The Lettermen know how to celebrate Christmas. Founding member Tony Butala said the vocal group has been singing Christmas songs for 47 years, starting with a 1965 Christmas album that sold more than a half million copies.
"Of our 76 albums, four have been Christmas albums," Butala said. "We have plenty of material."
More importantly, they know how to make those songs work in a live setting, which local audiences will get a chance to see when the group performs two "A Lettermen Christmas" concerts next week at Packard Music Hall.
"We used to do '12 Days of Christmas' like a song, and Donovan (Tea) said it's as boring as a dishwasher," Butala said. "We devised that as an audience participation song. We'll find 10 singers in the audience - we don't force anyone to come up - and we may have a 350-pound lady singing 'seven swans a swimming' or some bald-headed guy doing '10 lords a leaping.' ... It's a 15-minute song in the show, and it's hilarious."
The Lettermen also have some Christmas originals in the set list - "Donovan's 'It Feels Like Christmas' is a standard of ours," Butala said - and they put their own spin on the holiday staples.
"We 'Lettermenize' those pretty ballads into our own unique style," he said.
If you go
WHAT: "A Lettermen Christmas"
WHEN: 1:30 and 7 p.m. Dec. 13; lunch at noon before the matinee.
WHERE: Packard Music Hall, 1703 Mahoning Ave. N.W., Warren
HOW MUCH: $47 for luncheon/show package or $32 for show-only; 440-943-5480 or 800-482-3531
Butala, Tea and Bobby Poynton will sing together and separately, and don't be surprised if they put the Packard Music Hall balcony to use to get up close and personal with fans. Tea has been known to wander up into the balcony and add his own commentary to Butala's solo numbers. Butala said it's a good thing that Packard doesn't have balcony box seats at the sides of the stage.
"Donovan stays away from those Lincoln seats," he said. "You don't want to be sneaking up behind people in the Lincoln seats."
While seasonal songs will dominate the show, the Lettermen won't ignore its pop hits, which include "When I Fall in Love," "Theme from 'A Summer Place'," "Hurt So Bad" and "Goin' Out of My Head / Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."
It's all part of making sure folks have a good time, Butala said.
"If people aren't in the Christmas spirit by the time we finish, there's something wrong with them," he said.
If people make the effort to buy tickets, get a babysitter, battle holiday traffic and possibly bad weather to get to a show, "After that it's up to the Lettermen to make sure they have an evening they'll remember for a very long time, and they can't get that by staying at home in front of the 60-inch big screen television."
And the performance doesn't end when the singing stops. They'll be signing autographs and posing for photos in the Packard lobby after both performances. They even have address cards in the lobby so fans who get photos taken with the group at the show can mail them to the Lettermen so the vocalists can sign that photo and send it back.
Butala, a Sharon, Pa., native, clearly loves being an entertainer. Even during a phone interview, he can't resist singing snippets of the songs he's talking about. He's been singing professionally for more than 50 years, and he's been singing alongside Tea for 29 years, making him the Letterman with the second-longest tenure in the group's history. Poynton, who performed more than 1,000 concerts as a Letterman between 1988 and 1995, rejoined the group in 2010.
"They're both in their mid-50s and good-looking, so I push them to the front and center," Butala joked. "People ask how are you still doing this after 52 years. I tell them I have to keep working to pay for the plastic surgery."
Butala believes one of the reasons the group continues to perform extensively is that it has tried to adapt with the times. Each year, Butala said he will take a look in the mirror and take a look at men's fashion magazines like GQ to decide on their look and stage attire.
"You gotta change, you gotta repackage yourself," he said. "We're not going to be tattooed with earring piercings. That's too far away from our image, but we've been pretty diverse and flexible with our wardrobe and styles."