Houston Chronicle
December 26, 1996

COUPLE'S CAROLERS-FOR-HIRE BUSINESS A HARMONIOUS BLEND OF COMMERCE, ART

DALLAS - If you've attended a large holiday party or shopped for a CD lately, you may have heard the clear, harmonious tones of an acapella quartet called The Living Christmas Card.

If so, you've glimpsed a growing business launched by two young music educators from their Lewisville home. Sheri and Craig Marshall took a seasonal gig and grew it into a thriving enterprise they estimate will gross $250,000 in 1997.

The Marshalls, each of whom has a master's degree in music from the University of North Texas, dispatch quartets garbed in attractive Victorian-era costumes to parties and concerts in Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Detroit. Clients include Delta Air Lines, Dallas Bankers Wives, Prestonwood Country Club and Frito-Lay Co., among others.

Next year, they'll expand to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Nashville, Tenn.; Stockholm, Sweden; and Boston. A new, self-produced compact disc will earn an estimated $20,000 this season. they are talking with a major classical label and a publishing house that may print Mr. Marshall's arrangements.

The couple combined their musical talents with organization and perserverance. The result: a success that may ultimately support two careers, all year long.

They're unusual, said Jim Progris, director of the music business and entertainment industries program at the University of Miami. "More often than not, good musicians don't find a way to capitalize on their abilities because they don't think in a business way," he said. "The few who do, I think, are unique."

The Living Christmas Card began in 1987 when Sheri Marshall was teaching music in elementary school, and her husband, Craig, was a grad student. A friend asked them to join a holiday caroling quartet to have fun and make extra cash.

The friend moved, and the Marshalls carried on the quartet. Bookings expanded. The couple decided to clone themselves - auditioning other singers but staying in control of the music, format and performance quality.

In 1991, Craig landed a one-year teaching post at Prairie View A&M University near Houston. "We thought, if this works in Dallas, Why not try to outfit a group in Houston?" The organization that is now the Living Christmas Card began to take shape.

There's now and 800 number in the Marshall's home that takes bookings, which are logged on a personal computer containing a database of auditioned singers in each city.

The business has a ready talent pool because many trained singers do other things in their day jobs. "It's a great outlet for people who might be teaching voice lessons 40 to 50 hours a week," Mr. Marshall said. Parents at home with small children are also prime candidates.

The Marshalls audition and train in the fall. Craig has created arrangements of 64 carols, grouped in eight segments that take 15 minutes each to perform. There are training tapes for each part.

Costumes are important, the Marshalls believe. "I pull out my glue gun. I've got it down to three hours and about $100 worth of materials per bonnet," Sheri said. Manufacture for the rest of the original designs - including top hats for the baritones and tenors-is contracted out, then the goods are stored in mobile cedar closets.

Expansion was serendipitous at first. They're adding Fort Lauderdale and Stockholm because veteran singers relocated and wanted to keep caroling. Singers earn $25 and hour, with the lead singer earning $35. Billing $200 to $250 for an hour's performance, The Living Christmas Card spends about half of revenue on labor.

Sheri left teaching this year to focus on growing the business and caring for the couple's nearly 21-month-old daughter. Craig still works full time at the University of North Texas, where he is manager of the One O'clock Lab Band. Every dollar they have earned thus far has been plowed back into the business, which is one reason for it's success, the Marshalls believe.

The other reasons? Attention to detail and quality, the couple both say, "Find one thing you like to do, and then do it the best. I've yet to see another group I like better" Craig said.