GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – An hour before showtime, Elliot Saltzman is behind the Trans-Siberian Orchestra stage, excitedly showing off the elaborate guts of the spectacle set to unfold at Van Andel Arena, according to the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network.

“It’s a little city in there!” he says to a visitor, pointing under the stage at the labyrinth of cables, elevator video displays and cubbyholes for assorted crew members – instrument technicians, laser specialists and the like.

Soon, all those gears will be in frenetic but precise motion as TSO’s musicians and singers unleash their Christmas rock opera up top. With pyrotechnics blazing and video pods glowing amid a grand pageant of lights, they’ll serve up nearly 2½ hours of drama and dazzle for an arena packed with generation-spanning fans.

The concertgoers in Grand Rapids are among the millions of Americans who have grown enchanted with this most unconventional of holiday rituals since it sprung to life at the turn of the millennium.

“We have heavy metal kids here, and we have grandparents,” Saltzman says as he walks through the fast-filling arena. “We’re pretty proud of the fact there are kids who saw this 20 years ago, grew up, and now bring their own families.”

Twenty years into his role as TSO tour director, the gregarious Saltzman still seems freshly energized by the annual tour.

And why not? TSO, after all, is a massive hit: Despite playing just five or six weeks each year, its box office muscle was enough to make it the 23rd-top-grossing tour of the 2010s, according to Pollstar. Since hitting the road in 1998, it has racked up more than $725 million.

“It started as the ugly duckling,” Saltzman says. “Now it’s a fixture in the entertainment industry.”

This matinee show in early December is the first of a doubleheader in Grand Rapids, a common scenario on the TSO schedule. Two touring companies travel the land, and there are four TSO shows on this day: Three thousand miles away, TSO West plays a pair in Phoenix. Between them, they boast 38 tractor-trailers, 240 crew members and 50 tons of gear.

On its face, Trans-Siberian Orchestra is an unlikely yuletide success – a grandiose extravaganza that melds ’80s hair metal sizzle with classical elements and a production that puts some of the biggest pop stage shows to shame. These aren’t the nostalgic fireside stylings of Bing Crosby or the delicate grace of “The Nutcracker.” TSO is Christmastime turned to 11 with a fusillade of pyro raining down.

Early in the show, guitarist Joel Hoekstra lights into a medley of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Holy Night,” blond mane thrashing amid the six-string heroics. The sound of 1988, it seems, has found immortal life as a Christmastime custom.

Amid the roaring guitars and high-tech high jinks, TSO makes room for more traditional holiday trappings. Onstage at Van Andel, there are moments of Christmas-miracle solemnity and holiday cheer, presented by nine vocalists, seven touring musicians, a locally hired string section and a sonorous narrator who periodically steps out to guide the story along.

This year’s tour revives the story that winds through Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s 1996 debut album: the tale of an angel sent down from heaven on a snowy Christmas Eve, hearing the prayers of a distraught father and leading a lost little girl home. The two dozen musical numbers include TSO originals and juiced-up holiday chestnuts.

Backstage, the pace gets intense. Crew members often snag power naps atop gear cases. In Grand Rapids, the TSO caravan rolled in at 5 a.m. – by noon, the stage with all its bells and whistles was in place. Fans roll into the venue by 2 p.m. for the first of two shows, which will be separated by a two-hour break. The whole production will be broken down by late that night, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra will head down the highway to do it again in the next market.

“When somebody new comes in, they’re warned about what they’re getting themselves into,” says drummer Jeff Plate, whose metal band Savatage was the musical kernel that grew into TSO in the ’90s. “This is like no other.”

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Despite the workload, a festive family vibe reigns behind the scenes, including musicians, singers and crew members who have been part of the operation for years.

“It’s amazing: For all the moving parts we have on that stage, there is very seldom ever a problem – with the instrumentation, the video, the pyro, any of it,” Plate says. “I stand in the middle of this thing still amazed. Once the show starts, it’s a machine.”

