Don't call him God's Gift -- Robert Gift is not a religious man. Yet every Christmas season, he settles himself into the bell tower at the City and County Building to ring its enormous and poorly tuned chimes -- an admittedly thankless, if unique, job that's required him to learn all the carols, religious or otherwise, that are the least bit playable, considering the tools at hand. Gift is the guy who takes your requests and then tolls the bells for thee.
Imagine a big old piano bar in the belfry -- with stipulations. "The biggest problem with the instrument, if you want to call it that, is that it has nine white notes and only one black note," Gift says. "That limits the number of songs I can play." For instance, White Christmas, the most requested tune, sports too many sharps for City Hall's ten raw bells (raw bells, he explains, are those that haven't been through the painstaking process of exact tuning), donated in 1932 and 1950 by former Denver mayor Robert Speer's widow, Kate. Even sadder for Gift, though, is his inability to play the Mary Poppins chestnut Chim Chim Cheree. Oh, did we forget to mention he's a chimney sweep, too?
"I'm the Quasimodo of the City and County Building," he says. Gift, who actually studied the art of carillon ringing in college, admits that the skills required for manipulating 18,000 pounds of metal are, um, imprecise. "Art? That's pushing it," he confides. "When people ask me, 'Are you a musician?' I say, 'No, I'm a carillonneur. Pronounced like cow manure.'" But the good man does personify his name, whether he allows that truth or not. "A lot of very lonely people who are housebound are just so happy to think that they're deciding what's being played for the people listening outside," he says. Requests are forwarded to a phone in the tower, and Gift even lets people hear their tunes at home, through the receiver. That is, if he can: "A lot of pieces require some alteration, so if you make a request, do it ahead of time, please."
His repertoire has shifted since he talked former mayor Bill McNichols into letting him ring the chimes back in 1979; they'd remained silent, except for standard tolling on the hour, since the late '50s, when Gift's last-known predecessor fell ill. Then, spurred by controversy over the use of religious displays in public places, McNichols nixed all the obviously religious Christmas songs, and "my playlist went from 35 songs to maybe five," Gift says. "A lot of the modern, non-religious songs are not playable because they have too many sharps and flats." Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells and not much else passed muster. Now Gift will ring out anything from The Dreidl Songto The Notre Dame Fight Song, and he claims he can tell just how loud the bells are during his annual performance simply by judging the distances from which the complaints come in. "I'm waiting for a lawsuit from the city jail," he says. "I just know some prisoner is going to claim cruel and unusual punishment." And a warm-up performance scheduled on a Monday night earlier this month had to be canceled because it was feared that the bells would disturb the concurrent city council meeting.
"But don't shoot the bell player," Gift pleads. "If they're out of tune, it's not my fault." Anyway, he adds, "if they were in tune, they'd sound like every other carillon in the world. That's part of the charm."
Be charmed, then. The carillon request line is now open for business, but don't be surprised if you hear at least one unexpected tune on Christmas Eve: "All carillonneurs have a signature tune they play so the other carillonneurs can tell who's playing," Gift says. "That way, the king would know who to behead for a lousy performance."
And what's his? That's easy: Simple Gifts.
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