of fabric to create the sets, props, floor drop, screens and custom curtain.