Celebrating 90 years of Christmas cheer

Molly, Bill and Sam Walker share a special family bond in the Purdue Christmas Show

Bill Walker’s children, Molly and Sam, will perform for the first time on the same stage during this year’s Purdue Christmas Show. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

Family ties are part of the Purdue Christmas Show’s holiday tradition

Bill Walker has viewed the Purdue Christmas Show through several different lenses over the years.  

As a member of the Purdue Varsity Glee Club from 1989-93, Walker performed on the Elliott Hall of Music stage like generations of other Purdue Musical Organizations (PMO) members. 

As a Purdue staff member, Walker (BS mathematics education ’93, MS mathematics education ’98, PhD mathematics education ’16) often brought his family to see the show as part of their holiday routine. 

And as an alumni mentor, he has counseled active Glee Club singers on how to tackle a demanding rehearsal schedule when final exams are approaching. 

But while Walker appreciates each of these activities, nothing matches how he experienced the Christmas Show for the last few years: as the parent of a PMO singer. And this year’s four performances (Dec. 1-3) will provide more reason than ever for him to be sentimental about what he sees. 

Walker’s daughter Molly is a senior member of the Purduettes, now preparing for her fourth and final set of Christmas Show performances. The shows will mark the first times she and her brother Sam, a freshman in the Glee Club, will have ever shared the same stage as performers. 

Bill Walker at Elliott Hall of Music
Bill Walker, a member of the Purdue Varsity Glee Club from 1989-93, has watched his daughter Molly perform in the iconic Purdue Christmas Show for the last few years. His son Sam is now a freshman member of the Glee Club. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

“I’m so excited to get to see both Molly and Sam this time around,” says Walker, the assistant director of programs and partnerships for Purdue’s Center for Advancing the Teaching and Learning of STEM. “It’s such an absolute joy to get to see my kids up there to be part of this tremendous show.” 

And his kids echo that sentiment. 

“Sharing music with people is one of the most special connections you can have, in my opinion,” says Molly, a senior in public relations and strategic communications. “The fact that I get to share this show with my brother, who is one of my best friends, is really special to me.” 

Adds Sam, a first-year engineering student, “It’s kind of poetic that it’s going to be her last one and my first one. It’s just really exciting all around.” 

After all, this is not just any show. The Purdue Christmas Show’s history — this is its 90th year of entertaining Boilermaker audiences — its impressive production values and its crowd-pleasing performances help it rank among the university’s favorite holiday traditions. 

“In some ways, it’s a tradition for Purdue at this point,” Bill Walker says. “It’s a little bit broader than just being a PMO tradition. It’s something that people know as a piece of Purdue as well.” 

Sharing music with people is one of the most special connections you can have, in my opinion. The fact that I get to share this show with my brother, who is one of my best friends, is really special to me.

MOlly Walker Senior member of Purduettes

Broadway size, Broadway caliber 

It didn’t get that way by accident. Preparations for the show are most apparent during the rehearsal-heavy final weeks before the performers take the stage at Elliott, but planning is essentially a year-round affair for PMO’s leadership. 

That’s the only way to produce such a high-caliber final product year after year after year. 

“We have to get creative and make the show friendly for lots of different kinds of audiences and still play to the traditions that this show has done over the years. And the No. 1 thing is that it’s a high quality of production,” says Bill Griffel, the Albert P. Stewart Senior Director of PMO. “You really don’t see it as a college singing group production. It’s got a Broadway size and Broadway caliber to it.” 

It may be easy to forget while watching the performances, but keep in mind that these are not professional musicians. PMO is stocked with future engineers, scientists, teachers and business leaders who must stay on top of their academic responsibilities while also committing countless hours to learning the music and choreography for their Christmas performances. 

“Not only are they smart, but they’re also super dedicated,” says Scott Hines, director of PMO’s Heart & Soul mixed choir, assistant director of the Glee Club and choreographer of the Christmas Show. “A lot of them have told me they’re actually way better when they’re as busy as they are because it forces them to stay on a schedule. It forces them to say, ‘OK, if I’m gonna get my homework done, it’s going to be between these hours.’” 

