The first-ever TSO show took place in 1996 at a New York hospital. New York DJ Scott Shannon, whom O'Neill describes as "the most powerful DJ in America at the time," invited the band to play Blythedale Children's Hospital just north of New York City. O'Neill initially didn't want to play the show; but once he visited the hospital, he couldn't resist.
"It's a fabulous hospital that helps critically hurt children," explains Lind. "Every year, they put on a concert for them. They built a stage, and the kids were heartbreaking cases. Some of them even had gunshot wounds. It was really amazing."
Pitrelli says that show "changed my life forever." That day, he had walked out of an Irish bar in Astoria, in Queens, at 4 a.m. after drinking an eighteen-year-old Scotch, oblivious to the concert's significance.
But once he arrived at the venue, he realized the show would be something special.
"We were just killing time the night before the show," he says. "I thought, 'Man, it's early in the morning for this kind of concert.' I quickly realized it wasn't a 'I have a boo-boo' concert. I realized it was serious stuff, and we would have an impact. I was watching people crying, and I thought it was more special. I just thought we have a song on the radio — that's awesome. I realized it wasn't just a rock band anymore."
Then, in 1998, the band recorded a TV show before it ever even toured. O'Neill has described it as the band's "first show."
"Paul didn't want to do the typical video," says Lind." "He turned what would have been shown only once on TV into this story that's been on TV every year since. In typical Paul fashion, he threw everyone a curveball."
Filmed in an old Jersey City theater, the show features Ossie Davis, Jewel and Michael Crawford. O'Neill has said the band, though still in the early stages, captured a certain "magic," as the special features some of the best songs from the band's catalog at the time.
At the urging of Cleveland disc jockey Bill Louis, the group took its 1996 Christmas rock opera Christmas Eve and Other Stories, the first part of a trilogy of prog-rock-influenced Christmas albums, on the road in 1999.
Lewis had been playing the album's single, "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24," on WNCX and had gotten great feedback from fans.
"He said, 'You can do a show in New York, but not in Cleveland?' So he nagged me to death," O'Neill says of Lewis. "Turns out, he was right. The first show sold out in four hours."
The group then added another Cleveland show and that sold out. A third was added. It also sold out.
"Cleveland was pandemonium," Pitrelli says.
Cleveland-based Belkin Productions also booked gigs in Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. With the exception of Chicago, each show exceeded expectations. The following year, the band hired Elliot Saltzman to be its tour director as it expanded to about 30 shows with two different installations traipsing across the country.
"Adam Lind suckered me into it," says Saltzman. He's sitting on the swanky leather sofa in his dimly lit office, the walls of which are festooned with Indian tapestries to give off the proper "vibe." "He said it would be really easy. Once I said yes, he then added that he wanted to have a second tour go out. I had to scramble to hire other people. That year, it was really crazy."
Saltzman also hired lighting designer Bryan Hartley, to help the band come up with a product that Saltzman says is better than everything else on the road. Hartley had known O'Neill for years and was happy to come on the tour. He still does all the band's lighting.
That incarnation of the tour had a good thirteen-year run before O'Neill decided to mix things up, often playing new albums in their entirety while still incorporating the "hits." Now, it's consistently one of the highest grossing tours in the world.
When asked about how he deals with the pressure to outdo each previous tour, Pitrelli uses a sports metaphor.
"The New England Patriots won three Super Bowls, and they're not counting their rings," he says. "Tony LaRussa, who's a big fan of the band, comes every year. We'd ask him if he was done, he always says no. In sports, you go back to square one at the start of every season. It's like that with Trans-Siberian Orchestra."