December 19, 2000
As I drove down 14th Street this evening, on my way to the train station to pick up Walt, I passed by the Veterans Memorial Theatre ("the Vets"), where our kids "grew up."They all worked for the city and had keys to the theatre. They spent a lot of time there--working, playing, rehearsing, partying. It was their playhouse when they were adolescents.
We celebrated Walts 50th birthday at the Vets, Davids memorial service was held at the Vets, Paul and Audra were married there. Lawsuit had its first performances at the Vets. The Sunshine Childrens Theatre was born and died at the Vets.
But it all started with The Nutcracker.
Davis version of Peter Pan is a guy named Bob Bowen and in about 1977 he had this crazy idea to put on a version of the Nutcracker that would involve as many town kids as wanted to be in it. This wasnt going to be the ballet we all grew up seeing each year. Oh there would be dancing, but not by trained dancers.
Bob put out a call for kids interested in being a part. The only requirement is that you had to be between 5 and 12 years of age. David just made it in under the wire. Some kids would have featured roles. Some would have speaking parts. Most would just be in groups on the stage.
Fifty kids were cast for that first production.
It was the most ingenious way of working with such a large number of kids. They were divided into groups: The clowns, the Russian Dancers, Pennywhistle dancers, the Snowflakes, etc., etc. Each group had a couple of college-age director/choreographers who put them through their simple dance steps. Parents who could sew made costumes--a lot of them were felt with trim glued on. The music was recorded. And on the day of the performance, the theatre was filled with 350 parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends and The Davis Nutcracker made its debut.
The kids with speaking parts were in the party scene at the beginning. And during Claras dream, each of the groups came on, did their little bit and went off stage again. Polished it wasn't, but it was unique and it was terrific.
Ned was a clown that first year. Tom and David were mice. Paul was a wooden soldier and Jeri was the Sugarplum Fairy (Im sure I have some of these roles wrong--the kids were in the show for a few years, and I may be mixing up shows and roles). Years later when Ned and Marta began dating, they were comparing their childhood scrapbooks and discovered that they were both clowns that first year and the photo shows them as parts of a human/clown pyramid. Obviously they were destined to be clowning around together for the rest of their lives.
At the end of the performance, the whole cast lined up on stage for a triumphant bow. A Davis tradition was born.
The whole thing went so well that the town parents clamored for a repeat the following year. This year is probably the 23rd anniversary of The Davis Childrens Nutcracker.
After performing in the show for a few of years, our kids eventually moved on to working backstage. They built the sets and ran the show, focused lights, and worked as group leaders for the little kids. Walt even helped out a few years, with set pieces and special effects backstage (probably the year they introduced the fog machine.)
The Nutcracker was also the background for one of the more tragic events in recent Davis history when two of the group leaders were leaving the theatre after a rehearsal, were abducted and murdered. For years after the murder, the families of the murdered kids hosted a "Service of Remembrance" for Davis children in the park, a day full of joy and balloons and remembering the two who gave their lives because they worked with the Nutcracker kids.
The production has changed significantly over the years. Now kids register months in advance and are chosen to participate by a lottery system. No more a manageable crowd of 50 kids, now the cast has grown to 200 kids (about the maximum the stage and theatre can handle). Parents are only allowed to buy a set number of tickets--no more can Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt, Uncle, and all the siblings and cousin all see little John or Mary do his or her stuff on stage. There simply aren't enough seats in the theatre. But never fear, its now videotaped and can be purchased as gifts for Christmas--or viewed on local cable.
Bob long ago turned over the running of the show to someone else, but its still run in teams, with older kids helping train the little ones, and running things backstage.
Whenever I happen to catch the videotape of the most recent production of The Davis Childrens Nutcracker, I think back over the many, many productions weve seen, remembering when each of the new set pieces was added to the production, and smile as I see the big chair that we borrowed for Walt to sit on during the roast for his 50th birthday party.
The Davis Childrens Nutcracker kind of spans most of our life here in this town. It was nice tonight to see that its still alive and well, and packing the cars into the parking lot.