WHEELING - From humble Orthodox Jewish beginnings, Neil Goldberg's life has moved in an unorthodox direction.
While his childhood was ruled by the strict tenets of his religion, he now finds his passion in glitzy costumes, holiday ornaments and the razzle-dazzle of cirque spectaculars.
The creator, director and producer of six Cirque Dreams shows, Goldberg is proud to entertain hundreds of thousands of people with his productions. Wrapped in the magic of the season, one such show, "Cirque Dreams Holidaze," is coming to The Capitol Theatre in Wheeling at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29.
Neil Goldberg, above, has come from a humble Orthodox Jewish background to create, produce and direct Cirque Dreams. “Cirque Holidaze” is coming to Wheeling on Nov. 29. At left is one of the 20 acts in the show.
"It's part cirque, part Broadway, part holiday extravaganza and part something-for-everything," Goldberg said in a phone interview from his South Florida office.
"There are more principal actors (in 'Cirque Dreams Holidaze') than any other cirque show. Everything is designed as a celebration of the holiday season," he said. "Collectively ... the performers wear more than 300 costumes."
The costumes are the part of the show closest to Goldberg's heart. "Costumes have been a passion and hobby since my childhood." In fact, "wardrobe is my happy place," he said.
"There is a million dollar inventory - Swarovski crystals, trim, buttons - that come from all over the world. And I love the sound of the sewing machines."
All of the costumes for Cirque Dreams shows are designed and created in the company's workshop. Actually, everything takes place at the 30,000-square-foot Pompano Beach, Fla., facility - rehearsals, training, music, scene building and carpentry ... everything.
"And we're busting at the seams," he said.
Goldberg was born in the Oceanside community of Long Island, N.Y., to Orthodox Jewish parents of Eastern European descent. And while it's been a long road from "there to here," he said, his dad and siblings are proud of what he's created. "My mom was supportive. Unfortunately, she passed before I opened the first show on Broadway," Goldberg said.
His parents allowed his creativity to develop: he took dance lessons, he painted and sculpted, and he played three musical instruments.
But it was "The Miracle Worker" that was the real beginning to his creative life.
The day after 6-year-old Neil saw the play on Broadway, he "took shoe boxes from my parents' closet and recreated the Helen Keller house. I was fascinated by the dimensionality of it. I started making toy furniture ... and 15 years later, I got a degree in scenic design."
Right out of college he moved to the Big Apple and worked on Zero Mostel's "Fiddler on the Roof" and Angela Lansbury's "Mame," moving props, doing scenery, etc. Then he got a 9-to-5 job in the garment industry as a textile designer.
He moved up the hierarchy in the textile design world, and eventually he relocated to Florida to be close to the textile mills where the fabrics he designed were made.
"There, I was able to spread my wings," he said, and became involved in event and entertainment production. At the age of 27, he started an event company. "And by the time I was 35, I had more than 100 employees and was producing some of the largest events in the country. It was a crazy time."
He created American Express' 100th birthday celebration, Super Bowl events and the reveal of Microsoft Windows, he said. He even took 150 people down the Amazon River and turned a 727 into a jungle for a client's 50th birthday party.
"I worked with extraordinary budgets - well into seven figures," he said.
"That career offered me the opportunity to be hired by IBM, to produce an entertainment show for employees around the world. That's when I started to travel and became familiar with the European circus, the cirque."
He produced his first cirque show for a casino in Atlantic City in 1993.
A few years later, Cirque Du Soleil filed a trademark infringement suit. "For the next six years, acquiring performance opportunities for my cirque shows was challenging in the U.S., mostly in part to the pending lawsuit."
But in 2002, he prevailed. In 2008, Cirque Dreams was born - and his dream came true.
And because his dreams have come true, he helps others do the same. The Neil Goldberg Dream Foundation supports young artists, thespians and musicians all over the world who are pursuing their dreams. "Proceeds from ticket sales fund the foundation," he explained. "I take from one pocket and put in another."
"The whole charity and giving back thing was taught to me as a young person. Charity and giving back is important to Judaism."
"It took 50 years but I finally understand why I had to go to Hebrew day school. It's all come full circle. I'm proud of my heritage, but my life's passion is about creating entertainment and bringing smiles to people's faces."
Goldberg describes "Cirque Holidaze" as "very musical theater, very Broadway. We bring performance artistry to life, that goes along with the holiday songs.
It's a celebration of what the creative mind and human body can do."
"We pay attention to every single detail - no matter how small." His perfectionism, he said, "never lets me rest."
He is proud of the fact that this is the fifth season of traveling around the U.S. It's become a holiday tradition, he said.
"Many shows don't roll into smaller markets. We want folks in Wheeling, W.Va., to see the same show as those in San Francisco."
"It's very energetic and exciting. The show reminds us of why this is the most wonderful time of year."
Colorful wrapped gifts, family time, playing in the snow, angels, penguins ... they're all part of the holiday season, he said. "Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas and New Year's. The show is a tribute to the whole holiday season."
During his walks home from Hebrew school as a child, one of his hobbies was to collect tinsel and and ornaments from the discarded Christmas trees.
"I fell in love with ornaments. I looked at them as an art form, not as a religious symbol."
In fact, during his travels around the world, he collects ornaments wherever he goes. "I have over 10,000 ornaments."
And he built a room at his home just to display the ornaments.
"Many ornaments have inspired the costumes we've designed. When the curtain comes up (on 'Holidaze'), the centerpiece is a 20-foot elaborate Christmas tree, with the performers dressed as ornaments dangling from the tree."
"It's a kaleidoscope of entertainment that mesmerizes people ... the lights moving, the scenes changing, the colors and costumes ..."
"The biggest thing is, if folks spend their hard-earned money, they'll see more talent, more creativity and more creative energy than any other show in the world," Goldberg said.
Success, he believes, is about being happy.
"I want to make a difference. If 2,000 people buy tickets, then I've entertained 2,000 people. That makes me happy."