Sparkle and glitz at Riverside Children’s Festival of Trees

Riverside Children’s Theatre kicked off a weekend of holiday fun with a gala preview of its Shared Traditions-themed Festival of Trees last Friday evening, and also said a fond farewell to Linda Downey, longtime festival coordinator and former RCT education director.

Exclamations of glee and laughter accompanied guests at their first glimpse of the displays, where black theater backdrops stunningly contrasted with the sparkling lights and decorations on the creative Christmas trees.

This year committee members opted to place the Gingerbread House Village in the center of the main room, where it was surrounded by the festive trees and multiple vendors offering holiday gifts. The effect was stunning and guests seemed pleased with the new location.

“I absolutely love the gingerbread houses in here; they just glow,” said Kay Brown.

Every dazzling tree, wreath, gingerbread house and tabletop centerpiece had been designed and donated by sponsors, individuals and businesses, with all proceeds from their purchase benefitting RCT’s numerous outreach and educational programs. Guests could also vie for auction items, including a personal voicemail message recorded by actor Chris O’Donnell.

A new photo booth in the lobby was added this year, with guests getting their pictures taken alongside Santa in his chair by a faux fireplace, with a wooden soldier on stilts standing at attention.

As they wandered the room, attendees enjoyed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres from Orchid Catering, which provided delicious tidbits including lobster corndogs, chicken and waffles and filet tartare, while the Riverside Theatre Performance Apprentices sang classic Christmas favorites.

David Busch scored two blue ribbons – Most Elegant and Committee Choice – for his tree entry of woodland creatures dappled with snow.

Page Franzel wowed with a snowy tree titled Southern Hospitality that she said almost didn’t make it.

“The rod in the center broke in half on the way here and we had to completely redo it,” said Franzel, whose beautiful tree featured antique Christmas teacups, and bright red cardinals perched on branches of raw cotton bolls.

A touch of nostalgia set in as Downey was recognized for her long-term commitment to Riverside Children’s Theatre and the Festival of Trees.

“She has been kind of the soul of Festival of Trees,” said committee member Zo-Anne Merrill.

Gala co-chairs Elizabeth Sorensen and Angela Waldrop helped honor Downey with a gift and a plaque commemorating “Linda’s Terrace,” a new garden at the theater entrance.

“We are very sad that this is her last year but we have enjoyed being involved and excited to have raised so much money for the theater,” said Waldrop. “Mrs. Downey makes sure all the money goes directly to the children for them to prosper for the coming year.”

“She is just an inspiration,” said Sorensen. “Everything she has done here is for the children. She raised the money so that she could keep this theater going and never turn anyone away. Not only does she give scholarships to those who need them, but she traveled with the shows for performances for disabled children and seniors. She does a lot behind the scenes that I think many people don’t realize.”

“Linda Downey has been here since before there even was a Riverside Children’s Theatre,” said longtime supporter Ellen Walker, before she and other committee members presented Downey with a special gift, to warm applause.

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