Tuba Christmas in Zephyrhills brings loud holiday joy

John Wheeler, 75, coordinates Tuba Christmas, now in its eighth year.
John Wheeler, 75, coordinates Tuba Christmas, now in its eighth year.
Published Dec. 18, 2013

ZEPHYRHILLS — John Wheeler has no idea how many tubas, besides his, will congregate in downtown's Times Square Saturday evening.

He knows this, though: Together they will produce one beautiful, booming holiday greeting for anyone in a five- or six-block radius.

Wheeler, 75, coordinates the city's annual Tuba Christmas concert; this year is the eighth time he will rely on faith and past experience for a decent showing of tubas and euphoniums.

There is no advance sign-up to participate — anyone who can play, regardless of age, is welcome to show up with their brass at a preconcert registration.

The first concert in 2006 drew 15 volunteer musicians; every one since has attracted between 20 and 25, Wheeler said.

Directed by Brian Schmidt, who also leads the Stewart Middle School band, the concert has the city's official seal of approval. Mayor Danny Burgess recently proclaimed Dec. 21 as "Tuba Christmas Day" in Zephyrhills.

"It's a great way to hear a heavy metal concert," Wheeler quipped, thanking Burgess for the proclamation at the Dec. 9 City Council meeting. "We welcome all tubists. It's a wonderful way to further music in our community."

Burgess said he heard that council member Kent Compton was once a noteworthy tuba player and that he might join in on the fun. Compton promptly squashed the rumor, saying he hasn't played the instrument since 1980.

In 1974, tubist Harvey Phillips coordinated the first Tuba Christmas in honor of his mentor, William J. Bell, who was born on Christmas Day 1902, according to a history of the holiday concert on the organization's website ( It was performed at the Rockefeller Plaza ice rink in New York City, with music arranged by composer Alec Wilder.

Since then, Tuba Christmas concerts can be found in every state and a handful of other countries, such as Canada, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Wheeler's lifelong love of brass instruments began in his Upper Arlington, Ohio, middle school, where the band director matched him up with a sousaphone. He played through college and sporadically in adulthood as he pursued a career as a naval reserve officer and civilian Navy administrator; he and his wife, Mary, are retired Navy captains.

He played his first Tuba Christmas concert in New Hampshire in the mid 1980s and in each year thereafter, until the couple retired to Zephyrhills in 1999.

When he isn't coordinating the annual concert, Wheeler plays in St. Petersburg's Awesome Original Second Time Arounders Marching Band and the Windjammers band in Sarasota, which plays old-time circus music.

"I can't say enough about the importance of music," said Wheeler. "It adds so much to one's enjoyment of life."

Burgess, who plans to attend his first Tuba Christmas on Saturday, agrees.

"People love Christmas music and it's such a great way to bring people together," he said. "And that's what this time of year is all about."