Charlotte's Singing Robot Christmas Bears Celebrate 20 Years In Uptown
If you visited the Bank of America Corporate Center this week, perhaps you stumbled across this curiousity: a full orchestra of animatronic bears, complete with a bear maestro.
For the last 20 holiday seasons, Leonard Bearstein and his bear orchestra have been appearing, as if by magic, in Founders Hall, where they perform relentless 45-minute sets of Christmas tunes.
Of course, it isn't magic. It's actually the work of husband-and-wife team Todd and Jess Alexander, who run Spintastic Sounds. The business offers wedding DJs or professional holiday decor, depending on the season.
On the day after Thanksgiving, their family tradition is to load Bearstein and his musicians into a truck and haul them into Founders Hall, where a team of workers straighten their bowties and brush their fur, then hoist them onto a makeshift stage.
Some Christmas trees, a red sleigh, and mountains of polyester snow complete the scene, and after that, it's just a matter of plugging and playing.
CREDIT David Boraks/WFAE
Who thought up the concept? Todd credits a former colleague, Paul Lawrence, with whom he worked at the now-defunct Eastland Mall.
"He was just the marketing guru," Todd says, "If you wanted glitz and glam, he was your guy."
His idea, conceived in the late 1970s, was to create an animatronic bear quartet called "The Bubba Bears," with lead singer, Bubba. Those bear prototypes were rather archaic - "pretty shaky and jerky" - as Todd recalls.
"Some people call these guys scary," he says, nodding to Bearstein, "They're not even close to scary. Those guys, I would call scary."
Yet they were just outlandish enough to become a holiday hit. Since that original quartet debuted at Eastland, the animatronic singing bears have only multiplied.
The 18-piece Bearstein symphony debuted in Founders Hall in December 1999, and they now have doppelgangers that perform at malls in Durham, Goldsboro, and Milwaukee and two shopping centers in Virginia. International versions of the orchestra have also been created and shipped to buyers in Singapore and Thailand, though the Alexanders don't know what's become of those animatronics since.
Additionally, singing bear quartets leased by the Alexanders can be found in Pineville, Kannapolis, and Birkdale Village in Huntersville, which also has a storytelling bear named Beatrice.
Sure, some people might find them a little creepy, but the bears have fans who can raise a firestorm if they don't show up for the holidays.
Jess recalls when one shopping center decided against setting up the bears one year. "They were torn to pieces on social media," she says. "People were boycotting the mall."
Then, two weeks before Christmas, "we got a call."
The Alexanders have no plans to retire the bears anytime soon, though Todd, who is about to turn 50, hints at his own retirement one day.
"Hopefully, one of our four kids will eventually take it and run with it," he says.
Jess points to one. "That's our oldest. He's fifteen. We'll see."
The couple says they could likely keep the bears going for another 20 years at least or for as long as their clients will allow. At this point, what began as a novelty has somehow become a holiday tradition.
"It's joy. It's pure smiles. Pure happiness," Todd says.
"It's Christmas magic," Jess adds, "That's why we do it."