It is Cincinnati’s most beloved holiday theatrical tradition: The annual staging of A Christmas Carol at the Playhouse in the Park.

A sentimental favorite since 1991, hundreds of thousands of local theatergoers have chosen to spend their Decembers at the Playhouse with Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and the Ghost of Christmas Past. And, while miserly Ebenezer is definitely the star of the show, it’s hard to imagine the production pulling the heart-strings of tearful audiences the way it does, year after year, without the presence of the engaging youngsters playing roles such as Martha, Peter and Belinda Cratchit, Boy Scrooge, Fan, George, Ignorance, Want, and, of course, the ever iconic Tiny Tim.

Over the course of nearly two decades, A Christmas Carol has introduced dozens of Cincinnati schoolchildren — some no more than 5 or 6 years old —to life on the professional stage; these mere hatchlings find themselves entertaining adult audiences in no less than 40 sold-out shows each season.

The Carol’s longevity is nothing to shout “bah, humbug!” about — it’s a record-setting run in the world of Tristate theater. And it all began with a single notion …

Scene One

It’s 1990, and director Howard Dalin is searching for a holiday show to anchor the next year’s Playhouse season. Dalin settles on the familiar Charles Dickens chestnut, but with a twist: He writes the script himself, one that is painstakingly true to the original 1843 novel. No Hollywood bells and whistles, no liberties or shortcuts, no Disney 3-D antics or condensed Reader’s Digest atrocities, but the real deal.

Dalin envisions returning to Dickens’ mission in this morality tale, to tell what is actually a ghost story, one with heart for all the humbugs among us.

Dalin also decides, for the adolescent roles, to cast only unspoiled hometown amateurs — no child stars from Broadway need apply. He wants authentic childhood innocence in his charges, along with unbridled enthusiasm for the storyline and the magic that can be achieved through change and redemption.

“The first year, it did very well at the box office,” recalls Michael Evan Haney, who has directed Carol for the past 17 years. “But the play was much darker than it is now, and ran 25 minutes longer.”

Haney prefers how the play has developed through the years into a lighter work that humorously delves into Scrooge’s personality. And, of course, he loves the presence of the Carol kids.

“Even today, I’ll be in a Kroger or something, and an adult will come up to me who I don’t recognize, and it will turn out he or she was a child in one of my casts.”

Scene Two

Flash-forward to 1991. Five-year-old Matthew Harris is chosen to play that very first Tiny Tim.

Today, Harris is studying saxophone in the jazz program at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles County. Harris acknowledges it can certainly be intimidating as the child who is hoisted onto Scrooge’s shoulders to announce the show’s closing line: “God bless us, every one.” Not to mention the often grueling hours and hectic casting calls.

This is no mere child’s play. All youngsters in the Carol are paid Actors’ Equity union scale. They’re expected to appear in every one of the three-dozen rehearsals — some of which can run as long as eight hours a day. The kids, and their parents, must climb up to frozen Mount Adams for the 40 shows, as well, blizzards and ice storms notwithstanding.

And no excuses for tardiness or sickness. One year, Tiny Tim was forced to spend his off-stage moments in the family minivan, heaving with the flu. Somehow, he still managed his lines. Last year, though, one of the Cratchit children fell on the ice during a matinee lunch break and was knocked unconscious. The other kids did have to work around his absence at the evening performance. Ah, the show must go on.

In keeping with the true Victorian flavor of the production, tweens and teens who want to audition are warned there will be no eyeglasses, arm casts or braces allowed during the run of the show. (One year, a Cratchit child actually had her braces removed in order to ace the role.)

The nine to 10 area children who co-star in Carol are carefully chosen each year after public auditions, which are held in June. Even children who appeared the year previous must audition again. Roles are available for girls and boys up to the age of 13; due to union rules, children who will turn 14 before the end of the run on Dec. 30 don’t qualify.

Certainly, school days are missed, especially for weekday matinees. But Playhouse officials and parents say teachers are generally willing to let these students catch up on class work, given the life-changing nature of this can’t-miss experience.

Scene Three

Flash-forward to 1993. It’s Christopher Bissonnette’s turn to limp onto the stage and into the spotlight, as the production’s newest Tiny Tim. He is just 7 years old, and he remembers that “I’d be in a mall after that, and people would actually recognize me.”

After earning his college degree in communication arts from Franciscan University in Steubenville, he’s now married and living in Reston, Va., where he works in audio production.

“It’s kind of humorous looking back,” Bissonnette says. “I mean, it was a huge production working with a professional crew. Looking at it through a child’s eyes, it was a magical thing.”

Since those first Tiny Tims, eight more have enthralled Playhouse patrons: Miami University student Rick Jackson II; Moeller High School senior J. Patrick Naylor; Highlands High School student Adam Weinel; Milford High School sophomore Evan Martin; School for Creative and Performing Arts student Lucas Clark; Highlands seventh-grader John Griffith; Mars Hill Academy third-grader Asa Franckewitz; and the current incarnation, Owen Gunderman, a second-grader at the Cincinnati Waldorf School.

Some, such as rugby player Naylor and football charger Weinel, have switched their passions to varsity sports. Griffith is more likely found on the soccer field than on the stage, as well, while Franckewitz burns up the basketball court.

Some continue their life in the arts. Martin, who literally grew up in front of Playhouse patrons, started out as Tiny Tim at the age of 8, then returned to play Boy Scrooge for three more years. Clark played a brat in the film Dead Horse, showed up in a music video for indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie, and continues to do other TV work. And Gunderman, the current Tim, must be one of the busiest 7-year-olds in the business. He’s appeared in the Cincinnati Opera’s Madame Butterfly, Ainadamar and Carmen.

Wherever the Carol kids choose to go, it remains an exclusive fraternity.

“I am still Facebook friends with some of them,” says Bissonnette, describing the bond that develops each year between the young cast members. “Just spending that many hours with anybody, you’re going to create lasting friendships.”

Bissonnette’s sister Emily agrees. She played Want in 1994 and Fan from 1995 to 1996. “The wonderment of nine children being involved in a professional theater production,” she says, “well, I’ll carry that memory all my life.”

Finale

Memories are what it’s all about. “My most memorable moment? I guess when I accidentally tripped on my dress, and everyone (in the cast) was trying hard not to break up and laugh,” says 11-year-old Katie Chase of Mount Airy.

Chase, a sixth-grader at SCPA, began playing Belinda Cratchit in 2007 and returns this season to appear in the role for a third year. She was inspired to audition for a role “because my brother did it, and I told my mom I wanted to, too.”

Jo Ellen Pellman has played both Belinda and Martha Cratchit over the past four years, but she turns 14 this year — the cut-off date for the Actors’ Equity union. “It will be really hard,” says the White Oak Middle School student. “It’s my first free winter since third grade.”

This year, the youth cast includes — in addition to Chase and Gunderman — Eben Franckewitz as Peter Cratchit, Maraia Reinhart as Martha, Darius Brown as George, Julianne Fox as Fan, Richard Lowenburg as Boy Scrooge, Methani Ran as Ignorance and Kendall Young as Want.

Local theater observers suggest that children in the audience can certainly identify with children on the stage, no question. That’s one reason that may account for the Carol’s enduring track record here.

“What I especially enjoy on opening night is seeing young teens in the audience who once played (roles),” comments CityBeat theater critic Rick Pender. “They come back annually to share in this tradition. They mingle with other families experiencing the magic for the first time. It’s truly a gift to Cincinnati.”

The children of A Christmas Carol. God bless them, every one.