Jingle Bell Rock toasts the holidays, helps fill backpacks

Updated 5 hours ago

The love of music, the season and each other can be powerful motivation.

That’s why organizers say Jingle Bell Rock will be able to mark its 12th season on Dec. 8 in the Casino Theatre, Vandergrift.

The event annually brings together local and regional bands toasting the holidays with their own takes on the music of the season, as well as with original material, all-season rock and more.

This year’s charity component is “Backpacks to Go,” a project of Kiski Area East Primary School (formerly Vandergrift Elementary).

Project volunteers pack backpacks with food for the weekend for the students in need. Some students from the school will perform a song on their recorders to recognize the “Backpacks to Go” benefit.

“There are three bands (Heidi and the Hellcats, Sourmash and The Christmas Experience) this year, so we are splitting the show into two segments, with each performing before and after intermission,” says Vandergrift musician Linda Boarts, an organizer of the all-volunteer concert.

Comedian Shawn Blackham returns as master of ceremonies.

Concert honoree

The late Sonny DiNunzio of the Fenways and Racket Squad will be honored for his contributions to music in the Kiski Valley through the years. The Fenways and Racket Squad were national recording artists in the 1960s. Billboard magazine even called the Fenways “Pittsburgh’s Answer to the Beatles.”

DiNunzio was killed in a 1978 car crash.

“I always appreciate performing at the historical Vandergrift Casino in the area that I grew up in,” says rock artist Heidi Vokes of New Kensington, a 1986 graduate of Kiski Area High School.

“Having the local student choir sing at the Casino was always a favorite, because I myself was in the Kiski choir all through my school years,” she says. “I sang along with Tim Henry from Sourmash all through high school.”

“Our band loves playing holiday music, because it gives us a chance to spread holiday cheer to the community and change our tunes up a bit,” adds Vokes.

Focus on classic rock

They focus on a large variety of material from the classic rock genre.

“We like to keep the audience guessing what will be next. I tend to sing with a lot of emotion, hoping the audience can connect with the lyrics of the song in a way that brings back good memories from the past,” she explains.

Tim Henry, a Rock for Life organizer, finds much to like about this concert.

“I grew up in Vandergrift, and it is great to see the community come out to these concerts for a great cause,” says the Gilpin resident. “The town comes to life when the theater is active.”

“As a kid, I spent a lot of time in the Casino Theatre when it was a movie theater. It is always very special to walk into that place and have those fond memories come back,” he adds.

A Valley of talent

There are so many talented musicians in this Valley and most are also very good friends, Henry says.

“The Jingle Bell Rock is a great time for us to catch up and support each other. The camaraderie of the musicians is incredible,” he says. “It is truly a humbling experience and a great honor to be able to participate in this concert every year and give back to the community in this way. I think this is what we appreciate most.”

Sourmash is a guitar-driven, original rock ’n’ roll act rooted in the blues and southern and classic rock.

“Our live shows are normally a mix of our own music and classic rock songs from the late ‘60s to early ‘80s,” he says. “We take pride in delivering a high-energy, professional show every time we take the stage.”

“We always look to keep folks interested, so we will perform a few songs that have never been done at Jingle Bell Rock,” the vocalist-guitarist says. “We will also perform a few that we have done in past years, including our original song, ‘Memories of Christmas.’”

Coming together

The Christmas Experience is a group that comes together specifically for this show, Boarts says.

“It really is a product of Lenny Collini, another organizer of Jingle Bell Rock. We have our leader Lenny, his daughter Letizia, Tim Henry of Sourmash, Jay Zanotti, John Secreto, Gene Aiello, Dano Galie and myself of First Light,” she explains.

The Christmas Experience has a Trans-Siberian Orchestra flavor to it, she adds.

The concert proceeds also benefit the Casino Theatre.

“We look forward to bringing new people to the theater so they can realize how special it is to this area. After they experience a venue of this quality, I am sure that once they come they will look forward to coming again,” Boarts says.

Patrons are encouraged to bring items for the “Backpacks to Go” program, including nonperishable single-serving packaging of cereal bowls; canned/packaged tuna and chicken; and snack packs, such as fruit pudding, applesauce, mac and cheese, ravioli, stew, peanut butter and cheese crackers, granola bars, individual boxes of raisins, fruit bars and cookies.

More about Sonny

Learn more about — and hear from — the Jingle Bell rock honoree, the late Sonny DiNunzio and the Fenways and Racket Squad at https://sites.google.com/site/pittsburghmusichistory/pittsburgh-music-story/rock/racket-squad—-fenways .

Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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