TIM McLOONE, ENGINEER OF A NONSTOP TRAIN

At the keyboards, on the radio, coaching runners or in the back room of one of his nine restaurants, Holiday Express founder Tim McLoone is a marvel of achievement.  (Photo by Suzy Graham. Click to enlarge)

By DANIELLE TEPPER

Tim McLoone is a man with a dozen hands, all tackling a dozen sizable tasks at once.

He owns McLoone’s Running Store, his first business, at the Grove in Shrewsbury. He owns nine restaurants, including the Rum Runner in Sea Bright and the recently acquired former CJ Montana in Tinton Falls, rebranded as CJ McLoone’s. He’s a sports announcer for the collegiate basketball games at Newark’s Prudential Center. He just launched his own radio show on December 1. He coaches the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School girls’ cross-country team.  And at the heart of it all is his philanthropic brain child, an idea that blossomed from a one-time gig into a full-scale traveling circus: Holiday Express.

The non-profit organization is its own Christmas miracle: a massive effort on behalf of roughly 300 adult volunteers, 700 child and teenage volunteers, 100 musicians, and one man who brought together their desires to bring smiles to those in need of a little comfort and joy.

Tonight, Holiday Express makes its much-anticipated annual station stop at the grand Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank.

Img_3260Tim McLoone at a Holiday Express fundraiser at Sickles Market in 2009. The band’s efforts cost $1.6 million a year to sustain. (Click to enlarge)

Born and raised in South Orange, McLoone, 64, has been a presence on the Jersey Shore since opening his first restaurant, McLoone’s Rum Runner in Sea Bright, in 1987. It was there that the idea for Holiday Express was born.

In 1990, McLoone participated in a Feed the Homeless event in Newark with the New Jersey Nets on Christmas Eve for almost 600 people.

“It was just the place to be that night,” he said, looking back on it. “I was like everybody else who just trudges through the 25 days [of the holiday season] making themselves nuts, but I was really taken by that experience, it really stuck with me. I kept thinking about it throughout the year.”

The following year, he went again – and this time he brought a boom box.

“We played old Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby Christmas tapes,” McLoone said. “And the music tapped into something.” That year, McLoone also found himself putting his restaurant experience to use and helped with the food. “We did a little better with the gifts too, and I started feeling organizational about it,” he said.

When plans to repeat the event for a third year fell through, McLoone gathered a few friends at his restaurant in October of ’92 to determine their next move. Someone suggested visiting Better Beginnings, a safe haven for impoverished “children who have children” in Stamford, Connecticut.

They held their first rehearsal that November. “I expected maybe eight or ten musicians to show up, but we got 17,” said McLoone. “We sounded awful. We were 17 lead singers.” Some participants brought their kids, creating quite the noisy drive. “It just turned into this rollicking bus trip,” he said. “With kids crying and everyone singing on the way back.”

“After that, we had learned all this music, so I asked if anyone would want to do it again if I could come up with places to go,” said McLoone. “In that first year, 1992, we did 10 shows.”

The name for the group came from McLoone’s insistence on political correctness in an effort to include everyone, as well as its determinination to travel to its audience rather than the other way around. Some other ideas that were considered? “We came perilously close to calling ourselves the Traveling Jingleberries,” he laughed.

Now entering its twentieth holiday season, the Holiday Express team has morphed into a full-service charity. It provides food and nearly 20,000 gift bags, as well as quality live music for up to 60 shows between mid-November and Christmas Eve.

“I really felt that the music had to be challenging so we could bring a great band to these places,” McLoone said. “If we were singing unison versions of Jingle Bells, everybody would’ve quit.”

The 100 musicians or so musicians have all “played for their supper,” according to McLoone. “They’re pros. They really know how to play, which is crucial because there’s not much rehearsal.” Their musical spectrum runs the gamut from rock to gospel to traditional; they have accordionists and violinists – McLoone himself plays piano. “We’re all over the place,” McLoone laughed. “If people haven’t seen us before, they don’t know what to make of us.”

Not only does the music rock, the events are 100-percent interactive. “We let people sing with us and play the instruments,” McLoone said. “We try to break down the divide. Our volunteers will dance with the people and get everybody moving. There’s face-painting. It’s a party, not a show.”

And it’s all made possible by the generous people more than willing to donate their time. The sheer size of the volunteer team is “insane” to McLoone. “What you find is that many of our volunteers are of modest means themselves,” he said. “This is just something that they want to do. Some even arrange to take their vacation days in December instead of July, just to be able to help out. It’s crazy.”

Their motivation, McLoone says, lies within the cause.

“We have two criterions for determining where we go,” he explained. “One, if we’re not there, these people are getting little or no attention at holiday time. People think we play to a lot of kids, but we actually spend most of our time with whom we refer to as adult orphans – people with mental disabilities, drug addictions, birth issues, who have outgrown or outlived their caregivers, are estranged from their families for whatever reason. We make no judgment calls. That’s our target audience.

“And two, if the need is great enough, we don’t care how many people we play to.”

They’ve played to a wide swath of the tri-state area and then some – Holiday Express traveled to Littleton, Colorado after the Columbine shooting, as well as to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama after Hurricane Katrina. They’ve performed for Christmas at Rockefeller Center and on the Today Show, released CDs and had singles receive national airplay on the radio. Their musical guest stars have included Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, and Dave Matthews. But at the core of all that buzz is still a group of people committed to spreading holiday spirit.

Unfortunately, good tidings don’t come cheap, even with the help of several hundred hard-working warehouse volunteers. Each Holiday Express season costs a whopping $1.6 million to stage.

Their fundraising efforts therefore have to be equally large-scale: each year, Sickels Market in Little Silver (where McLoone lives now with his wife and four kids) hosts a benefit wine and cheese tasting.

Owner Bob Sickles “has been crazy generous to us over the years,” said McLoone. “We usually make around $100,000 from that. It’s outrageous.” They also put on an end-of-summer clambake on the beach in front of McLoone’s Pier House in Long Branch.

Then there are two theater shows: One at Red Bank’s Count Basie and the other at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, this year on Thursday, December 20.

Finally, they are the lucky recipients of many private donations from locals such as Jersey Mikes. The owner of the sandwich chain “gives us thousands of subs, enough to feed everyone we see – it’s insane,” said McLoone. “And he never wants any publicity, so I always mention him.” A Rumson family, the Komars, also donate blankets each year. “That’s fantastic,” said McLoone. “Even if you’re not impoverished, there’s just something about a blanket.”

While budgetary concerns are ever-present, McLoone and his team seem to have the yearly routine under control, with a solid 20-season streak to show for it. And even though McLoone keeps himself busy taking on new projects as well as maintaining old ones, he’ll always make time for Holiday Express. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, he said.

“The most important aspect is the education that we’ve gotten through it,” he said. “They say it’s better to give than receive – man, is it ever. We’re doing something rather overwhelming, but we get it right back.”

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