'Banging on the windows to try to get in': The CBC Sing-In looks back at 40 years

The CBC Sing-In has gone from instant hit to institution over the decades and on the eve of its 40th edition we're looking back at how it started.

Community event developed by CBC music producer and conductor in 1980 snowballed into annual tradition

Former CBC producer Frances Wainwright worked on the Sing-In from 1980 to 1997. Her daughter Carla, son Julian and husband Barry are seen here, on the right, in the early 1980s. (Submitted by Frances Wainwright)

This year, the CBC Sing-In is collecting donations for The Montreal Children's Library. Donations can also be made online.

Over the decades, the CBC Sing-In has gone from instant hit to institution and, on the eve of its 40th edition, the founders say they never thought it would be so popular.

Former CBC music producer Frances Wainwright credits her husband with planting the seed that would become the Sing-In.

He told her how much he loved the experience of going to church to sing carols when he was young.

"So I thought, 'Who better than his Jewish wife to organize such an event?'" Wainwright joked.

"The idea was that it would be a community gathering with seasonal music, congregational carols, and [it would be] a reflection of the true spirit of the season — without being too specific."

She approached the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul conductor Wayne Riddell to help organize the event.

The annual event has been going on since 1980. All funds raised at the Sing-In benefit local charities. (Jason Boychuk/CBC)

Riddell decided on the program and wanted it to mix songs people would get up and sing to, with pieces that highlighted the presence of the Canadian Brass — a famous brass quintet that Riddell said was a big draw in the early 1980s.

The first edition ended up generating so much excitement, it proved a bit overwhelming, he said.

"People were banging on the windows to try to get in. It was a bit scary," Riddell recalled.

More than 1,000 people lined up on Sherbrooke Street outside the church on the cold December morning.

Frances Wainwright was a CBC Music producer who co-created the first Sing-In with conductor Wayne Riddell. (Submitted by Frances Wainwright)

The wild success of that first edition caught organizers by surprise. Wainwright found herself having to turn hundreds of people away.

"We were completely unprepared," Wainwright said.

In those early years, when people realized they weren't going to get in, they got creative.

"People tried to get into the side doors on Redpath Street, to kind of, sneak into the church," Wainwright said.

While CBC does most of the organizing, the church's volunteers help with crowd control on the day of the event.

Now, tickets are distributed online so people don't have to wait in the cold — or try to sneak in through the side door, or bang on the windows — on the day of the event.

Since 2013 there has also been a second venue, Bourgie Hall with an extra 450 seats.

"I can't imagine anyone going and not enjoying it," Riddell said.

The CBC Gem entertains the crowd on Sherbrooke Street as people wait to get into the church. (Tam Lan Truong/

In all, over the years, more than 40,000 people have filled the pews at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul to sing carols and meet CBC personalities. 

Riddell was the conductor until 1986, and came back for a few editions afterward. But he's attended each, even when he's not conducting.

Wainwright, meanwhile, retired from CBC in 1997 and now lives in British Columbia, where she watches the Sing-In on the CBC Montreal Facebook page.

Tickets for the 40th edition were gone in minutes but the event will be streamed on our Facebook and website, as well as CBC Gem, starting at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 8.


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