‘Holiday Wishes 2′: Mannheim Steamroller means ChristmasWritten by Brandi Barhite | Associate Editor | email@example.com
When a man is everyone else’s Christmas tradition, there isn’t much he can do to impress his three children.
But that doesn’t stop Chip Davis from trying — and succeeding.
The founder of Mannheim Steamroller isn’t often home with children Kelly, Evan and Elyse during the busy holiday season, but he makes sure a few traditions endure.
The first is that he must be home for Christmas Day.
“Everyone else is home for Christmas. I just happen to be their entertainment; I am their tradition,” he said.
While home used to be Sylvania as a boy and later a music teacher at McCord Junior High, his home for most of his adult life has been Omaha, Neb., where he runs his music empire.
Getting home is harder for Davis because his groups’ concerts, television specials and guest appearances often serve as Christmas traditions for everyone else.
Mannheim Steamroller’s annual holiday tour began Nov. 15 and continues with 90 performances through Dec. 30. This is the 27th year for the Christmas tour, which still sells out after all these years. Mannheim will be in Cleveland on Dec. 21 and then Columbus on Dec. 22.
Last year, the Mannheim Steamroller tour was among the top 20 concert tours in the nation and included a stop in Toledo.
This year, Mannheim’s song “Fum Fum Fum” will be featured on the Make-A-Wish holiday album, “Holiday Wishes 2,” produced by Toledo Free Press.
Adding to Davis’ busy schedule, Mannheim Steamroller Christmas will have its first run in Las Vegas.
“While the Christmas tour is going on, I will go out to Las Vegas because the third touring company of Mannheim will be playing in the Venetian every day until the first of the year,” he said.
For Thanksgiving, Davis will fly to New York City for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Davis doesn’t play much anymore, but he will perform in the parade.
“I had neck surgery five years ago and it took my right arm out of commission,” he said. “It didn’t mean the end for me; it focused me on building the business.”
One of those newer projects is “Mannheim Steamroller: Pandora Unforgettable Moments on Ice.” It will air Nov. 25 from 4-6 p.m., the same day that Davis will celebrate Thanksgiving with his children. He is divorced from their mother.
“Christmas has always been a really favorite holiday, but I really love Thanksgiving,” he said. “It is hard to have a normal Thanksgiving with the Macy’s parade, so we will celebrate on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend and watch the television special.”
Davis and his family listen to Mannheim just like many families during the holidays, but their home-cooked meals are his second must-do tradition. One of his favorites is figgy pudding.
“My grandfather was a country doctor in Hamler, Ohio, and my grandma was a country cook. I can make a lot of her recipes because the tastes are still in my mouth and mind.
“If we are doing turkey, the challenge is not the turkey, it is the dressing. My grandmother added sausage to it and toasted almonds,” he said.
And then there is the French gravy with white wine. He can taste it already.
His memories are especially vivid these days after a trip to Northwest Ohio in September when his hometown of Sylvania and Sylvania Northview High School, recognized the Grammy-winning composer and musician who once played percussion in his high school band. Davis attended Sylvania High School before it split into Northview and Southview.
The city declared it “Chip Davis Day,” which was followed by a dedication of a street as “Chip Davis Way” at Silica Drive and Monroe Street. Davis grew up on Weldwood Lane where his childhood home is still standing, although the only child no longer has any family in the area.
Later that day, Davis was honored with a presentation at the halftime of the football game. Alumni sang the school’s alma mater, which Chip’s father, Louis Davis, composed. Chip is named after his father, but his mom, Betty, didn’t want people to say “Hey Junior,” so she started calling him Chip as a boy.
“Certainly my dad had a big hand in influencing me as a musician and composer,” Davis said. “He could improvise on a piano like crazy.”
Davis came from a musical family. His dad was a high school music teacher, he learned piano from his grandmother and his mother played a trombone in an orchestra. When he graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in musical education, Davis had mastered the bassoon and percussion.
But he tried to fight his destiny when he was a young choir boy.
