HAMLET — Betty Brigman loves to decorate for the holidays, especially the Christmas tree at Richmond Community College’s Cole Auditorium.
“I’ve decorated the tree for 17 years, ever since day one since Cole Auditorium’s been there,” Brigman said. “It started when they didn’t have a tree out there, so somebody had to get a tree. Gladys Loftus and I went and got a tree and all the decorations, and we decorated it. Gladys has retired, but I still go out there and do it.”
Brigman said she likes to change up the style so that the tree is unique each year.
“I try to add something different every year,” Brigman said. “The first year, we had angels. We used the angels and the big balls, and gradually we phased the angels out. We still have them and use them sometimes.”
Asked how she became involved in professional-level Christmas tree decorating, Brigman said it’s been a lifelong obsession.
“I’ve decorated a lot of trees,” she explained. “I worked with a florist on the side, and she always let me decorate her trees. I decorated a tree one time and this lady came by, and she asked me could she take a picture of it, and I said yes. And about six days later, she sent me a picture of it, and it was in a newspaper in Georgia. She said it was just one of the most beautiful trees she had ever seen. I made every one of the ornaments on that tree, and the tree skirt. I made everything, even the angel on top of the tree.”
She said that although the first tree she and Loftus bought has served well for the past 17 years, the newer, fancier trees have not escaped her attention.
“I’ve said maybe one day we’ll get the money to get this other tree, it’s really beautiful,” Brigman said. “Those Boston trees you see on TV, they’re expensive, but a lot of stars use them. I’d like to get one of those.”
Brigman said that she usually has the tree up by the first week of November, so people who come to all the shows can enjoy seeing it as the holidays approach. And to make it even more special, she’s been known to sneak little hidden items onto the tree for people to discover.
“I look around for Elvis ornaments, and then I will hide them on the tree, and I tell Joey (Bennett) to put a sign up saying, ‘Oops, Elvis hasn’t left the building!’ That gives people a clue. We’ve had him in the tree eight times. I’ve also had Lucy (Lucille Ball) and Dezi (Arnaz), Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne. And one year, there was a pickle and an old burned-out light bulb. I have Elvis on it this year, but I put it out there where everybody can see him. I have a silver bell and Elvis.”
She said hiding the surprise ornaments on the tree is one of her favorite things about decorating it.
“I love doing special things that people don’t know about,” she said. “It makes it fun for the people. People come and look and then find out there’s something hidden inside the tree. One year, the old George Crump went looking and looking for those hidden things. He looked and looked and looked to find them all and he finally went to Joey and Joey showed him where they were.”
During the off-season, she has sometimes decorated trees for other holidays, such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day.
“In January, it’s a kind of empty feeling, isn’t it,” Brigman said. “Like the Christmas is gone. That’s why I did the Valentine tree. One lady, I decorated her house for Easter.”
She said she isn’t one of those people who keeps a Christmas tree in her home year-round, nonetheless.
“Some years I’d put my tree up and leave it ‘til Easter,” Brigman said. “But I haven’t put one up in a while here because I’m busy decorating other trees. I look forward to the Cole every year. I really look forward to that.”
Bennett, director at the Cole Auditorium, said the tree had been there longer than he has.
“That’s become part of the Cole tradition, too,” he said. “There’s usually some ornaments hidden, not necessarily in plain view but fairly, where you can see them if you look from the right angle. Obviously we didn’t want anybody touching more than necessary.”
The tree is exceptionally tall.
“We have some of our students come and help with the top part of it,” Bennett said. “Over the years, we’ve had some of our maintenance crew do it. I’ve done it. So we’ve had a little bit of everybody on the top of the ladder.”
September marked Bennett’s 15th year as director of the Cole. He said the tree has been a sort of gathering place for visitors to the auditorium for nearly two decades.
“It has just become kind of a conversation piece for everybody coming in,” he said. “Especially in a room this large, you have to have a big Christmas tree. The standard 7 ft. or 8 ft. tree just would not work in this room. Ms. Betty’s creativity and her eye for design has helped it to transform over the years.”
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.
The Christmas Tree in the lobby of Cole Auditorium is decorated each year by Betty Brigman. The tradition is in its 17th year.