Just moments prior to filling Bellevue Way, the hundreds of teenaged Snowflake Lane performers are neatly lined up, not one of them having lost a drumstick or piece of their costume. They chatter excitedly before ascending the stairs when their number is called, ready for another night’s performance in what is now one of Bellevue’s holiday traditions.
“There is so much timing involved, but I have a really, really good crew and everything is set up perfectly. Its like a machine,” Director and Producer Greg Thompson said after the show. Snowflake Lane is full of moving parts — hundreds of performers, crew members, choreography, costumes, props and other small but important details.
Hoards of people — between 10,000 and 12,000 — reportedly come and see Snowflake Lane each night. Its popularity has grown so much that the city and police department opted to close Bellevue Way between Northeast 4th and 8th Streets to accommodate the crowds. Generations of families come to see the show, including some of the original viewers who are now bringing small children of their own.
When Snowflake Lane first opened in 2001, Kemper Freeman had asked Thompson and his team for a historic, nostalgic feel. There were carolers walking up and down the sidewalks and kiosks giving out roasted chestnuts.
Over the years, Snowflake Lane has grown from a couple dozen performers to around 250 cast members bedecked in holiday glitz and filling Bellevue Way every evening at 7 p.m. from Nov. 27 through Dec. 24 (that’s not including “Celebration Lane”, which unique glittering, Americana-inspired production that opens Dec. 26 and runs through New Year’s Eve).
Now, the production boasts 46 snow machines and more than 500 lights. In the thirty nights of Snowflake Lane, the nutcrackers walking on stilts will hand out around 130,000 lollipops.
“It’s a huge production to put on every year,” Kemper Development spokesperson Cheryl Engstrom said.
Beginning in January, Thompson and his production company begin rehabilitating the show and its various components from the previous season (which ended mere weeks prior). Set pieces and props are repaired and the costumes are dry-cleaned.
Around the same time, Greg’s wife Sunny begins exploring new music options.
The five or so songs featured in Snowflake Lane change every few years. Despite the scores of Christmas and holiday season songs available, the search for new music can be a pretty intensive, she said. The songs must be secular and uptempo, which weeds out most options.
In July, the heavy duty preparation starts in order to get everything ready for the auditions in September.
Each year, between 600 and 800 young people vie for the opportunity to be a dancer, drummer or other wintertime character in the production. Roughly half of the people who end up being cast are repeat participants, and for most, Snowflake Lane is their first real job.
For some, like Rica Macert, 27, it becomes a yearly tradition. Macert has performed in Snowflake Lane since its inception, starting off as a drummer and moving her way up through the ranks to a princess this year. It has become like a family to her, she said.
“One of the highlights is seeing the growth,” she said. “A girl came up to me this year and showed me a picture of her parents took of her with me when she saw the show ten years ago.”
The audition process has to be thorough, as the performance schedule and expectations are rigorous. The cast performs every night at 7 p.m. sharp, sometimes in rain or snow. The dancers and drummers have to memorize multiple songs’ worth of choreography and often learn to drum, and the characters must help entertain the crowd each night.
“I think you have to have a really big personality. You have to put in a lot of effort and we have to choose the right people,” said Amber Vineberg, who has helped cast the show for the past few years.
After casting, the cast and crew have only three weeks to rehearse. In the last few years, Thompson has been able to send videos of the choreography and drum music to the cast to learn. But, because Bellevue Way is a busy street prior, they don’t get to practice altogether in the space where they’ll perform for large crowds every night before opening night.
“I’ve been doing this for 50 years, and I’ve never had to put on a show without a dress rehearsal outside of Snowflake Lane. These kids learn the steps and music, but then all of the sudden, there’s all the lights and crowds on the streets. That’s a really frightening thing for some of these kids,” Thompson said. “We kind of have to treat the first like a dress rehearsal.”
By the time Snowflake Lane debuts after Thanksgiving, Thompson and his team have already put countless hours of work into the show.
As Kemper Development constructs the Lincoln Square expansion — which is slated to begin occupancy in 2016 — Thompson is also thinking of an expansion of his own.
When the Lincoln Square Expansion opens, it will double the space that Snowflake Lane must fill on Bellevue Way each year. It’s more than likely that the 300 cast and crew members will jump significantly in size.
But, seeing the smiling faces of children in the audience and the growth in their regular performers makes it all worth it, he said.