History Now author: Joan Solomon Janshego
Date written: May 2015
Each year for the past 35 years, there has been a Holiday party on the 3200 block of Oliver Street, and this is because of an amazing couple – Bernie Hillenbrand and Aliceann Wohlbruck. The party takes place on a Sunday evening a couple weeks before Christmas at Bernie and Aliceann’s home.
Lena Heron says, “It is amazing the community that we have here on Oliver Street because of Bernie and Aliceann. They are the center and heart of this community.” This sentiment is expressed by all neighbors, who call Bernie the mayor of Oliver Street. Christian Eigen-Zucchi says “despite being in one of the great American cities, it feels like a small village here and Bernie and Aliceann are the focus.”
To set the scene - Neighbors arrive at 6:30 p.m. with casseroles and all sorts of dishes, which are placed on the long dinning room table. Bernie and Aliceann provide the mulled cider. After the feast, all congregate in the living room where Bernie encourages the children to show off their musical talents.
Most children play the piano, but others have played the violin and other instruments in past years. Christian Eigen-Zucchi says it “gives the young blood the chance to play – a platform.” This past December (2014), Milo, who is 10 years old, delights all as he joyously plays a song on the piano. Then with the group’s encouraging applause, he plays two more.
Milo’s mother, Lena Heron, says Milo was 2 years old the first time he played at the Oliver Street party. When Bernie invited interested kids to play the piano, much to his mother’s surprise, Milo volunteered. She said that even though he couldn’t really play at that age, he was “very respectful…not just banging on the piano.” When he finished, he made a little bow and that evening a showman was born. He looks forward to playing the piano at the Oliver Street party each year.
Bernie and Aliceann were married on the porch of their Oliver Street home 35 years ago. They have a son with a disability, and Bernie said that one reason they started the Oliver Street Holiday party tradition was as a way of thanking their neighbors who were kind to their son. Bernie says that his philosophy has always been “be kind to people and that will give you a good life. It all comes down to human kindness. If you do that, you will be rewarded. “
After the children’s performance, the group sings Christmas carols with the accompaniment of Diane Winters Pyles, who was Aliceann’s college roommate. Although she lives in Springfield, Virginia, Diane travels to Chevy Chase to provide the music. She has only missed one party in 35 years.
Participants in the party are old-time residents like Orr Kelly, who moved to Oliver Street in 1962. He says he has rarely missed a party, although he sold his Oliver Street home and moved to a Bethesda condominium some years ago.
Another neighbor, Abby Arnold, says her children have been coming to the party since they were babies. They are now 24 and 25. “They grew up with the Oliver Street party. To this day, if they are in town, they come to the holiday party,” Abby says.
Another long-time resident is Joan Dodge, who has lived in her Oliver Street house for 40 years. Joan says that the Oliver Street parties are a way for neighbors to interact. In that way we do more than just wave and say “hi” to our neighbors. Joan says that people from small communities always understood that it was important to develop community cohesion. “In these days of urban living, it is important to create a community, “ Joan says.
Although Christmas carols are sung at the holiday party, many of the Jewish people who live on the block have come to the party throughout the years. When the party has fallen on Hanukkah, the lighting of menorah candles has been added to the festivities. Joan remembers Debbie Blum - who has since moved away. “She always brought her “delicious noodle kugel and shared her recipe,” Joan says. Loretta Kiron says that she is a secular Jew, but has always enjoyed Christmas music. She has rarely missed an Oliver Street holiday party.
Christian Eigen-Zucchi, who is living in his Oliver Street childhood home, agrees that music was always a major focus of the Oliver Street parties. He remembers that in the early days his parents played chamber music – his mother, Jutta, on the piano and his father, Peter, on the recorder - while people milled around and enjoyed the food. After carols were sung in the house, the group would go outside and carol in the neighborhood. His father accompanied the group playing the saxophone. Joan Dodge remembers that Orr Kelly played the trumpet. They would carol on neighboring Northampton and 33rd Streets and then would stop by Oliver Street neighbors who may have been too old or infirm to come to the party.
Loretta Kiron recalls that one year when she was ill, the neighbors serenaded her from the street. Joan Dodge says that the group sang in front of the house of George Haley, who was a Tuskegee Airmen and a past President of the Chevy Chase Citizens Association, when he became too ill to come to the party. “It was an organic process. It happened without a lot of direction,” Joan said.
Not all the party participants are old timers. John Poppajohn grew up on Rittenhouse Street. He was away for many years, but last year bought a house on Northampton Street – which is just behind the home of Bernie and Aliceann. To his delight, Bernie and Aliceann invited John and his family to the Oliver Street party this year. John loves the sense of community that he experiences in Chevy Chase. He says that this is the reason that his mother came to Chevy Chase in the 1950’s and is epitomized by the Oliver Street party and Bernie and Aliceann. That is why he is happily raising his children in Chevy Chase.