McDonough’s holiday PBS special takes place of tour

COVID-19 put a stop to in-person mass gatherings this year. Pianist Jim McDonough was forced to find an alternative to his live Christmas performances. His holiday special will air on Iowa PBS on Dec. 15. (Photo courtesy of Iowa PBS)
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     This time of the year, many locals and loyal fans are looking forward to a holiday tradition: Spending an evening with Monticello’s famous pianist Jim McDonough.

     Like many public events and activities this year, McDonough was forced to cancel his annual Holiday Grande tour throughout Eastern Iowa. It was actually back in March that McDonough was fearful of his concert tour.

     “I think for everyone, one of the most difficult things about the pandemic has been the inability to plan very far in advance,” he said.

     While he tried to remain positive throughout it all, it started to become a reality that an alternative plan was needed to still bring his holiday tunes to the masses.

     “As I spoke to venues over the summer, they described how they altered their seating arrangements to maintain social distancing, as well as other protocols they were implementing,” explained McDonough. This drastically cuts down on how many people can attend McDonough’s shows at once.

     For example, the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids normally has a capacity of 1,700. It’s been reduced to 600 seats.

     “It was at that point that I started to consider a solo tour rather than an orchestra and singers,” McDonough said of his normal Holiday Grande shows.

     When cases started to climb again, he made the difficult decision in late October that smaller, intimate performances were not worth the risk.

     Instead, McDonough’s fans can tune into Iowa PBS on Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. to watch “Home for the Holidays with Jim McDonough.” (A re-broadcast will air on Thursday, Dec. 24 at 7 p.m.)

     The concert was actually taped back in January inside McDonough’s home in Cedar Rapids. Having taped before the pandemic, a live audience was on location to watch the performance.

     McDonough’s history with PBS actually goes back five years ago.

     “We decided pretty early on to focus on producing a holiday-themed program that would air statewide in Iowa the first year, and be distributed nationally the year after,” said McDonough.

     Different variations of the concert were considered, even incorporating his orchestra. However, plans were narrowed down to “producing a cozy and personal friends around the piano theme.”

     McDonough said they also looked at taping his special inside a historical home in Des Moines such as Salisbury House or Terrace Hill (the Governor’s mansion). While neither option worked out, they kept looking for a location.

     “It needed to feel personal and comfortable, yet accommodate a live audience, the television equipment and crew, and a piano,” noted McDonough.

     Deb Herbold, executive producer with Iowa PBS, is familiar with McDonough’s “Home Concert Series” he hosts a few times a year inside his home. That’s where the idea to tape the special at his home originated.

     While McDonough resisted initially, no other venue felt right, so he agreed in the end.

     “I can’t imagine it working out any differently,” he said of the end result. “It’s totally authentic, and it truly was a gathering of friends around my piano.”

     Viewers of the PBS special will see International Steinway Artist McDonough at his piano, playing Christmas favorites. He’ll sing a couple of songs as well, and share some special holiday memories of his own.

     If you can’t catch the show on PBS, it will also be available to stream on, Facebook, and YouTube. Those watching the premiere on Facebook will have the opportunity to chat live with McDonough himself!

     “We are proud to bring this holiday special to Iowans and beyond,” stated Herbold. “Working with a brilliant musician like Jim has been amazing. We can’t wait to connect Iowans with a world-renowned artist born and raised in their own backyard.”

     McDonough fans can also purchase a limited edition signed grand piano Christmas ornament via his website:

     “The last time we had a special edition ornament was back in 2009,” said McDonough, “and this seemed like the perfect year to offer a new one.”

     Early on during the pandemic, McDonough took to Facebook Live to entertain his fans and offer some positivity during a hard time for many. Like fans of live music, McDonough himself has also missed performing in front of a crowd.

     “I miss the artistic component,” he shared. “I miss interacting with those in attendance. Frankly, this is my livelihood.”

     In the music business, it’s been hard, McDonough said, not knowing when he can return to live, in-person performances. Planning for such events takes months to make the necessary arrangements.

     In the meantime, McDonough said taken on projects he might not otherwise have the time to do, including launching a new website. He also expanded his digital music offerings available online.

     Living in Cedar Rapids, McDonough also spent time cleaning up from the August derecho.

     “Even in a year as difficult as this, I fully realize how much I have to be thankful for, and any interruption in my business is non-consequential compared to families dealing with illness and loss,” he concluded.


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