‘Christmas Eve’ gets TSO rolling 

The TSO production storming across America is a far cry from the version that hit the road with little fanfare 21 years ago.

In 1998, that inaugural tour rolled up to Detroit’s State Theatre with a single box truck, a lighting rig and a fog machine, part of a five-city run to test the waters amid the success of the albums “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” and “The Christmas Attic.”

“Musically, we knew we had something people liked,” Plate says. “But with the live thing, it was more like: How are we going to pull this off? Here we were, metal heads and rock ‘n’ roll guys, probably not what people expected with ‘Orchestra’ in the title. We were all nervous about how it would translate.”

But it clicked. A year later, Trans-Siberian Orchestra formed two touring groups and expanded to 70 shows and promptly became a box office powerhouse.

Musical mad scientist Paul O’Neill, a veteran rock producer, had been kicking around a Christmas rock concept since the ’80s. The New York native died in 2017, but his spirit still runs deep in all things TSO – including his insistence that the production grow every year.

“He was so insanely driven to make this thing special,” Plate says. “We came from that world of Broadway and the Who and Queen and Kiss. This wasn’t going to be a show where you just sat quietly and the band played a few songs. He wanted to hit you with everything. As it kept growing, he had the means to beef up the production.”

This year’s extravaganza includes everything from new laser colors to an array of overhead kinetic lights – 4-foot sticks coated with LEDs, choreographed with wireless commands.

Most impressive is a massive Tesla coil at the back of the arena, firing off bolts of lightning synced to the music on “The Storm/The Mountain” – the zaps digitally tuned to match the melody.

“Paul was a big Pink Floyd fan,” Saltzman says. “He wanted stuff all around the arena.”

Another of O’Neill’s legacies is also intact: The TSO founder was noted for his altruistic ways – hopping out his car to hand $100 bills to strangers or roaming arenas with a Santa sack doling out rare silver dollars to concertgoers.

From its very earliest days, TSO has earmarked $1 from every ticket sold for donation to charitable groups in each tour market.

 TSO has contributed more than $16 million to organizations across the country.

For Plate, who chose his career path after seeing Kiss on TV in 1975, Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a real-life rock ‘n’ roll dream, and he’s certain it will carry on well beyond him.

“Paul would always say this is going to outlast us all. It’s going to get passed on from generation to generation,” he said. “He was right. His stories have touched a lot of people. It’s not just the musicians onstage and how cool the show is. There’s a story, the lyrics are deep, and they mean something to a lot of people. It’s a sense of responsibility, and I think for all of us, that’s what keeps us going.”

Trans-Siberian Orchestra remaining tour dates

Dec. 19: Albany, New York, Times Union Center

Dec. 19: Memphis, Tennessee, FedEx Forum

Dec. 20: Uniondale, New York, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum

Dec. 20: Tulsa, Oklahoma, BOK Center

Dec. 21: Newark, New Jersey, Prudential Center

Dec. 21: Newark, NJ, Prudential Center

Dec. 21: Dallas, American Airlines Center (two shows)

Dec. 22: Pittsburgh, PPG Paints Arena (two shows)

Dec. 22: Houston, Toyota Center (two shows)

Dec. 23: Washington, Capital One Arena (two shows)

Dec. 23: San Antonio, AT&T Center (two shows)

Dec. 26: Columbus, Ohio, Nationwide Arena (two shows)

Dec. 26: St. Louis, Enterprise Center (two shows) 

Dec. 27: Cleveland, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse (two shows)

Dec. 27: Milwaukee, Fiserv Forum (two shows)

Dec. 28: Detroit, Little Caesars Arena (two shows)

Dec. 28: St. Paul, Minnesota, Xcel Energy Center

Dec. 30: Toronto, Scotiabank Arena (two shows)

Dec. 30: Chicago, Allstate Arena (two shows)

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