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When it comes to tradition during the holiday season, Phoenix isn't known for snowmen, hot cocoa, or sledding. But one thing that can always be counted upon is the tradition of Christmas Pudding — Alice Cooper's Christmas Pudding, to be exact. And it's a tasty recipe.
After nearly five decades and 30 records, Cooper has perfected his craft of putting on shows and making music. Now in his mid-60s, he's reaping the career rewards and has gone from rock 'n' roll's official villain to a charitable hero in the Valley of the Sun. Called the most "beloved heavy metal entertainer" by Rolling Stone and an "overlooked songwriter" by Bob Dylan in 1978, Cooper survived the worst excesses of the shock rock lifestyle and has come out the other end happy and healthy — and now he's helping hundreds of teenagers do the same.
In November 1995, Cooper and his wife, Sheryl, a professional dancer, began the foundation Solid Rock to raise money for music and arts programs. But then the duo proposed a teen center to provide an outlet where teens could learn and equip themselves for their future.
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The variety show Christmas Pudding kicked off in 2001 as a way for them to raise enough money to open up the center, dubbed "The Rock," where teenagers could be taught dance, music and art in a safe place. In Cooper's mind, the best way to get teens off the streets is to put a guitar in their hands, teach them how to play, and get them into a band. And as each year passed, Christmas Pudding grew a little larger.
"Christmas Pudding isn't necessarily a rock show; other entertainment includes jazz singers, comedians, dance, keyboards, classical . . . It's a mish-mosh 'pudding' of all kinds of things," Cooper says.
Some of the biggest names in music flock to the desert to be a part of the show, which raises around $100,000 each year. This year's lineup includes members of Kiss, Rob Zombie (who claims that his first metal moment was seeing Alice Cooper on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert when he was young), Joan Jett, Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe, Stephen Pearcy of Ratt, Kip Winger, and many more. Former Seinfeld star John O'Hurley will serve as a guest host for the festivities, and Blue Collar Comedy Tour star Bill Engvall will be this year's guest comedian.
"It's fun to watch people who should never play together be together on stage," laughs Cooper. "It's insane combinations of people. A Christmas party with all headliners."
Christmas Pudding's original mission was finally achieved in May 2012, when Alice Cooper's Rock Teen Center opened.
The 22,000-square-foot Rock Teen Center offers teens an outlet for their creativity, gets them off the streets and away from drugs, guns, or gangs, and encompasses an auditorium, dance studio, and music room full of donated amps and guitars from Fender. Teens can take free classes to learn bass, drums, guitar, and even vocals or sign up for a variety of dance classes from ballet to hip-hop to jazz. Soon to be launched will be vocational training in sound, lighting, and staging to provide valuable career training in the music and entertainment industry.
"Why not let every teenager come in who wants to learn and make everything free?" Cooper says. "When I see kids selling drugs on a street corner, I think to myself, 'How does that kid right there know or not if he's the best guitar player in town?' Because he's never had that opportunity to actually pick up a guitar or sit behind a set of drums or pick up a bass."
More than 100 kids spend time at the center every day doing homework, learning, hanging out with friends, and meeting new ones. And it was all made possible from the Christmas Pudding fundraiser each year.
"I'm not a teacher, but I have a great Rolodex," he adds. "So for Christmas Pudding, I can go through that Rolodex and call different people and they will show up and do a few songs."
And that's how other people can help, too. Own a home improvement store? Offer a great deal on paint to help spruce up the Rock Teen Center's walls. Know someone who works with the Phoenix Suns? See if you can get a deal on basketball hoops for the center's gym.
That networking has become a tradition of its own, one that's helped spur one of the biggest Christmas traditions in the local music scene. So it's only natural to wonder what traditions Cooper upholds with his family during the holidays.
"We are as traditional as you can imagine," Cooper says, laughing. "I always say that our family could never do a reality show because we're not exciting enough. We're more like Ozzie Nelson than Ozzy Osbourne."
Many people may be surprised that Cooper is so traditional, but when you think back it all makes sense — he's very much rooted in the concept of old-school rock 'n' roll.
"Heavy metal hasn't changed much, but the state of rock on the other hand is fairly anemic," admits Cooper. "Where are the new Guns N' Roses? To me, the Foo Fighters are probably the best band out there in hard rock. But there are not a lot of young rock bands out there filling that void."
Well, maybe, just maybe, that young band could be created at The Rock. At least that's what one of the center's regulars, 20-year-old Michael Elston, thinks could happen.
"The center is here for musicians to connect. There's about three or four bands that have started here," he says. "I mean you can sit in your room all day and watch videos on Youtube to learn, but connecting with other musicians who have a positive mindset has changed my life."
Born and raised in Phoenix, Elston has been at the center for about a year on almost a daily basis. He was having some problems at home and started a band with his friend who spent some time at Solid Rock programs. He invited Elston to visit the center and give it a shot, because it was very therapeutic and a sanctuary where he could cope with his problems and branch out. Elston found it clarifying, and could even relate to the pastor. He's set to be a part of the Christmas Pudding drum line this year, too.
"Christmas Pudding is one of the biggest events Solid Rock puts on," adds Elston. "Everyone around here gets really excited."
But don't worry; Cooper is still focused on his own career, and it doesn't look like he's slowing down anytime soon. In 2011, the original Alice Cooper band was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he also has a covers album coming out in 2014.
"It's very unusually for me to be that far ahead," Cooper says. "I've never done a covers album, so I wanted it to be specific to a theme. I used to have this drinking club called The Hollywood Vampires, when I used to drink back in L.A. And it was John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Jim Morrison — the usual suspects. So what I decided to do was dedicate the album to all my dead drunk friends."
Former Guns N' Roses manager Alan Niven once told me that we create bands and make rock 'n' roll to form the perfect family that we didn't have as children. From Cooper's perspective on his friendships in music — and how the kids are forming bonds at the center — that concept actually makes sense.
"If Solid Rock wasn't around, these kids wouldn't have had the opportunity to experience something like this," says Elston. "Like, wow, they would've never played that instrument, and maybe one day they will be famous rock stars, and it would be because of The Rock."