One chilly winter’s day in 1938, Salvation Army Band members played for diners at New York’s famed ‘21’ in what would become a cherished annual tradition. Now in its 78th year, we look back at the event’s humble beginnings, and explore how this festive staple manages to bring together friends and family time and time again.
It was a cold, damp day when Jack Kriendler, one of the co-founders of ‘21’, stepped out for a cigarette and spotted a lone cornet player on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. Jack invited him in, letting him escape the chill over a bowl of hot soup. To express his gratitude, the cornet player bought other members of The Salvation Army Band to the restaurant where they played Christmas carols for diners. A hat was passed round for donations, and so, a tradition was born.
A Storied Legacy
One of the players on that very first day was Captain William Maltby. He returned to play for many years, and soon enough brought his granddaughter along. Debbie Maltby-Evans still plays at ‘21’ to this day.
“I was recruited by my grandfather when I was 14 years old, December 1969,” Debbie tells us. “In 47 years, there was only one day that I missed.”
“I admired the personality and talents of my grandfather. He was a man of God, a Salvation Army minister, who believed in extending the ‘word’ through music. I too believe these things,” she reminisces. “It is so easy to get lost in the world today. However, deep down within every person there is a strong sense of wanting to belong, and knowing where one’s roots are formed.”
Debbie acts as emcee for the 36 performances each year, leading band members and guests in song. She has performed for Jackie Onassis, for various presidents (Nixon’s security agents dismantled the band’s instruments for inspection before the show could go on), and even alongside Frank Sinatra on a duet of “O Holy Night”.
The Greater Good
The passing of the hat is an important part of the proceedings, and each year generous patrons donate upwards of $55,000 to The Salvation Army. This international charitable organisation works in 127 countries to help the poor, destitute and hungry. They run charity shops, operate shelters, provide disaster relief and humanitarian aid. It’s a true representation of the spirit of giving, which is most prevalent during the festive season.
“Many of the patrons know the work that The Salvation Army does for those in need in New York City, but many would rather see the ‘face’ behind the request for assistance,” Debbie explains. “It is the personal approach that people respond to.”
The Halls are Decked
When it comes to Christmas cheer, nobody does it better than ‘21’. “It has always been a great place to gather with friends and family, for good food and fellowship. The spirit of the season is felt as soon as you walk through the door,” Debbie enthuses. Aside from the yuletide atmosphere, diners can expect a choice of classic dishes; from creamy chicken hash and the award-winning ‘21’ burger to the timeless New York cheesecake and the warming Dutch apple pie.
“The key word is family. I am part of the ‘family’ at the ‘21’ Club,” Debbie adds. “I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t at ‘21’ for Christmas… It just wouldn’t be Christmas.”
by Daniel Hayden