Photo by Sarah Crowder

Holiday traditions in St. Louis are so established that it might not even surprise you that we have a ‘head elf,’ if you will, in our midst. We all have our cherished things to do this time of the year: taking in the Symphony at Powell Hall, a carriage ride through Tilles Park, or maybe ice-skating at Steinberg Rink in Forest Park.

But my favorite starts with a brisk walk on Washington Boulevard toward Grand Boulevard along Strauss Park: You might hear the hum of jazz, and laughter and lively conversation, or the sound of the traffic officer’s whistle piercing the chill of the night, but it’s the lights of the Fox Theatre that beckon. My family and me, dressed in our holiday best, pass below the warmth of the heat lamps under the marquee and through the golden doors into the lobby. It is always magical to walk into The Fabulous Fox at Christmas time.

The Fox is overwhelming in splendor any time of the year, but adorned with ornaments of the season, it’s even more of a wonder. This year, snowflakes of light are falling inside the lobby as a magnificent Tannenbaum rises up from top of the grand stairs. And as we take our seats, the theater is abuzz in anticipation of the curtain’s rise. In here, the holiday ambience is but an accessory to the grandeur: the immense 2-and-a-half ton chandelier glistens with Swarovski crystals, the Wurlitzer organ pipes out a Christmas song, and the seemingly ancient Siamese Byzantine figures engulf us.

Waiting in the wings, just off stage and taking it all in is Cindy Vargo. “My mother’s maiden name is Noel, and my grandfather is Rudolph Noel, so maybe it’s in my blood,” Cindy says. ‘I’ve always loved Christmas, it’s my favorite time of the year.” Her official job title is director of sales for Fox Associates, but she also is the one in charge of making sure the theater glows with that extra holiday charm.

It was never in the job description when Vargo started at the Fox more than a decade ago; but now, it’s a year-round part of what she does. “I will tell you, I’m thinking holiday all year long; and sometime in July, I turn on the Christmas music to get myself into the spirit.”

This year, planning started in February with lobbying for budgets and considering a five-year plan on “serious financial commitments” for new decorations. While Vargo didn’t say how much, the number is easily in the tens of thousands, including planned additions for the years ahead. Vargo spearheaded the effort to phase out the Victorian-themed holiday elements that everyone agreed were just ‘worn out.’ “We decided to keep it crisp and clean, and give ourselves a fair palette that we can work from each year and build on.”

Vargo explains the new decorations are classically traditional and are intended not to take away from the splendor of the Fox, while keeping in mind the expectations of holiday theater patrons. “For many families, the Fox is a tradition. They come here all dressed up to see a holiday show. And because we’re part of these family traditions, we take that very seriously—that’s why we put so much attention and love into it.”

Vargo’s love for the Fox started when she was drama student at Granite City High School. She remembers her class selling candy bars to raise enough money to buy tickets to see Cats; they sat in the top balcony. Vargo caught the theatre bug and studied acting in college; but when she saw how even the most gritty and determined of her classmates still struggled despite their talent, she knew her best work would be behind the scenes.

Now, Vargo has one of the best views of the world of theatre that anyone could have—a part of the amazement that happens every time the footlights come on and the stage bursts to life. She has even more of a special connection to the Fox during the holiday season. “I go back to that parent who is holding a child’s hand and watching that child’s eyes when they step into a place they’ve never been before, or maybe they only come once a year and live it vicariously as they come through the doors.”

As we talk, we sit at a table at the top of the garland-lined grand staircase. Vargo has a spool of red ribbon in her hands and is instinctively making it into a bow as she speaks. My 7-year-old is sitting with us and is mesmerized by the scenery as she is treated to milk and cookies from the Fox Club’s kitchen.

Vargo remembers bringing her own son here when he wasn’t much more than a toddler, and again recognizing the Fox’s role in the St Louis holiday landscape. “It’s all about creating those memories and traditions that you pass on to your kids.”

And, as it always happens, when the orchestra begins to play and the actors fill the stage, new holiday memories are formed, thanks in part to the head elf who is working in the wings.

A native St. Louisan, Brown is a lifelong journalist, and previously served as a broadcaster for KMOX and KTRS radios and ABC 30. His Paul Brown Media specializes in public and media relations.

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