Claud Smith III is on the line, and he sounds like death — the voice of a man burning the candle at both ends.
“I’m doing better than I sound,” he croaks as we begin our conversation.
I ask if his body is rebelling against his workload, which has intensified in the last several weeks.
Smith doesn’t disagree: “With productions, that’s always going to be the way. You push yourself to the limit to get it open, and then, once you’re done, you’re done.”
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The show, in other words, must go on.
And so it shall — Smith is overseeing the creation of Arlington Music Hall’s inaugural, original holiday showcase, Christmaspectacular!, which opens Friday and continues through Dec. 11.
The production is the first endeavor of its kind for the newly re-energized, 1100-capacity venue, located in the heart of downtown Arlington. The Music Hall’s history stretches back more than 60 years — just a decade ago, Burk Collins undertook a $7 million renovation, refurbishing the seats as well as the lights and sound system.
In 2015, Fort Worth city councilman Cary Moon, through his Center Street Complex investment group, took over ownership of the onetime movie palace, overseeing upgrades to the facility and a renewed focus on attracting audiences.
“Our goal is to be good stewards of the Music Hall, just as the prior owners have been,” Moon told DowntownArlington.org in February. “We want to take the concert experience to the next level.”
Part of Moon’s strategy involved reaching out to Smith, who had crossed paths with Moon earlier in life when Alabama native Smith was a Fort Worth seminary student teaching choir classes at Burleson High School.
“That’s where I met Cary; he was one of the students there,” Smith says. “So fast-forward 20 years, and he emailed me and said, ‘I’m looking at buying this entertainment venue.’ He said, ‘I know a lot about food and beverage, but I need a little bit of advice on what to ask as far as the theatrical stuff is concerned: the lights, the sound, that kind of thing.’ ”
Smith was more than up to the task of advising Moon — his career to date has included stints at Disney, Six Flags Over Texas, Viking Cruises and Busch Gardens as a writer, director and performer. Although he was enjoying success, Smith was feeling somewhat rootless.
“The stuff that I was doing for Disney and those guys, very little of it was done in Orlando,” he says. “I would fly somewhere and put a show together, and then fly back out. So I never really got to nurture any relationships or anything and build something ongoing with the people in any particular community, because I was in so many different places.”
After a series of emails with Moon, Smith accepted the title of creative curator at Arlington Music Hall last year, and returned to North Texas to help guide the beloved room through its latest incarnation.
“This gave me a chance to come back, and come back to a place that I already kind of knew, and develop some new relationships, as well as developing some of the existing ones,” says Smith, who lives about 10 minutes from the Music Hall. “So I’m real excited about that.”
One of the first ideas Moon had in 2015, after the Center Street Complex group took over, was mounting a holiday pageant — the sort of grandly inclusive, inoffensive and celebratory production that seems a rare beast in the hyper-commercialized 21st century — but rather than rush to do so, Smith suggested holding off until 2016.
Biding their time allowed Smith to fully realize, with help from composer Frank Ralls, what he calls “a big revue show.” It would be an ambitious ode to the spirit of the season, as well as a dazzling calling card for a venue that, whether by virtue of its location or its bookings, is often unfairly overlooked in the mix of places to see and hear live performances in North Texas.
“It’s in a big sense inspired by Radio City Music Hall, in that there are segments of the show, and each one deals with a different part of Christmas,” Smith says. “The opening is all about decorations, and we unveil this 20-foot-tall Christmas tree. There will be the light show with that. Then we go into a segment with winter weather — singing about snow; it’s got a bunch of familiar stuff.
“We do a country segment, do some country Christmas songs. We do some novelty songs: Blue Christmas, All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas, Santa Baby, that kind of stuff.
“After intermission, we do a whole Toyland segment with children. Then we do the last big piece of the show: ‘Home and family.’ That takes us into a live nativity, with all a cappella charts.”
Broadening the booking
Simply put, Christmaspectacular! is a show with something for everyone, and a chance for those who haven’t stepped inside the space in some time to see what Smith, Moon and company have done with the Arlington Music Hall.
As for what the future holds, Smith is enthusiastic when describing plans for the coming months and beyond at the venue, including plans to designate the area around Arlington Music Hall as a cultural district, not unlike the hives of arts-oriented activity found in Fort Worth and Dallas.
“We sincerely want to do that, and hope that people will look at Arlington Music Hall as something broader than it has been in the past,” Smith says, “because Johnnie High was here 20 years ago and did his country music revue, but we’re a lot more than just country music. We’re still doing country music, but we’ve got old rock ’n’ roll bands, we’ve got tribute shows, and now we have original programs, as well as we do a summer musical-theater camp that brings in kids from the area.”
In other words, Arlington Music Hall aims to be a room for not only all seasons, but all North Texans.