Pizarro: Christmas in the Park goes corporate – in a good way

From left, San Jose Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco, John A. Sobrato, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo help cut the ribbon on Downtown College Prep's new campus in the old Southern Lumber building on Monterey Highway on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. (Sal Pizarro/Staff)
Should you came to downtown San Jose on Friday night time to determine determine skating stars Polina Edmunds and Rudy Galindo “plug in” the 58-foot tree with the heart of Christmas in the Park, you would possibly not have found they had been around the Financial institution on the West Neighborhood Phase or the ceremony was sponsored by PG&E. But you couldn’t miss the Airstream trailer, just steps away the stage, emblazoned with Southwest’s name. The airline has signed a two-year deal for $80,000 to be Christmas during the Park’s presenting sponsor.

Yep, San Jose’s hometown tradition has gone corporate.

But as Christmas during the Park Executive Director Jason Minsky points out, this isn’t a bad thing.

“We’re still free,” Minsky said Friday night time. “This event is put on by the blood, sweat and tears of a lot of volunteers and a very small and mighty staff and a hefty board of directors. We could not do it, though, without our corporate sponsors.”

If you remember back just six years ago, Christmas in the Park was within the brink of extinction after the Great Recession forced the city to cut back its contribution. But today, in its 38th year, it’s thriving with new displays, more evening events and still drawing about 500,000 people downtown every year. And the corporate branding – notwithstanding the trailer that had Southwest’s name literally in lights Friday evening – manages to blend into Christmas while in the Park’s small-town feel.

The 600 group trees around Plaza de Cesar Chavez were provided by San Jose-based Orchard Supply Hardware. A new display this year featuring toy bears ice skating and playing hockey on a frozen pond was sponsored by the San Jose Sharks. Southwest added a lounge near the park’s northern end where people can kick back and charge their phones for all those selfies. And a village of playhouses was created by volunteers from nine companies – ranging from Orchard Supply and Turner Construction to Western Digital and Micron – who spent a day building and painting elaborate kid-sized playhouses, based over the same template provided by Habitat for Humanity.

Lam Research created a “LEGO Batman” version of Wayne Manor, Hensel Phelps built a snow-covered log cabin for Santa and Adobe’s volunteers assembled a miniature version of Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” ride. You can see them in person on the park and then vote for your favorite to win the coveted “Cocoa Cup” .After Christmas from the Park closes Jan. 7, Habitat for Humanity will donate the playhouses to the kids of military families through its partner, Blue Star Moms.

It’s that kind of thing that keeps Christmas during the Park about kids and families, despite all the corporate signage. Friday evening, the park was filled with people waiting for a glimpse of Santa Claus as he rode in on his sleigh and listen to rising singer Luna Blaise of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” There’s more entertainment planned nightly on the local community stage, and a Saturday night series of family-friendly holiday movies with free milk and cookies for the audience.

On Dec. 31, there’ll be a New Year’s Eve party to usher out 2017, with family-oriented activities from 7 to 9 p.m. – when revelers will be celebrating around the East Coast – and the band Sage playing from then until midnight in San Jose. It’ll be another free party, and not a single person there will care that it’s sponsored by Bank from the West.

RIVER PARK TRIBUTE: A campaign is under way to create a tribute for the Guadalupe River Park to Shirley Lewis, the former San Jose vice mayor who passed away last month at age 84. Lewis was among the leaders responsible for creating the river park back inside the 1980s, and she later had a huge impact on it while president from the Rotary Club of San Jose with the creation of both the Rotary PlayGarden and the Rotary Sculpture Walk.

In Lewis’ honor, the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy and the Rotary Club want to create and install the 20th piece in the walk – a series of sculptures of children at play, which included Lewis’ grandchildren as models – that would depict Shirley herself sitting on a bench and watching the kids at play. A second part of the tribute – which should just be instituted immediately – would add her name to the walk and add a monument about her contributions.

IT’S A HANUKKAH MIRACLE: For years, the musical comedy “The MeshugaNutcracker!” has been delighting audiences of many faiths on stages in the Bay Area and beyond. But the Hanukkah-based spin on “The Nutcracker” will reach more audiences than ever before when the show makes its one-night-only debut in movie theaters nationwide on Dec. 19. The Fathom Events production is set to be shown in Silicon Valley that evening at 7 within the Century Oakridge 20 in San Jose, the AMC Cupertino Square 16 and the Union Landing 25 in Union City.

“No matter what religion you are, no matter what you celebrate this time of year, it’s about finding the light in people, finding light in yourself, letting the holidays truly illuminate everything around you. And yes, it does sound schmaltzy but that’s why we balance it with a lot of schmaltz in our show,” said Shannon Guggenheim, who choreographed and adapted the music and lyrics for the show, which was directed by her husband, Scott Guggenheim. “That really is what we’re trying to do: give families something bright and fun but also poignant and meaningful to celebrate this time of year.”

DRAMATIC LICENSE: San Jose Stage never takes a straightforward approach to its holiday season show, but this year’s production will be a gift for fans of playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who died from complications of ALS in July at age 73. The Phase is producing one of his most famous works, “Fool for Love,” starring Allison F. Rich and Rob August, which opened this weekend and runs through Dec. 12. The play was first produced in 1983 in the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where Shepard was playwright-in-residence, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

South Bay audiences also seem to be in a Jane Austen mood. Because of enthusiastic response – Sunday matinees sold out quickly – City Lights Theater Company has added two shows to its production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” a continuation story featuring Austen’s characters written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. The added performances are 8 p.m. on Dec. 13 and 2 p.m.

STAR SEARCH: For the third year, Foster Farms is looking for talented young singers to perform the National Anthem at his year’s Foster Farms Bowl in Levi’s Stadium on Christmas Day. The “Oh Say, Can You Sing” contest is open to Bay Area singers – solo or group – age 18 or younger.

On top of singing on the same field where Lady Gaga sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” for Super Bowl 50, the winner gets to choose a food lender to receive a donation of 1,000 meals from Foster Farms.