The music begins softly, then builds as the lights go up on curtains so high they could be concealing Noah's ark. Steadily the drapes part to reveal two, 55-foot singing Christmas trees.
That is just the effect Jon Territo wanted. As a music director at the 13,000-member First Baptist Church of Orlando, Fla., Territo works first-hand with the annual Christmas program.
"The Christmas program is a major outreach for the community," Territo said. "Between 30,000 and 40,000 people attend each year."
That's a lot of eyes to see every flaw, and also every fantastic effect on center stage. So the program directors are always changing things up to keep the event exciting and excellent. Last year when they decided they wanted something new in the presentation Ã¢â¬â namely a gigantic curtain Ã¢â¬â they first questioned if they were dreaming too big. Would it be possible to drape such a large space, they wondered. The church sanctuary seats 6,000.
"We wanted to do it in a way that would be awesome," Territo said. "But we thought, Ã¢â¬ËWho would make a curtain like that?' Then we found Rose Brand."
The custom drapery experts suggested a lighter weight velour fabric instead of velvet, to allow such a mammoth curtain to be hung at First Baptist. It is a solution the company has become more accustomed to providing in recent years as their clientele has begun to include more and more large churches.
Peter Finder, vice president of sales and marketing at Rose Brand, estimated the company's work with churches makes up 2 percent of its business now. That represents significant growth.
"A lot of that growth has been over the last 10 years as people with theatrical background are bringing that to church performance," Finder said. He also said church business has increased over the last 10 years with the growing number of megachurches and what he termed a "general resurgence of religion in the country."
According to church consultant Bill Easum, since 1970 the number of megachurches has grown from 10 to 835. More than 30 now exceed 10,000 in worship attendance, launching a new category he terms "gigachurch." But while the large numbers at these churches support new theatrically based ministries often the architecture of the worship space does not.
"One of the things we offer churches, which is very important, is our staff, many of whom have been in theatre as production or designers," said Finder. "Churches may not know how to integrate theater tech into their space. Churches weren't built to have a proscenium, so in order to create a stage it takes more work. Churches know what effects they want but don't know how to get there. If people don't know what is possible they may become discouraged."
Finder said the limitations of a typical church space can be overcome easily with drape. He also said drapes can offer churches affordable options for the effects they have in mind.
Brenda Helmick, owner of the Tennessee-based Kendall stage curtains company, said most churches want advice about how to drape their spaces.
"We just took an order for one we went to visit and the church knew exactly what they wanted," Helmick said, "but most don't." Kendall advises churches about lighting concerns and curtains that will maximize a small stage, etc.
Fify-foot curtains opened to reveal the annual singing Christmas trees at First Baptist Church of Orlando, Fla., last year. The outreach event draws 30,000 to 40,000 people to the church during the Christmas season.
Fifty-foot maroon curtains were eventually strung across the sanctuary in Orlando. "We ordered it a certain length and had to trim part to accommodate the stairs," said First Baptist's Territo. The hemming presented a unique challenge to a volunteer seamstress who ended up sewing her way across the sanctuary where the mammoth curtain flopped over the pews like a beached whale.
Eventually the curtain was fitted to a rented track with an electric motor to allow smooth openings and closings. Territo the church is interested in purchasing the track for future performances. But the motorized mechanism significantly adds to the cost of what is a big budget item even for the mega-church.
Curtains for multi-purpose rooms
Other churches have used gigantic curtains as a big way to make their spaces smaller. Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Ill., one of the largest churches in the United States, looked to drapes to section off its multi-purpose activities center space.
"The activities center was used for overflow for Christmas and Easter," said Mary-Jane Delprincipe of Willow Creek. That was before the recent completion of the church's new auditorium that seats 7,200. The church uses moveable panels and divider curtains hooked on trusses to split up the space for smaller groups. "That way we can use those back rooms for something else," she said.
The curtains are "similar to what we do for basketball arenas that want to stage concerts," said Finder.
The Kendall company also curtains off gymnasiums for multi-purpose use. Helmick said churches comprise some 30 to 40 percent of their business and gym dividers and stage curtains are their most common needs.
The bottom line for most churches, she said, is budget. She said churches whose vision includes a children's ministry with plays and performances, or a drama ministry will opt for stage curtains. "Larger churches want to go that direction," she said.
Other churches decide to drape based on their space. "We did curtains here in Nashville recently, converting an old grocery store into a church, a beautiful church." Helmick said the church ordered curtains to drape all the walls to create better acoustics.
Times Square Church is a New York City ministry founded by Rev. David Wilkerson, author of the bestselling book, "The Cross and the Switchblade." When the ministry moved into a turn-of-the-century theater for worship, church leaders wanted to compliment the space with traditional stage curtains. The result was a look that may have been too ornate for a more utilitarian building. Rose Brand consulted with the church to create curtains that complement the theater dÃÂ©cor.
"One of the toughest things in a church is that the spaces are typically built without theater in mind," said Finder. "There is no wing or fly space. They're working very often with spaces that are beautiful, but often pitched ceilings." Churches struggle to solve problems such as where to hang scenery and curtains and how to get actors off stage. "They have to create an off stage," Finder said, "and curtains are a good way to do that. You have to create a theater in basically an empty space." Finder recalled one project that involved attaching a curtain to a gothic arch in order to close off a space.
The versatility of curtains is a real asset for churches looking for fresh ideas on space problems, according to Finder. "Fabric is a good way to frame a space," he said.