The Orlando Sentinel
Sunday, January 5, 1997



DALLAS- This past holiday season, people attending parties or shopping at music stores may have heard the clear, harmonious tones of an a cappella quartet called The Living Christmas Card.

This growing business was launched by two young music educators from their Lewisville, Texas, 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 with 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 Dallas - Fort Worth, Houston and Detroit. Clients include Delta Air Lines and Frito-Lay Co. among others.

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

The couple combined their musical talents with organization and perseverance. The result: a success that may ultimately support two careers, all year long. "Organization and attention to details have kept us going . . . It helps that we love what we do," said Craig Marshall, 32.

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 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 by auditioning other singers, but they stayed in control of the music, format and performance quality.

In 1991, Craig Marshall 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 Chrismtas Card began to take shape.

There's now an 800 number in tha Marshalls' 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," Craig Marshall said. Parents at home with children are also prime candidates.

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

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

Expansion was serendipitous at first. They're adding Fort Lauderdale and Stockholm because veteran singers relocated and want to keep on caroling.

Each singer earns $25 an hour, with the lead singer pulling down $35. Billing $200 to $250 for an hour's performance, The Living Christmas Card spends about half of its revenue on labor.

Sheri Marshall left teaching last year to focus on growing the business and caring for the couple's young daughter. Craig Marshall still works full time at the University of North Texas, where he is business manager of the One O'Clock Lab Band. Every dollar thay have earned so far has been plowed back into the business, which is one reason for its success, the Marshalls say.

The other reasons? Attention to detail and quality, they 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 Marshall said.

"It doesn't hurt to be a risk-taker," Sheri Marshall said. "We did what our budget would allow, but we went right to the edge."