by Steven Sanchez
It’s the most wonderful time of year. Presents, lights, sweets, roasted chestnuts, and mistletoe.
Kris Kringle will give out gifts and cheer to children all around the world. But what about the adults? Nate Butler is here to fill the big man’s shoes and sleigh to spread holiday cheer to those adults that are in need of it through music, crafts, and fun.
You are cordially invited to Nate Butler’s 26th Annual Mmm-Mmm Christmas: The Silver & Gold Anniversary Edition at Fulton 55 on Saturday, December 15. Think of him as Buddy, the lovable, adult elf who just wants to spread the joy of Christmas spirit, but he’s dressed as the head honcho who’s orchestrating this night of piano playing, famous Christmas specials going on in the background, caroling, and making Christmas ornaments. It’s an adult-oriented event but enough activity to deck the halls with boughs of holly.
Kings River Life Magazine got an exclusive interview with this spirited Saint Nick who’s looking forward to another successful night to let the holiday spirit ring. Because with everything going on in the world we sure can use it. We talked to him about what inspired him to do his show, what it takes to put it on, his holiday favorites (movies, specials, treats,), and for being an eclectic pianist what gratification does he get playing Christmas songs.
KRL: Do you think with all the crazy stuff that’s going in the world that now we need more holiday spirit more than ever?
Nate: Yes, I certainly do. When it works, the ‘holiday spirit’ seems to bring out the best in people’s character, and makes people act kinder to others, and we definitely could use some of that good fellowship right now, if not every year.
KRL: You’ve done your show at different venues around town, the Starline (now Strummer’s), Club Fred (closed), and this year it’s at Fulton 55, so what can we look forward to at this venue?
Nate: One of the great things about Fulton 55 is its size. There is an upper section with a balcony and its own bar that the club only opens up if there are enough people attending the show. So, I hope a lot of people attend because the balcony offers a really great view!
KRL: You play piano during silent films at the Revue Cafe. That whole dynamic of playing music with a film playing in the background was that the inspiration as to why you play Christmas specials while performing during the show? And also do the scenes help inspire you to put that same emotion taking place during the scene into your playing?
Nate: The Christmas TV specials definitely enhance the mood of the show–for me, anyway! They help bring me back to my childhood memories of the fun aspects of Christmas. The audience seems to feel the same way, it helps get everyone into the spirit. However, my annual Christmas singalong show predates my silent movie shows by about fifteen years, so there’s no real connection between them (other than me). They’re both just oddball things I do to entertain people.
KRL: You’ve been a part of the Fresno music scene for a long time.
Nate: Yes, I was raised in Fresno, and I never left. I played my first club gig at The Wild Blue (famous 1970s-1990s Tower District club) before I was old enough to drink at the bar, and I’ve been haunting the Tower District ever since, playing in too many bands to name here.
KRL: Did you ever consider on taking your talents elsewhere, and if not, what was it that made you stay?
Nate: I’ve never seriously considered moving out of Fresno because I can afford to live the life of an artist here. Also, I have roots here, and have built up a small reputation for myself as an entertainer over the past 30+ years. I wouldn’t try to move elsewhere unless I had some sort of income that would allow me to do so. And anyway, if I were to resettle somewhere else, I’d just go back to being a nobody who has to prove himself all over again in a new environment (which, I’ll admit, could be very interesting).
KRL: I’ve seen the list of all the genres of songs you can play and your talents are very eclectic. You cover a wide scope, so what is that makes you keep coming back to Christmas jingles?
Nate: One of the things I love about Christmas songs is that we only sing them for one month (or so) out of the year, and so they are unique. So, when December rolls around, I can take a break from my usual repertoire and play these songs that are only ‘allowed’ once a year. That variety keeps things fresh for this musician! Also, I happen to love Christmas songs. Let me clarify. When I say “Christmas songs” I’m referring to the traditional songs (“Angels We Have Heard on High” etc.) and the “classic” popular songs (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” etc.). I’m not a big fan of modern renditions of the classics; I feel that modern pop singers ruin the old songs when they sing them because modern singers have a tendency to stretch the melody beyond recognition in a vain attempt to show off their own vocal chops, and the result is always lacking and I just wanna turn the radio off. I don’t have much use for any Christmas song recorded after 1980.
KRL: You’re an all-around artist, a pianist, drawer, actor. Each one of those crafts may offer a different kind of satisfaction that the other doesn’t, so what kind of satisfaction do you get when you play piano?
Nate: That’s a great question. For me, here’s the contrast: I love drawing pictures, but when I draw a picture, it never moves, it just stays there where I left it. It’s a “still” art form. For example, if I draw a picture of a dragon, and then walk away and come back and look at it later, yep, that dragon is still there, and he hasn’t moved an inch. Whereas when I play the piano, everything is moving all the time, and nothing stays in place for longer than the moment. So, when I play solo piano, I am truly “free,” moving in “real time,” and nothing is fixed in space or time. I can go anywhere, there are no boundaries, and when I’m done, there’s nothing left to “look at,” it’s all just gone except for your memory of it, unlike the picture of the dragon that is still sitting there. So, both arts have their satisfactions, but the satisfactions are very different. Acting is a very different animal. Although theater also “moves in real time,” like music, it is much scarier to perform as an actor than to play live music. That’s a whole other discussion, haha!
KRL: Would you also say that your Christmas show is a way for you to combine all three of your loves into one endeavor?
Nate: Oh yes, absolutely! My Christmas show combines music, singing, art, and a touch of theater. Y’know, I never really thought of it like that before, but, yes, you nailed it. What a great question! These last couple questions have made me realize that I don’t think much about why I do what I do. All my life I’ve never given it much thought, really, I just do what I do because I do it. I can’t help it. Perhaps I’m simply hard-wired to be this way.
