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Article updated: 12/25/2012 8:31 AM

Mannheim Steamroller puts Lombard native center stage for Christmas concerts

By Jamie Sotonoff Dann Gire

Becky Kia doesn't listen to Christmas music this time of year.

That's because her job is to play Christmas music, night after night.

Kia, a native of Lombard, is the lead violinist of Mannheim Steamroller, a popular, multiplatinum-selling Christmas group whose pumped-up orchestral music is all over the radio dial during the holidays.

They're also all over the U.S. during the Christmas season; the group splits into two six-member groups (Kia is with the "green" band), and each embarks on a seven-week, 50-show tour around the country. Kia was part of the Dec. 1 performance at the Akoo Theatre in Rosemont for their "Mannheim Steamroller Christmas by Chip Davis" show.

"You get a response from the audience that is so warm and so terrific. Our fans are such nice people," said Kia, who meets many at their post-show autograph sessions.

Among their fans is conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, whom Kia says is a "huge promoter" of their music and regularly plays it on the air.

"We have a lot of fans because of him," Kia said. "I don't agree with everything he says, but I still want to meet him one day."

Kia's life outside of Mannheim Steamroller is far different from her starring role onstage during the holidays. The 46-year-old mother of three lives a quiet life in Stanton, Iowa (population: 689), where she teaches music, leads a community orchestra and is a member of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra. It's a 50-mile drive to Omaha, but she says it is a wonderful orchestra to play in for 39 weeks out of the year.

"We don't travel that much. And with the Omaha Symphony, I'm a section player. With (Mannheim Steamroller), I'm one of a six-member band ... standing at the front of the stage, and in a different city each day. It's a challenge as a professional."

Music has been part of Kia's life since age 5. She started taking piano lessons from teacher Siri Peterson in Lombard. Their bond was so close, that Kia still visits her every summer.

The violin came into the picture in fourth grade, when Kia took lessons from Bill Kronenberg. Soon, she was shuttling between Glenbard East High School, where she was a student, to take lessons from acclaimed violin teacher Ruth Ray.

The 85-year-old teacher would come from Chicago to teach a few select students at Addison Trail High School.

"She was the turning point. I said, 'OK, I can play the violin,'" Kia said.

"Everybody, when I grew up, kept teaching me and nudging me and saying, 'This is what you can do.'"

By age 18, Kia was getting paid to play with the Quad City Symphony, and by 1990, she was playing in the Mannheim Steamroller's backup orchestra, eventually moving up to be their lead violin soloist.

Today, on Christmas, Kia will probably spend the day sitting in an airport, waiting on a flight to Texas for the band's Dec. 26 show. That means her family -- including her daughters, ages 7, 13 and 15 -- have to celebrate Christmas a little early.

"I used to bring (her daughters) out on the tour or get a sub and go home for a while, but it's really hard to get a sub anymore. We do two Omaha shows on the 23rd, so it's OK. The kids understand," she said. "For me to get to this point, it took all these people saying, 'Hey, why don't you try this?' I can't believe I have this great career."

Ÿ Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a great column feature, email them at dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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