A December without Tiny Tim, the Snow Queen and a
Yule Log would be like Scrooge's dream without Jacob Marley's cloak of
It just wouldn't be right.
The trio — A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker and the
Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival — has become the warp and weft of
Cincinnati's holiday tradition.
But just because they've been around for years (the
Boar's Head for 600-plus and counting) doesn't mean each event cruises
on automatic. There's no leaving-well-enough-alone about it.
To keep the Snow Queen and her gang fresh, Victoria
Morgan, CEO and artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet, and her
tippy-toe crew completely revamped The Nutcracker last year, inside out.
New choreography, costumes, three-dimensional sets — eight tractor-trailer loads of magic — onstage.
Up on the hill at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, home of A Christmas Carol, "we're always tweaking it.
If it gets too settled, it gets stale," says
director Michael Evan Haney, part of the show since playing Bob Cratchit
22 years ago.
Even the Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival at
downtown's Christ Church Cathedral, entrenched in traditions dating back
to an English festival in 1607, gets an update now and then.
Malcolm Dunn, the plum pudding baker, eliminated
cinnamon, nutmeg and spices in the recipe handed down to him 20 years
ago, bravely substituting cardamom for its savory merits.
Pig & Puddin'
The pageant with 250 participants is rooted in
ancient times when the wild boar was the ferocious forest dweller whose
demise was celebrated at pagan feasts. As Christianity took over, the
staple of medieval banquets came to represent evil vanquished by the
coming of the Christ Child.
Embellished with carols and accoutrements of mince
pie, plum pudding and the Yule log, the cathedral's Boar's Head pageant
remains authentic to the 14th century with the exception of the hog
head, today's stand-in for the boar — with wood tusk props that go back
Roasting the head, donated by a local hog farmer, is
a messy job. But John Miller, a self-described cradle Episcopalian who
started out "as a sprite carrying a candle 44 years ago," takes it all
in stride despite the "rather tedious" process and powerful smell that
he combats with constant infusion and replacement of rosemary and lemon
throughout the process. The initial draining, then cleaning, of the boar
stand-in is neither pretty nor quick. It requires a vigorous scouring
(he suggests a disposable brush) followed by the toughest part — getting
the mouth pried open for roasting without destroying the choppers so an
apple can be popped in at the finish.
When it is "all shiny and pretty" according to
Miller, it's coated with oil, the ears are propped or wired up, and the
whole thing is covered with foil so the hairs don't burn. But "you can't
just stick it in and walk away for four hours. You have to keep an eye
on it. It's a huge symbol of the pageant and has to be done right," he
After cooling the 10- to 18-pounder, the lemon and
rosemary are switched out and it's refrigerated until it is loaded on a
trencher, a platform hoisted on the shoulders of participants, for a
trip down the aisle. Fruits, holiday greens and three tiny flags (United
States, France and Great Britain) are added along with the taxidermy
eyes, a recent improvement over the cream cheese and maraschino peepers
of the past.
Unlike the plum pudding and mince pies that are
shared by the cast after the final performance, the "boar's" head is not
eaten, just unceremoniously hauled away "with special arrangements by
The plum pudding is neither plum nor pudding, says pudding baker Malcolm Dunn. It's more like a fruitcake saturated in brandy.
The first weekend of October he gives his Kitchen
Aid mixer a workout, blending four pounds of candied fruits, one pound
of blond raisins, one pound of currants (soaked overnight in brandy and
sherry) with two dozen eggs, two pounds of English walnuts, a cup of
sherry, two pounds of unsalted butter and 9 to 10 cups of flour. He
pours it in a roasting pan, adds his secret ingredient — cardamom — and
pours it in a massive pan about 20 inches across. After about three
hours in the oven, it's cooled, covered with cheesecloth and stowed away
for about six weeks. The ends of the cheesecloth are constantly
submerged in brandy for steady transfusion.
The morning of the pageant, Dunn heats a jar of
marmalade, runs it thru a sieve and glazes the 20-pound pudding. He adds
the red and green candied cherries, pineapple slices, blanched almond
garnishes and holiday greens.
"I wouldn't really call it a gourmet project," laughs Dunn. "Think of it as more of a prop. A prop you can eat."
