The two federal judges sitting next to me were doing their best “fa la la la las’’ trying to ignore the young faces immediately in front of them staring back in complete awe.
The Ferguson Hall at the Straz Performing Arts Center was packed with children from around Hillsborough County, along with an impressive gaggle of civic leaders all gathered for the annual Children’s Holiday Classic.
In fact, it was the 25th such event, a program that will be repeated two more times in Pinellas County.
It’s not open to the public. The only adults are the VIP muckety-mucks who are there to demonstrate some of the values of teamwork and other values that are a little more subtle along with some great holiday music and a one-of-a-kind experience for what is now approaching 100,000 children.
The concert was the inspiration of the late New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner — who (1) was a sucker for kids and (2) absolutely loved the event — and continues with the support of the Steinbrenner Family Foundation and the New York Yankees.
It’s difficult to overemphasize the value and long-reaching impact this one experience must have on the children of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Every year we mention the concert, which is emceed brilliantly by FOX TV anchor John Wilson along with wife, Mary K. Wilson, but I’m not so sure we recognize the incredible value this is to our youth.
The idea is to expose these elementary-age kids to a live orchestra and Wilson takes them through the various sections of the Florida Orchestra with a practiced skill.
Without the Steinbrenner backing, tell me how many young people in our community would ever have the opportunity to hear a live orchestra up close?
Wilson shows them the individual skills of each instrument and then lets the orchestra demonstrate the power and beauty that results from teamwork.
But that’s only the beginning.
I was sitting in about the fifth row, with four rows of kids in front of me. In addition to the orchestra directly in front of them, there was a space for ballet.
I wish I had a picture of those four rows of dropped jaws and wide-eyed wonder at the members of the Ballet Theatre International. Oddly enough it was the elementary boys, who were not as taken with the Sugar Plumb fairy as I was but who were floored by the guy doing the Russian dances with athletic moves they never realized would be associated with something like ballet.
I don’t know how many experiences like this you might have had growing up, but for these kids, mostly from the inner city or lower-income ‘burbs, it was an exposure that they will never get in any classroom or at home.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn came on stage and gave the Steinbrenners a plaque designating it as Steinbrenner Foundation Day and the orchestra even played a piece that was commissioned just for the family.
We can only hope the Steinbrenner Foundation will continue this legacy that is so important to the children of Pinellas and Hillsborough.