KRL: What’s your favorite Christmas jingle to play?
Nate: My favorite Christmas song to play is “Christmastime Is Here,” by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi from the 1965 TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It’s not a “traditional” Christmas song, but it captures the sentiment of the season very well and very sweetly, and I could play it all year long. But arguably the loveliest Christmas song ever written could be “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” by Mel Torme. It’s very sentimental, and yet has all those cool jazz chords that us musicians love to play. This is another song that I would happily play year-round.
KRL: What’s your favorite Christmas special?
Nate: It’s difficult for me to choose a favorite Christmas TV special, but if pressed I’d have to go with A Charlie Brown Christmas at #1, with Rankin-Bass’s Santa Claus Is Coming to Town as a close #2, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas as a close #3.
KRL: What’s your favorite Christmas film?
Nate: For my favorite Christmas film, I’d have to choose the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim, although I thought the 2009 version starring Jim Carrey was also very good (which defied my expectations). I wouldn’t dream of choosing It’s A Wonderful Life to watch to get me into the Christmas spirit. It’s a great film, but not very Christmas-y in my humble opinion. I never watch A Christmas Story either. It was great fun the first time, but it’s not something I could watch over and over. But I could watch almost any version of A Christmas Carol over and over.
KRL: It just seems with each passing year America likes to celebrate sooner, showing films, playing music, and putting Christmas decorations up in stores months in advance. From your perspective why do you think people are so quick to want to celebrate Christmas?
Nate: I think there are at least two reasons why Christmas keeps getting celebrated earlier every year. One reason is strictly commercial, with businesses trying to milk all they can out of a profitable season, and for me that kinda saps some of the joy out of it. The other reason (which I like better) is because people just want to feel that warm, pleasant, cheery “let’s all just get along together” feeling as soon as possible, to balance out all the other stresses of life throughout the year.
KRL: Can we look forward to you putting something in your act this year that people haven’t seen before?
KRL: I see on the advertisement that this is The Silver & Gold Anniversary Edition. What do you mean by that?
Nate: Well, most married couples view their 25th anniversary as their ‘Silver Anniversary,’ so I titled last year’s 25th annual show The Silver & Gold Anniversary Edition as a pun combining ’25th Silver Anniversary’ with the song “Silver & Gold” from the TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. However, someone got that title conflated with this year’s show during the promotion and started promoting this year as The Silver & Gold Anniversary Edition, so I just shrugged and went along with it. In other words, it was a clever title from last year that became this year’s title by mistake. D’oh!
KRL: This event caters to adults, no kids, so this is not an event for the whole family. Is your intention for the adults to feel like kids again and is that the reason why the event is this way?
Nate: Yes, that’s exactly it. The idea is for adults to feel like kids again, making ornaments for the tree, singing songs, and just behaving silly. At the conclusion of the night, we play the song “Linus & Lucy” (The Peanuts Theme), and everyone gets up and does their own version of the “Peanuts” dance, and that completes the adult reversion to childhood. It’s pretty fun to behold!
KRL: For those people that have come to this event in the past, what’s the thing in your show that they say they look forward to the most?
Nate: I think everyone looks forward to the singing more than anything else. Because everyone is encouraged to sing along, and it doesn’t matter if one is a ‘singer’ or not, so even ‘non-singers’ can just bellow out to their heart’s content. So, I believe that the joy comes from the group participation in something that is joyful, fun, and done together as a collective. In other words, true harmony. I’ve had more than one person over the years tell me, “Y’know Nate, I hate the Christmas season, but tonight’s show really put me in the spirit.” And THAT is truly music to my ears!
KRL: What do you want for Christmas?
Nate: I want to see everyone feeling joyful and happy and loving on each other, and to forget about their troubles for just a couple hours. That’s my Christmas wish. If I can get that, then I don’t need any other gifts for myself.
KRL: What’s your favorite holiday food?
Nate: My mom makes these creamy potatoes with the cheese baked in; besides whiskey, that’s my favorite holiday food.
KRL: Is there anything in particular that you and your family like to do during the holidays?
Nate: For Christmas, my family does what I imagine everyone else does (or hopes to do), which is get together, eat some food, and open some gifts. Then Nate takes off early to go play a holiday gig somewhere–my family is used to that, too, and they would be surprised if I didn’t.
KRL: You require your audience members to sing along and make Christmas ornaments during the show. That’s audience participation that I’ve never heard of. Why is it important for the crowd to be involved with the show?
Nate: When adults start making Christmas ornaments with the Christmas TV specials they grew up with playing in the background, and then start to sing along to these songs they grew up with, something special opens up inside of them. It’s like they’re reconnecting with a sense of magic that they haven’t felt for a while. You can see it in their faces, and hear it in their voices. And when they do it as a group, that special feeling of happiness just grows stronger. I wouldn’t go so far as to say my event is “magical,” but I have truly seen people go from glum to happy during the show, just from the positive energy that is all around them. That’s pretty cool. Of course, some of them are just tipsy; that happens, too, hoho!
KRL: If you could celebrate Christmas year-round, would you?
Nate: Yes, I would. I doubt that most people would, but I could. I suppose the only problem would be that if Christmas were year-round, then maybe it wouldn’t be as “special” anymore. But if there were a job for a pianist to play Christmas music year-round somewhere (or a guy to play Santa Claus), I would be happy to be that guy. As trite as this may sound, making other people feel happy can make you feel happy and good inside. And that’s what I try to do.
Doors open 8:00 p.m. – show at 9:00 p.m. ?Tickets $3 advance, $4 at the door
For additional information check out Nate Butler’s website.
You can find many other holiday events on KRL’s Christmas/holiday events page.