BLOOMINGTON — One of the most popular and long-running holiday traditions in the Twin Cities has come to an end after 35 years.
The Sounds of Christmas concerts in the atrium at State Farm are being discontinued due to an ongoing remodeling project in the space.
"We have been making numerous improvements to our Bloomington campus, especially our 45-year-old corporate headquarters," State Farm spokeswoman Missy Dundov said in a statement.
"A major project is the renovation of our atrium," she added. "This will take several months to complete, and we will not be able to host the Sounds of Christmas. We have enjoyed hosting the Sounds of Christmas in years past."
State Farm provided the venue, while The Music Shoppe in Normal organized the performance end of the concerts, recruiting the musicians and singers, including the 100-plus orchestra members and other guest choirs and singers.
"It's painful, it really is painful," said The Music Shoppe's Joy Hippensteele of the decision to end the popular event.
The free tickets to the two concerts, distributed through a lottery system, were routinely claimed in a matter of hours, she noted.
"Ultimately, State Farm left the decision up to us after saying they would no longer move forward as a sponsor," she said. "We struggled over it."
In making the decision to end the concerts for good, "we basically went back to the roots of the program and the idea that the show was a gift to the community and nobody would have to pay for tickets," said Hippensteele.
"It was an equal opportunity that anyone could participate in as long as they were fortunate to write in and get their tickets."
Without that free aspect (musicians donated their services), she said the event could not go forward.
"Without a place to hold it at no expense, we couldn't figure a way to do it without charging for tickets," said Hippensteele.
The concept of the concert came from the late Dick Benson, of Music! Music! piano store, who, in a 1989 Pantagraph interview, recalled being inspired by "The Sounds of America," a 1976 Bicentennial-themed show at Illinois State University.
"It was all local talent, and I was amazed at just how much of it there is around here. I wanted to figure out a way to do it all again," he said.
It took almost another five years, but he made it happen, with the aid of then-WJBC morning man Don Munson, who accompanied him to a meeting with then-State Farm president, Edward B. Rust Sr.
After hearing the idea, Rust "lit his pipe, sat back and grinned and said, 'I love it!'" That was the summer of 1982; by Dec. 23 of that year, Benson's dream became a reality.