Monday, December 11, 2006

And there were camels, too

Back when I was just a sprout, my parents would take me each year sometime around my birthday - which falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas - to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes in their Christmas show.

I don't remember the first time I went, probably in the mid'50s. I do remember the last time, which would have been sometime during November-December of 19 and 62. The movie playing at Radio City was That Touch of Mink, starring Cary Grant as a long-in-the-tooth playboy and Doris Day as the world's oldest virgin.

Back in those days, the Christmas show was only around 20-30 minutes long, and was sandwiched in between movie showings. The Rockettes came out, did the March of the Wooden Soldiers, which they've been doing since 1933, do a Christmas number which would culminate with Santa's sleigh zipping onstage, and then finish with The Living Nativity, the other big show-stopper that Radio City Music Hall has also been doing over the holidays since the `30s.

Saying that I enjoyed the Christmas Show is the wrong word, somehow. It's like saying you enjoy Christmas, y'know? It's kind of silly to think otherwise. It was expected; it was a big part of my life during the Winter season, one of those roadmarks you have in your life as a kid. Me, it was Thanksgiving, the Rockettes, my birthday, and then Christmas. I liked the show, and would have been dumbfounded if I had gone to Radio City and it wasn't there. And I got a big kick out of the live animals in The Living Nativity, especially the camel. The camel usually came on last, and I waited impatiently until he appeared, and then was content. Baby Jesus in his creche, camel chewing his cud. Show over for another year. All's right in the world.

Being the storyteller I am, I've told the story to Peggy more than once, who, never having the opportunity to go to Radio City would usually eye me skeptically when I got to the camel. "A live camel, onstage?" she'd question. "It's the Nativity!" I'd counter. "They also had sheep, and a donkey, and I don't know what-all! It was cool!"

But I could tell she didn't believe me.

In 1979, long after I had stopped going, Radio City redid the show, and it became a full 90-minute spectacular, sans movie. And last year the Christmas Spectacular hit the road and one of their destinations was Boston. We didn't go last year, instead my cool birthday present was catching Bill Cosby at Foxwoods, but this year around October, Peggy looked at me and said, "Howza 'bout we go see the Rockettes for your birthday?"

I was up for that.

So, this Saturday we hopped in the Mini around 3:00 and zipped into Boston for the 5:00 show. We got into the Wang - which isn't the Wang anymore but I've given up tracking all the corporate renaming - around 4:30, and started down the aisle looking for our seats, which Peg thought were around four rows back from the stage. And an usher glanced at them, gave us the once over, and said, "oh, you're in the pit."

And indeed we were. We kept on going down to where the orchestra pit would be if they had been using an orchestra. But they weren't and the had installed four rows of temporary seating. "Cool," I thought to myself. "We're going to be very close."

In fact, we couldn't have been any closer to the stage without being on the stage. For arcane theatre reasons, orchestra seats are numbered backwards from the stage. Thus, row 4 turned out in reality to be row 1. And we had the two aisle seats in row 1 in the sold-out Rockette's Christmas Show.

The show started with near-military precision at 5:00, had a 15-minute break after 45 minutes of dance and song, and then had another 50-odd minute segment. It was ah... it was...

It was indescribable, is what it was.

Now, I gotta tell you. The show is so full of kitsch and schmaltz that I'm hesitant to recommend it. And, it is like a frozen slice of time from the 1960s, unrepentantly WASP white-bread Christian Christmas, complete with Santa and Baby Jesus. It's full-bore "Merry Christmas," not "Happy Holidays," and if you celebrate an alternative to the Christan Christmas, you're probably going to be unhappy with the show, if not downright offended. No, I don't particularly want those days completely back, either. But, if you kinda miss when one could put on a Christmas pageant without going to court, and you're a fan of kitsch and schmaltz, or maybe, even better, have kids who haven't world-wearied out on you yet and you want to give them a memory, then you should go.

What you get is the hardest-working Santa in show biz, who sings and dances in some nicely staged numbers, mostly I think to give the Rockettes time to switch costumes between acts, in a somewhat Irish brogue (Santa is Irish? Who knew?). And you get a group of singer/dancers backing Santa, all who look like they've come straight out of The Jackie Gleason or Red Skelton shows and who make with the crowd scenes in the Boston and New York acts. And you get a very funny Dancing Teddy Bear act that seems to be a deliberate good-natured parody of the show's main competition, Boston's traditional The Nutcracker holiday show.

And you've got the Rockettes, who do synchronized stepping and stomping - and kicking - like you've never seen unless you've seen them. They do dances as rag dolls, as snow queens, as Santas, and, of course, as Wooden Soldiers.

And at the end, with political correctedness totally on the run, you've got The Living Nativity, as striking as I remember it when I was kid.

And, yes, there were camels, too. All's right in the world.

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