Sounds of the Night
The sound of Scrooge's insomnia in A Christmas
Carol is an unseen character of the annual event — doors slamming,
chains clanging, spirits wailing and the wind whispering its warnings.
Easy to imagine folks backstage rattling heavy links of metal, groaning on cue and slamming trap doors night after night.
That would be wrong.
"At one point we do have someone shaking a bell
like an old-fashioned door clapper," says Haney. "But 99 percent is
The sounds of Scrooge are mastered by David Smith of Real Time Music Solutions Production Co. in New York City.
"It's become one of the favorite shows I've designed
because the sound and music become another player, part of the cast,"
says the CCM alum who started as a classical violinist and composer
wannabe whose road veered off to sound manipulation when he was
introduced to a moog synthesizer. His transformative compositions "turn
sound on its head by creating complicated soundscapes that play with the
edge of what's real and what's synthetic to affect the mood of the
Scrooge's dreamscape was a playground for him as he
twisted and turned classical pieces, layering in bells, gongs and human
voices to create the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to
For Christmas past he turned to Mozart because the
1790s time period. "I did a lot of manipulation and added bells and
voices to be evocative of a strange time and place." Listen for tinkly
bells and smoky feeling through a line of vocal textures and choral
humming, oooohing and aaaahing.
"The Mozart is mostly unrecognizable as it's backwards and upside down," he says.
Christmas Present takes place about 40 years later,
1830s in a romantic period. "The visitor is a happy kind of jovial guy
so I used fanfare music and its brassy percussion, trumpet flourishes,
more orchestral sounds. And we do some strange things when he departs.
It's very intense, dramatic and dissonant."
Christmas Yet to Come is most ominous with a lot of
low drums and moans. "To get to the future, things will be traveling
backwards so samples are turned around and it's very bizarre ... the
sound blasts you in the face like a modem dialing trying to connect," he
says. "Future never says anything. He just points, so when he acts, we
have this big percussive attack of future sounds coming back to slam
Scrooge in the face."
Last year's makeover of The Nutcracker by the
Cincinnati Ballet raked in kudos for the three-dimensional set designs,
the twist on characters, the challenging choreography, surprises and
jokes, the tiara inspired by the Great American Tower crown (they sold
souvenir versions at the shows) and the color-shot, sumptuous costumes.
It's all set for an encore this year with a few
changes, including the title "Frisch's Presents the Nutcracker," and a
more traditional take on the Christmas tree. But in all the fuss and
bother, the one thing common to all performers often gets overlooked —
the dancing shoe.
After all, it would be a pretty flat-footed and earth-bound affair without toe shoes and ballet slippers.
Sarah Hairston, Cincinnati Ballet principal dancer,
also rules the closet as "shoe queen," ordering and storing the dance
shoes for the ballet, to the tune of $80,000-$90,000 every year.
Principal dancers can "go through 90-100 pair a year
because you are doing harder things. A corps dancer need maybe 60 or
so," she says. "When I dance a ballet, I may wear one pair in Act I and a
new pair in Act II. The lights make the shoes hot, your feet sweat and
it starts to break down the shoe," often made of satin, glue, cardstock
or layers of glue-hardened burlap.
Since every dancer's feet are different with
variation in toe length, shape and arch flexibility, ordering them is
anything but easy.
"You, as a professional, have to decode what shoe
fits you best," she says. Dancers don't just order up a shoe size. "You
start with a stock shoe and find things you want to change" — a shorter
insole, a wider or narrower heel, a lower side. The shoe order then
carries the dancer's initials noting the customizations.
Most pointe and ballet flats, come in pink, black
and white, not always in keeping with the aesthetics of a ballet's
design, especially one with a rainbow of lush costumes like Nutcracker.
That's where wardrobe mistress Diana Adams enters.
The 41-year needle-and-thread veteran of the ballet and opera is also
charged with coordinating shoes. The shoes come to her shop located just
outside the vast stone underground caverns, once part of a
distillery.Here, she and Laura Hofmann, the assistant wardrobe mistress
who happens to be her daughter, consult a book of paint "chips" from
International Professional Fabric Shoe Dye and mix the components much
like the paint guy at the local hardware store.
"You have to be a little bit of a chemist," she
says, "but we've been doing it for so long we do it almost by instinct
now." Inevitably, the children in the cast lose a shoe here and there
and "we end up doing more."