By Adrea Gibbs
Music weaves itself into our lives in a way that can create a very personal soundtrack. It is amazing how quickly you can be transported to your college dorm room or that epic road trip or one particular rainy day. Those memories come flooding back and suddenly you are swept away into another time and place…at least for however long the song lasts.
For me, I find that certain holiday tunes dash me headlong through those recollections like a ride on Santa’s souped-up sleigh into my childhood or places I lived or unique experiences and what have you. Sometimes, I feel like a virtual pinball bouncing from one remembrance to the next with a flagrant disregard for the time – space continuum. In large part, I think it is because working in the world of entertainment and attractions, as I have done my entire career, you more often than not work on the holidays. In fact, when you don’t work on a holiday it feels downright odd. You become accustomed to, for all intents and purposes, being someone else’s gift, of sorts.
My first foray into entertainment and becoming part of an exclusive set of individuals who liked working at that time of year, was a job at Disneyland. It was as part of the Holiday Parade. I was a Christmas Card. Dressed in a green leotard, green tights, green hat, and (probably) green shoes (or maybe we wore white socks and white shoes to match our white gloves and furry hat trim?), neatly tied together with an old-school sandwich board featuring a single letter on each side. I took my performance responsibility very seriously. Alongside my fellow cards, we sashayed our way from “It’s a Small World” to the end of “Main Street,” spelling out Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, depending, of course, on which way we were facing, to the masses of people packing the curbs and sidewalks. The parade was designed in such a manner all the different units moved along during the course of a single song. Then, parade stopped and a second number, exclusive to that unit, entertained the smiling crowd. I wonder, now, if the smiles of those witnessing our clever ability to spell out holiday greetings and remain in formation were merely stifled smirks or polite grins from folks wishing Snow White’s seven dwarves or Pinocchio’s marionettes had stopped in front of them, instead. I am fairly certain no one was enthralled with our costumes. Nonetheless, whenever I hear Sleigh Ride I am instantaneously whisked away, compelled to relive the “traveling” choreography that I still, to date, can perform. And have, on occasion. Even with other people watching. You would be surprised at how many times that song shows up as background music in some random location. I am fairly certain there is something Pavlovian underway when I hear the song. I often wonder if my fellow cards are also afflicted as such.
I had the good fortune to be cast as part of the West Coast Line of Rockettes. We appeared at Shriner’s Auditorium, a stunning theatre filled with intricate carvings, gold leaf, and a rich history to match. It was my first union job, won via a hard-fought cattle call that was filled with copious tap combinations, an unforgiving number of eye-high kicks under the watchful eye of the equally unforgiving choreographer, and the fact I was the exact right size for the costumes. Being one of thirty-six women representing such a prestigious company in the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular was, in fact, everything the title made it out to be. An incredible show that, for anyone who has ever seen it will agree it is the embodiment of the season. Great music. Fantastic production numbers. Beautiful costumes. Singing. Dancing. A nod to new and old traditions. For me, I am carried right back to the rank and file whenever March of the Wooden Soldiers plays. I can’t help myself. The classic routine wearing pants so well starched they stood at attention on their own in the dressing room without assistance and red cloth cheek circles held in place by Vaseline to create a doll-like face springs forth the moment the tune begins. I am standing on the stage one of thirty-six identical soldiers. The audience is filled with families, each one creating their own holiday ruminations. Marking time in my mind, including the signature fall at the end of the number, I recall the sore muscles, achy feet, and occasional sore behind. The stuff of memories.
For me, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year does not conjure visions of Andy Williams, rather being an elf. To be more accurate, a full-body puppet that was an elf. At one point in my theatrical career, I worked for a singing telegram company. Probably the best job I ever had when I came to learning how to audition. To deliver a singing telegram, you had to figure out really quickly how to walk into and take over a room or you would be hard-pressed to deliver your message…literally. During the holidays, in addition to countless office parties, we were hired by Macy’s to perform as elves at their stores throughout the region. It was an incredible amount of work, driving from place to place and sneaking our costumes in and out of countless department stores (not the easiest thing to carry around a huge, awkward duffle bag stuffed with an elf nonchalantly and pretty sure anyone who was paying attention could have figured out what we were doing…then again, there were some amazing sales happening), not-to-mention performing while positioned in a manner not conducive to anyone with an actual skeletal system, and suffering the occasional punch to the noggin by someone who perhaps didn’t realize a full-sized human was inside the elf’s very tall hat. I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself. My parents became elf-chasers, of sorts, at least when we were in their area, always enthusiastically leading the applause among the delighted shoppers. Nothing quite like seeing an incredibly festive elf (or in this case there were two elves) twirling, whirling, and singing Christmas favorites (okay, we were lip-synching, but give us a break, we were puppets) to get patrons in the holiday spirit and open their wallets. And, yes. I remember that choreography, too.
Years later I co-wrote and directed a show entitled A Dickens of a Holiday or How We Got Scrooged that was performed at a melodrama. It was jam-packed with holiday favorites, many with a bit of a twist due to the novel nature of the production. All the characters were dispatched as recognizable personalities and the platform gave way to a smattering of lyric changes, in some cases, and in other instances, those familiar chestnuts lent themselves perfectly to the plot. It was during the third year of producing the show I was suddenly without my pivotal character, Elvis. Christmas Spirits Past, Present, and Future had been created with the King in mind. The role was originated by an amazingly talented man who wasn’t able to commit to the tertiary version. Never mind he was a large African-American man with the voice of an angel. No one ever denied he didn’t embody the man himself. He was perfectly cast, so his not being able to partake was huge (no pun intended, but he would laugh at it) a loss. However, as luck would have it, a real-honest-to-goodness Elvis impersonator expressed interest in playing the part. He was great, although no where near as impressive in either girth or falsetto as the former Spirit, but the audiences ate him up with a spoon. Then it happened. He told me he had taken another job as, if you can believe this, an Elvis impersonator, and wouldn’t be able to finish the run. It was a bit eleventh hour and I was stuck. So, I did the next best thing. I rewrote the character to be Elvira and played her myself. The only challenge to the whole thing was, in spite of my familiarity with the show, I hadn’t memorized the words to any of the Spirit’s songs. Oops. And, this all transpired while on a road trip with my Mom. So, at every opportunity, I played the cassette with the music tracks, singing and driving as Mom coached. It never fails, these days, when I hear Jingle Bell Rock or Blue Christmas, that I don’t see the two of us heading out to Oatman, Arizona, on a desert highway lined with festively strewn cacti wrapped in tinsel, garland, and ornaments. A memory that will always remain near and dear to my heart. Thank you, Mom. Thank you very much.
There are other songs, too, that evoke their own Christmas spirits, of sorts. They put me on the balcony of my Hawaii apartment listening to carolers packed in the back of a pick-up trucks, walking through the cinnamon and spice-fragranced air of Hamburg’s Weihnachtsmarkt, even petting reindeer at the North Pole in Alaska, each with a melody line all its own. Music does attach to the heart, not matter the season, and if you are open to listening and allowing those good experiences to be infused with assorted notes, tempos, keys, rhythms, and voices, you may realize your own musical tapestry of the season.
On that note, and, yes, pun intended, wishing you and yours a musically, joyous holiday season and wonderful New Year.