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CAROLS FOR CANS\ THE GREENSBORO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND OTHER PERFORMERS GIVE THEIR ANNUAL CHRISTMAS CONCERT SATURDAY IN EXCHANGE FOR CANNED-FOOD DONATIONS TO THE SALVATION ARMY.
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CAROLS FOR CANS\ THE GREENSBORO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND OTHER PERFORMERS GIVE THEIR ANNUAL CHRISTMAS CONCERT SATURDAY IN EXCHANGE FOR CANNED-FOOD DONATIONS TO THE SALVATION ARMY.

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Bill Flynn sounds as merry as St. Nick himself when he describes Greensboro's annual holiday concert. He talks about the music, the ice skating and the many smiling faces in the crowd.

``The main thing to say about it is: After the show, if you're not in the holiday spirit you're not alive,' says Flynn, a radio host at WMAG (99.5 FM). ``The whole point of it is to have families get into spirit.'The 13th annual show takes place Saturday at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Like holiday glue, the show brings together the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, local choirs and guest artists, ice skaters and more. The evening will provide entertainment for families and a walloping donation of canned food for the Salvation Army.

``The entire idea is to get canned goods for the Salvation Army,' says Stuart Malina, music director and conductor of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra. ``It's all just for the spirit of the day.'

And spirit there is. More than 16,000 people came to the 1999 show.

``You'll hear a coliseum full of thousands of people singing Christmas carols,' says Flynn, guest conductor when the symphony performs ``Sleigh Ride.'

Flynn describes the event as his annual opportunity to catch up with the community. People even talk about it during the dog days of summer, says Flynn.

``There's a real strong spirit of community and Christmas all wrapped up and compelling,' Flynn says.

Neill McNeill, the WGHP anchor who will be the host of the event, agrees that the show is a rare moment to have the community come together to celebrate.

``It's a good opportunity for us to not only meet people but to hear what's on their minds,' McNeill says.

For two or three hours one night a year, people can sit back, relax and enjoy a live show for free, McNeill says. He credits Malina and the symphony for keeping the show fresh each year.

McNeill has been part of the concert since it began 13 years ago. He and co-host Carol Andrews, also a WGHP anchor, keep the show moving between sets.

``I've co-hosted all of them except one,' McNeill says. ``The one I missed was last year, and it's because my wife had a baby several hours before the concert.'

McNeill says he considered trying to make it to the concert, but his wife prefered he stay with her and little Lentz McNeill, who turns 1 on Monday. The McNeills also are parents to 8-year-old Meg.

``I think it's Neill's favorite time of the year,' says WGHP general manager Karen Adams, laughing. Adams has an even better record of attendance for the concerts: She hasn't missed one.

The holiday concert was born because Adams wanted an event that would bring families and the community together and benefit those in need. She remembers looking at the vast parking lot at the Greensboro Coliseum, wondering if anyone was going to come to that first show.

``They just started pouring in,' Adams says. ``The first year we maybe had 10,000 cans and 5,000 people.'

The can count has increased each year. When cans from the Greensboro concert, a similar concert by the Winston-Salem Symphony and a canned-food drive in schools were combined, the Salvation Army received 106,000 cans of food in 1999. The most commonly donated item is green beans, but protein-rich foods such as potted meats, canned beans or peanut butter in plastic containers also are good foods to donate.

``We had over 16,000 people last year,' Adams says. Hearing everyone singing or humming along to ``Amazing Grace' is chilling, she says. ``I take it to heart. I love it. It's wonderful family entertainment.'

The Salvation Army asks people to bring at least two cans of food per person to donate to its food drive. People often bring more, says Salvation Army Capt. Ward Matthews.

``It's the most amazing single event I've ever been associated with,' Matthews says. ``People who come in are asked to bring one can, and they bring cases of cans.'

The food the Salvation Army receives from the concert feeds people through April, Matthews says.

From the quick-packing volunteers at the show to the donors who bring as many cans as they can carry, the people in this area are the most generous Matthews has seen in his 16 years in the Salvation Army. By the time the last note is performed on Saturday, cans already are on their way to help people throughout the Triad, he says.

For that, Matthews sends the people of Greensboro ``a great big thank you.'\

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