Festival of Trees Gala showcases artistic talent, philanthropic efforts in community

Nov. 19—ANDERSON — Among the most talked-about Christmas trees for auction at Saturday's Festival of Trees Gala was a towering creation by Kirby Gilliam and Steven Erlandson.

Outfitted with postcard-sized photos of several notable Anderson landmarks and dressed with multi-colored lights and an array of solidly colored ornaments, the tree featured a special technological nod to Gilliam's passion for bringing together the special-needs community and the community at large.

"I wanted to pull in technology, and I asked Steven to help with that," Gilliam said. "I told him I want to do something where I can put music on the tree and make it visual."

Erlandson suggested equipping the tree with microphones and Bluetooth speakers that would allow nearly 1,000 lights to sync with music.

Gilliam, the owner of PlainSong Music Services, a downtown music therapy clinic, said the result brought together the themes of her business and her enthusiasm for the community in ways that surpassed her expectations.

"PlainSong pulls in a community of special-needs individuals, and we wanted to tie that back to the greater community," she said. "This has been a fabulous experience, and I would do it again. I can't wait until next year."

The handiwork of Gilliam and Erlandson — along with 15 other tree designers, many of them first-time participants in the gala — was appreciated by hundreds of bidders who dined on roast chicken and other dishes before the silent auction began.

Organizers were hoping to raise at least $120,000 that would go toward continued renovations at the Paramount Theatre. Prominent among those projects is the conversion of a building immediately behind the theater into updated, handicap-accessible dressing rooms, which officials hope will eventually allow the theater to host more high-profile entertainers and concerts.

"It's a lot of work, but it's so worthwhile," said Amanda Shepherd, a member of the Paramount Heritage Foundation's board of directors. "Luckily, we have a good community that is willing to step up and help the Paramount."

The Festival of Trees, which began in 1989, has evolved into one of the theater's flagship events and has come to serve as the unofficial kickoff for the city's schedule of holiday events downtown. The early days saw volunteers bringing trees loaned to the theater by local businesses into the building for display.

"We had 1,500 pillowcases on the backs of the theater seats because (the trees) were so grimy and gross," recalled Bobbette Snyder, one of the event's co-founders. "We had everything in the lobby of the theater. We just wanted to get bodies in the door so people could see the potential."

Snyder said it's been gratifying to see groups of designers, supported by local businesses, translating their expertise into eye-catching creations that bring smiles and holiday cheer to those who see them.

"If you gave six designers a box with the exact same ornaments, you'd come up with six different beautiful trees," she said. "These designers use all their own money, resources, they shop for all these items, they create. I'm so amazed at the new ideas we see (every year). They're all so gorgeous."

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.