One of my most precious memories, or years of memories, I have of the Christmas holiday season was producing the annual holiday shows at Hiawatha Park. The shows started out as small plays and evolved into Christmas musical extravaganzas. For me, the fall and winter seasons are still defined in my mind by the rigid schedule we kept to get a show up the second week in December. It was always the second week in December for several reasons, mostly so it would not conflict with the myriad of other holiday activities planned by schools and families. But I also arranged my schedule so that once the show was done I was on vacation until the first of the year. Ah, those were the days…
We did many full scale musicals including Babes in Toyland, Cinderella and Peter Pan and we also did shows consisting of holiday skits and dancing. But, regardless of what we chose to do, it was always a magical way to ring in the holiday season. Auditions started early in September and the competition was always fierce for the lead roles. Once the show was cast rehearsals began and the tried and true schedule we was put into motion. Rehearsals were two to five days a week, depending on the size of your role. At least once, if not twice, during the course of the rehearsal period I would tell the students the show was canceled, not because I intended to do it but it was a weapon to get them to behave. It worked for a while and then became just another element of patterns of the rehearsal schedule. The first complete run through was always the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I would always dreaded that day but more often than not was surprised that the kids could actually pull it all together.
After that, I would spend rehearsal times focusing on weak areas and ensuring that we did a few more complete run throughs before we moved into the gym. The Hiawatha Park gymnasium was the venue where we staged all of our shows. We could never get into the space until the Monday before the show so we literally had only two days to rehearse in the performance space before the show opened, and one of those days was dress rehearsal with no stopping and starting. So technically we had only one rehearsal to get it all down.
The Monday of show week was perhaps the day I dreaded the most. Moving from the small room where we rehearsed for two months and trying to get sixty kids to adjust their blocking to the much bigger space was always interesting. The more seasoned students learned quickly and adapted very well. The newer students had difficulty but always seemed to find their way by show time. Monday was also the day that we staged the major dance number of the show that involved every single student in the program. It was the first time all of them danced the dance together and it was a technical nightmare – sixty kids doing different things at different times weaving in and out of each other while watching in awe the dancing of the Dance Company. How we all got through it I will never know, but the result was spectacular. The Monday rehearsal always seemed like it would never end. Having to restage the entire show, adapt the choreography and do a complete run through with lights and sound for the first time was a daunting task. But we all pulled through.
Then came Tuesday, dress rehearsal night, and you could feel the tension in the air. This was it – regardless of what happened, the show would be done in its entirety without stopping. I had strict back stage rules for the cast but trying to keep a slew of excited grammar school children behaving was perhaps the biggest task of all. I spent as much time keeping them seated, preventing them from peaking out from behind the bookfolds, and not talking as I did stage managing. Quite often I would snap my fingers and point at someone misbehaving with a glare that I hoped would stop them in their tracks. Some times it work and some times it didn’t. There were even a few surprise rump taps to keep them in check. If I were teaching today, that definitely would not have occurred. And eventually we made it through dress rehearsal and on to three nights of performances.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – performance days. The first night you could cut the tension with a knife, the second night the kids were old pros and the third night they were just plain having fun. And then there were the flowers. Every closing night they gave me flowers. For fourteen years I got flowers and for fourteen years each group that gave them went through elaborate measures to make sure that I didn’t know I was getting flowers – or so they thought. And although I knew, I cherished each gift because I knew it reflected the love they had for me, which I also had for them.
And then came Saturday. This holiday play producing tradition was capped off by the annual Christmas Party at Hiawatha Park which always occurred the day after our show closed. And every year the dancers would perform at least two of dances they performed in the holiday show. And that was it, the auditions, the rehearsals, the canceling of the show, the pre-Thanksgiving run through, the first day in the gym, the dress rehearsal, the three nights of shows, the flowers, the Christmas Party – all culminating in the second week of December.
Today is Saturday in the second week of December, the day of the annual Christmas party. And in my mind today, the show is over, the holiday songs are being sung (accompanied by Rita Utz on the piano) and the dancers for one last time are performing some dances from the holiday show. The flowers they gave me the night before are in a vase in a prominent place in my house, serving as a beautiful reminder of what we all accomplished together. Those beautiful flowers, those precious flowers. They are so vivid in my mind even though you don’t bring me flowers anymore…
4 thoughts on “Hiawatha Means Holidays…”
As I was reading, I could feel the backstage excitement. I remember being at home before leaving for the park and Mom would try to make me eat something, but I was always too nervous and excited. That Friday in school was always crazy and useless for anyone involved in the show.
The smell of makeup and hairspray in the locker room. People trying to talk to their friends throught he cage between the locker room and the bathroom. The hugs right before we went on stage with the whisperings of “break a leg” running through the gym.
I can’t believe, Jan, that you pulled of full scale musicals with SO many kids and no helpers. It simply isn’t done anymore. We were SO lucky!
At times I didn’t think I could pull it off, but somehow it always worked out. The second week in December will always be a special time for me, memory-wise, and I am glad it is also special to you.
Reading the experience through your eyes is amazing to me. Maybe I’m becoming more of a pessimist as I get older, but that seems like a lot of work! All I can say is thank you. Thank you for your patience with us. Thank you for your guidance. Thank you for sharing your many talents with us. We were luckier than we knew. I’m glad to have the opportunity to tell you that, now that I can truly appreciate it through an adult’s eyes.
It was a lot of work, but it was work that I was passionate about. Seeing the loving looks on your faces, watching you grow and accomplish, feeling your love was more than any paycheck could ever provide. I always refer to those years as the happiest in my career because I was doing what I loved the most on a day-to-day basis. Once I started “moving up the ladder”, I became so far removed from that, but also knew that the work I was doing would help preserve those types of programs for the future.
And, my dear Katie, it is I who should thank you. There is nothing in the world more gratifying than the love and admiration of a child, and to hear you say I rock as an adult means the world to me!