But when that schoolwork is done, Hines appreciates how the Christmas Show affords bonding opportunities that students will not enjoy at any other PMO performance. This is the only time during the year that each performing ensemble — the Glee Club, Purduettes, Heart & Soul, Purdue Bells, University Choir and All-Campus & Community Chorale — will share the stage at the same event. 

“My favorite part is just seeing them interact with each other and then be able to cheer on each other during their own individual sets,” Hines says. “I love to see our students together, focused on one end goal, and creating friendships that will last for a long time.” 

Family traditions 

Most friendships don’t quite compare to the bonds that exist between family members, but PMO has plenty of both types of connections within its membership. 

Like Molly and Sam Walker, Purduette Elizabeth Waterman shared the Christmas Show stage with her brother, Jonathan, a former University Choir singer, just a year ago. 

“It was really nice singing the senior song together,” says Elizabeth, a senior in social studies education and anthropology. “I got to sort of reflect on his growth through how he has developed as a person and as a performer through PMO. I’m glad that we got to share that to round out his college career.” 

Griffel says he has come to expect at least two or three performers each year to have a sibling, parent or grandparent who are PMO alumni. And sometimes the legacies have more than one tie. 

PMO performers Sam and Molly Walker
Siblings Sam and Molly Walker are among many Purdue Musical Organizations performers who have a family connection to a current or former member. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

Like Sam Walker, for instance. 

“My dad and my sister both had positive experiences, not only with PMO but with the Christmas Show, so they definitely wanted me to be involved and helped me with that process of auditioning,” he says. “I thought about their experiences a lot, but I really wanted to do it because it was something that I wanted to do and not because it was something my family had done.” 

But why wouldn’t he want to do it? Yes, the time commitment is considerable, but for those who are willing to put in the work, the payoff includes opportunities to perform across the globe while building lifelong friendships. 

“Purdue as a whole has a lot of legacies, so I think it’s the exact same thing with PMO where a parent or grandparent loves it so much that they want their kids to experience it,” Hines says. “They know that on top of music, PMO is teaching and providing a lot of other opportunities that they know were important to them, even if they didn’t realize it until after they were in PMO.”

Changing with the times

The holiday season is a natural time to reflect upon days gone by. Certainly, many audience members who attend the Christmas Show as an annual tradition do so because of the quality of the production. But perhaps the opportunity to reminisce also draws some of them back to Elliott each year.

“When you talk to patrons who come to the show each year, you can really feel how happy they are to be there again, especially alumni coming back. They love that it brings back that sort of nostalgia,” says Christopher Wolford, PMO’s marketing and communications manager. “And then there are the people that aren’t even alumni or donors; they just come to the Christmas Show because it made an impact on their lives. I think having something like that around at that time of year to both send off the semester and also kick off the holiday season is really important to people.”

As a former performer and now as a parent of two PMO singers, Bill Walker marvels at how leaders like Griffel have managed to uphold traditions started by PMO founder Al Stewart while also revamping the Christmas Show to accommodate evolving audience preferences.

When you talk to patrons who come to the show each year, you can really feel how happy they are to be there again, especially alumni coming back. They love that it brings back that sort of nostalgia.

Christopher Wolford
Marketing and communications manager, Purdue Musical Organizations

“Ninety years is an amount of time I can hardly even make sense of,” he says. “But the show is still extremely entertaining, and it’s very relevant. How many things are relevant for 90 years?”

Boilermakers can name at least one, and it remains that way in part because of each new class of PMO performers who dedicate themselves to upholding traditions established by the alumni who preceded them.

“It’s pretty incredible, especially having the perspective of my dad being in the group and having a way to really conceptualize the fact that PMO has been around long before I was around, and it will be around hopefully long after I’m gone,” Molly Walker says. “Just thinking about all of the lives that it’s impacted, I feel very lucky to be a part of it.” 

Adds Waterman, her Purduette colleague, “Something we really touch on in Purduettes is that bond, the siblinghood that we share by just being a Purduette. Music in general connects us, and for the Christmas Show, that goes beyond just Purduettes. It’s a connection that’s impacted 90 years’ worth of participants and viewers coming from everywhere just to be there for two hours to feel that musical, uplifting, joyous holiday spirit.”