“I wanted to be an electrical engineer. I was fascinated with building things and measuring, but I found out that I liked measuring sound best so that drove me back to music,” Davis said, laughing.
His first job out of college was teaching music at McCord and playing the bassoon in the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. While being a teacher wasn’t his ultimate goal, it helped prepare him for his next career move.
“I was doing it to figure out how to be a composer,” he said. “I was teaching and learning and treading water simultaneously. While I was teaching, I had a ball doing it. It ended up causing me to crystallize my thoughts about music. I had to teach someone else. The teaching experience ended up being good for me. When I wrote compositions, I had a better idea how to communicate music to the average person.”
At 65 years old, Davis is starting to think about the future of Mannheim and passing the tradition on.
So far, his 21-year-old daughter Kelly has shown the most interest. His other children, Evan, 16, and Elyse, 13, are still a little young to make a decision.
“I definitely see myself staying with the company,” said Kelly, who is the social media manager already. “We had a contest about why Mannheim means the holidays to people, and I read all 4,000 entries. People were saying that their kids listen to it, their grandmas listen to it. It would be silly not to continue the legacy that is Mannheim Steamroller.”
Growing up, Kelly said her dad was always just her dad.
“He wasn’t some crazy rock star,” she said. “We lived in the Midwest and had good values.”
Davis settled in Omaha after conducting a local production of “Hair.” He then took a job as a jingle writer for a Nebraska advertising agency. He started trading studio time for jingles.
Before his parents died, they witnessed some of his early success with his first album “Fresh Aire.”
“My dad was the piano tuner for the tour and my mom would travel just to be out there. They got to go and see the crowds build and see where it was heading,” Davis said.
The term “Mannheim Steamroller” comes from an 18th-century German musical technique called “Mannheim roller,” also known as the Mannheim rocket. The Mannheim rocket is a series of rapidly ascending broken chords from the lowest range of the bass line to the very top of the soprano line.
In 1984, Davis decided to create a Christmas album and soon Mannheim Steamroller Christmas was wowing listeners with its modernized, electronic version of “Deck the Halls.” Shortly after, he put together his first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas tour.
“When I told the distributors and realtors I wanted to do a Christmas album, they said, ‘You’re nuts. The only time an artist will do a Christmas album is when they run out of ideas.’”
In Davis’ case, the Christmas album made his career. Today, Davis’ Mannheim has all types of fans, even melting the heart of political pundit Rush Limbaugh who plays Mannheim on his political radio show and encourages people to attend the concerts.
“It is interesting for us because our Christmas is helping other people have their Christmas traditions,” said Terry Calek, marketing and communication director for Mannheim.
Calek, a longtime friend of Davis’, said this year was especially busy because of the new Las Vegas show, a major production.
“Chip doesn’t do anything small; he doesn’t do anything ordinary. He has never lost that sense of childhood wonder,” Calek said.
But even when Davis is busy, he makes time for his family and for traditions, she said.
“It always strikes me how magical it would have been to grow up with him as a father,” Calek said.
One time Davis set up cans of twinkly lights in a nearby meadow and told his children “the fairies had come,” Kelly said. For Halloween, he hosts a huge party for his children and their friends. He sets up a big screen showing black and white horror films. He sprinkles in a fortune teller, a headless horseman, witches and caldrons.
And his children seem to be taking after their creative father. Both his son and youngest daughter’s are exceptional instrumentalists, while Kelly, a vocalist, is talented on the business side.
Because Kelly works with her dad, she gets to see him more these days, but Christmas is still one of her favorite days with her dad. This year, he will be home by Dec. 23.
Kelly said her dad has always made Christmas Day special. He used to tell them that Santa was flying over the house, heading back to the North Pole. They would head outside with fake heat-sensing guns, and he would say, “Do you hear something?”
Not until a few years ago did Kelly learn that her dad had secretly set up a recording of jingling bells.
“That is definitely something I want to do with my kids,” she said.
And this speaks to the success of Mannheim: Traditions, like good music, make everything better.