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Originally published Thursday, November 23, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Holiday spirit, down to an art in Snowflake Lane's 2nd season

Nicholas Martin, 17, and Alec Lindsay, 16, have been fitted for uniforms and have their marching orders. The Redmond High School juniors...

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Nicholas Martin, 17, and Alec Lindsay, 16, have been fitted for uniforms and have their marching orders. The Redmond High School juniors will turn into toy soldiers Friday night, ready to charm holiday crowds in downtown Bellevue as last season's sleeper hit opens a second run.

Snowflake Lane began with small flurries of fans the day after Thanksgiving 2005, but by the end of its monthlong run it had turned into an avalanche, drawing an estimated 225,000 people to the nightly shows along Bellevue Way. The 15-minute spectacle features 60 drummers marching across the pedestrian bridge connecting Lincoln Square and Bellevue Square, lining up on raised "drums" along both sides of the street for a block and a half, and rat-a-tat-tatting to recorded music. Snow falls on cue but disappears without impacting traffic or shoppers. This year's show will add carolers dressed in vintage 1940s and 1950s garb, an enhanced sound system, more lights and, with 40 snow machines, a blizzard of fake flakes. And, by request of happy retailers, an extra post-Christmas week of shows.

Kemper Freeman Jr., the Santa Claus behind the promotional gift, said he was inspired by a holiday visit to New York a couple of years ago.

"I saw the Saks Fifth Avenue show of lights and music and wanted to adapt it to the streets of Bellevue," he said.

It was a perfect year to start a new tradition. His $500 million Lincoln Square, then the second-largest mixed-used project in the U.S., was on schedule to open in November. He wanted to market his Bellevue Collection — Lincoln Square, Bellevue Place and Bellevue Square — together. A battle of the bands, done with holiday music, was discussed and rejected.

"I wanted something that gave people emotional goose bumps, that would bring them back to see the show again and again," Freeman said.

At a cost of more than $1 million for the five-week production, the show has been bringing smiles to merchants as well as shoppers.

Snowflake Lane


Friday's opening: Beginning at 7 p.m. drummers, carolers and dancers will accompany Santa Claus along Bellevue Way, from the Hyatt Regency Hotel to Bellevue Square's fountain and east entrance in front of Macy's. Carolers and drummers will then do their show after Santa is escorted into Bellevue Square.

Free parking is available at Bellevue Square and Lincoln Square. Validation required at Bellevue Place before 5 p.m.; free after 5 p.m.

Daily show: The 15-minute show starts promptly at 7 p.m. with drummers and carolers performing along Bellevue Way from the Hyatt Regency Hotel to the Bellevue Square fountain entrance.

Post-Christmas: Show changes to Celebration Lane, with non-holiday music, and runs Dec. 26-31.

While the show's impact is difficult to calculate, sales last December were more than 10 percent above 2004 for Bellevue Square, said Jennifer Leavitt, vice president of marketing for Kemper Development.

Betty Nokes, president and CEO of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, said more people were on the streets of downtown Bellevue last holiday season than ever before.

"I heard through the grapevine that venues across the lake were looking at how to top Bellevue's holiday evening performances," she said.

Unlike the show's fake snowflakes, the drummers are real musicians, many of them returning for the second year. The every-night-shows require a total cast of more than 100.

"Last year was the first, and we were desperate. We were putting anyone who could keep a beat — sax players, French-horn players, anyone — into costume and marching them out for the show," said Will Harvey, who oversees the drummers and helped arrange the music and auditions. "Minutes before the show started, we were teaching some kids how to hold the drumsticks."

Greg Thompson, the name and brains behind Greg Thompson Productions of Seattle, answered Freeman's call for a show producer. Thompson has staged shows for more than three decades, mostly revue-style entertainment that involves glitter, sequins and leggy showgirls on cruise ships and stages in Las Vegas and Reno, Nev.

Thompson also designed the family show at Tillicum Village on Blake Island.

He and Freeman, fraternity brothers four decades ago, agreed they wanted something that made people feel they had stepped into a Norman Rockwell picture.

"That became our theme," Thompson said. "Norman Rockwell, and not high tech but old-fashioned."

By September 2005, the toy-soldier concept was in place. Band uniforms were borrowed from Newport High in Bellevue and Ingraham High in Seattle in return for donations to the schools' uniform funds. Calls went out to drum studios, drum lines and marching bands.

They were borrowed from the University of Washington drum line and Seattle Cascade drum corps and were wrapped in gold material so they all matched.

"Last year was like a train wreck when we started, but once the routine was down, it came together," said Harvey, a middle-school teacher who grew up on the Eastside and also works in the music program at Mercer Island High School.

He divided the drummers into squads, assigned leaders and saw the groups bond. Most of the drummers are high-school kids; a few are college students and other adults. Each is paid $30 a night, and all are treated like professional musicians.

That's what attracted Martin and Lindsay, the two juniors from Redmond High. Both are new this year and looking forward to the shows and the paychecks.

This year's performers will reap the benefits of last year's lessons, Harvey said. Last year they scrambled for extra drumsticks. This year they've got plenty. Last year, drummers learned the music as they went. This year, a massive practice session was held in November, and each musician received a CD of the music.

And this year, the costumes match: New uniforms that have been custom-fit to each performer. Until Christmas, the drummers will wear a cape emblazoned with "Snowflake Lane" and a snowflake. The capes will change for Celebration Lane, the post-Christmas show, when the music will change from holiday to an upbeat New Year's performance.

Some people can hardly wait.

"One lady e-mailed me the other day, saying she was counting the days until the show opens," Leavitt said.

A word of caution: Don't try catching a flake of that fake snow on your tongue.

"It is a soap product," Leavitt said.

Sherry Grindeland: 206-515-5633 or sgrindeland@seattletimes.com

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