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Bell Helps Get The Jingle On With Her WinterFest Decorations

Published: December 1, 2011

On Saturday, Dec. 3, at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday Dec. 4, at 4 p.m., CSULB’s Bob Cole Conservatory of Music’s annual Winter Festival Concert will once again take place at the historic First Congregational Church of Long Beach (FCCLB). And while the focus of the popular event will most certainly be on the musical performances, it just wouldn’t be the same without Judith Bell’s touch.

Bell, who began working on campus 37 years ago as a library assistant, retired last summer from the conservatory of where she was its music librarian. However, she will still be lending a creative hand to this year’s WinterFest.

Bell had always been involved working with the choirs, at times even singing with them as one of her extracurricular activities. Her most notable mark involving the groups, however, comes in the form of designing the decorations seen throughout the church not only during the two-day concert performances, but for the entire holiday season.

“The FCCLB gets decorated every year for WinterFest and I’m responsible for creating a theme throughout the church inspired by the unique posters created each year advertising this event,” said Bell. “I also do a lot of the installation.”

During her working years, the task was a little more daunting when you consider she went each evening after work for the five days leading up to the first concert to finish the installation. Now in retirement, her pace may be a little more casual, but it still takes some organization to pull things off.

“I make sure all the holiday decorations look just right so that the whole space looks really beautiful,” she said. “It is a lot of work, but part of our agreement with the church is that it does not charge us a rental fee in exchange for our decorating. This church is very involved with the local community and is busy during the holiday season with many events. And, because the church gets used so much, it’s kind of nice that it’s all decked out and ready to go.”

Bell does have some church members and student volunteers from the choirs to help out on the Wednesday before the Thanksgiving break, working on setting up holiday trees and hanging garland in the almost 8,000 square feet of public space. “But the bulk of the work is done by myself and Dr. Leland Vail, who conducts 49er Choir, as well as being the department’s undergraduate advisor, and Jonathan Talberg, who is our area coordinator for choral, vocal and opera studies. He conducts the two largest choirs—the Chamber Singers and the University Choir.”

And while Bell certainly has a talent and love of holiday decorating, her experience in that area came out of financial necessity a lifetime ago.

“When I first started working in the University Library, my salary was $9,274 a year. Even back then, that wasn’t enough for me to live on as a single mom,” she remembered, “so I had a variety of odd-ball jobs. One of those jobs was with a company that sent large work crews to decorate major department stores for the holidays. Department stores used to be closed on Thanksgiving Day and we would go in early in the morning and completely transform them with decorations for Christmas.”

It was that experience that gave her the knowledge and love of how to go about decorating large spaces.

“When I came to the then- Music Department in 1990, I was invited to many of their concerts and I got to go to WinterFest. I was surprised when I walked into the church at how kind of dull it was,” she said. “It wasn’t very festive.”

This Silver Bell Helps To Get The Jingle On
PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON
Judith Bell

That prompted her to go to Vail and share her ideas, convincing him that she could brighten the place up a bit if allowed to decorate the following year.

“I showed him some ideas and I am proud to say he didn’t think I was completely out of my mind. He told me to get to him the next year,” Bell said. “And I did.”

“She is an absolutely wonderful individual with an artistic sense and extremely patient and dedicated to creating a beautiful Christmas ambiance for our concert,” said Vail. “It would be very difficult to imagine what things would look like without her touch. Before Judith, the decorations weren’t nearly what they are now. The work is shared by the volunteers and students who come from the choirs who come down and help the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. But she supervises everything and she will redo things if things don’t look quite right. She’ll get up there on that ladder and take it all down and put it back up again.”

One thing Bell prides herself on is the fact that the decorations never look the same two years in a row.

“I can say that in 21 years, the church as never looked exactly the same,” she said. “Even though we have a kind of repertoire of ornaments and decorations that we use every year, the church never looks exactly the same from year to year, which is nice for the audience and a challenge for me.”

And for many, including Bell, the holiday season doesn’t officially begin until the Winter Festival Concert.

“After so many years of volunteering for this event, it just doesn’t seem like the kick-off to the holiday season without it,” she said. “It is the perfect combination of great music performed by our talented students, enthusiastic audiences, and a venue with all the seasonal ambiance anyone could wish for.”