A holiday tradition
Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 12:01 a.m.
When Charles Dickens penned "A Christmas Carol" in 1843, he could never have foreseen his tale becoming one of the most popular stories ever told, nor did he expect his novella to transform the celebration of Christmas itself. Yet his haunting story of the reawakening of a hardened heart on Christmas Eve did exactly that.
Likewise, when the Hippodrome State Theatre decided to undertake its first production of "A Christmas Carol" in 1978, the theater staff could never have foreseen their adaptation growing into a Gainesville institution. But 24 years later, the play has become as much a holiday tradition in Gainesville as eggnog and candy canes - and significantly more meaningful.
Explaining why or how traditions evolve is often difficult. Not with "A Christmas Carol," however. Those at the Hippodrome seem to know exactly why this play has become so important to the community.
"It's that time of the year when you put down your differences and you open your heart to love for your fellow man," says Marilyn Wall, costume designer and one of the original founders of the Hippodrome.
"In the old days, we used to do it for free, and people could donate canned goods for a ticket," Wall recalls. Now the production provides critical funding for the Hippodrome, and "we still do a big drive for canned goods and gifts" that benefits local charitable organizations, says Wall.
According to Rusty Salling, a veteran performer who has been in every production of "Christmas Carol" since its inception in 1978, the play actually has helped keep the theater open during the month of December when the population of Gainesville dwindles due to University of Florida winter break and the holiday season itself.
"Generally before then, we had just shut down in December, mainly because the student population in Gainesville went away, and we got a lot of audience from that population."
As an alternative to closing the theater during the holidays, Mary Hausch "wrote a script from the novella, and we just did it and it was a big success. It started a tradition and we've doing it every year," adds Salling.
A worthy lesson
The spirit of giving is an important theme of "A Christmas Carol." The main character, an ill-tempered and selfish old man, Ebenezer Scrooge, undergoes a spiritual transformation following a visit from the ghost of his deceased business partner and a dream involving the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future. As a result of these visitations, Scrooge vows to change his greedy ways and help his fellow man.
The show appears to bring out the best in the Gainesville community.
"A couple of years ago, we had a mother who had become unemployed during the holidays and was not able to buy Christmas gifts for her children," recalls Nell Page, director of development for the Hippodrome. "To compound matters, her daughter, who she had not seen in three years, was coming to town."
Thanks to the gifts and donations from Hippodrome patrons, "we were able to help her, " says Page.
According to Page, private individuals and small businesses such as Mother Earth and Mauldin Auto Glass have sponsored groups of children over the years, enabling these young people to see a powerful performance that they might otherwise not be able to afford.
The play conveys a valuable lesson, but director Sara Morsey feels the Hippodrome's annual adaptation is particularly important to Gainesville because "some people never see any show at the Hippodrome, except "A Christmas Carol," and they see it year after year. It's maybe the only live theater they ever see in their lives, so it should be the best. And it is."
Although the Hippodrome has produced the show for 24 years, "A Christmas Carol" has changed from season to season. The play originally took about two hours to perform, and for several years, the play was adapted into a musical. Currently the show is performed as a drama, and has been revised so that it is slightly over an hour in length, which is better suited to the attention spans of younger audiences.
"When it was a musical, it was about 1 1/2 hours. We're trying to get it to the attention span of kids," says Salling, who will be playing the role of Scrooge for the 13th time this year.
Salling has played virtually every male character in the play over these 24 years, and during his time with the company, he has seen the Hippodrome move from its meager beginnings in the former fašade of a 7-11 store, to a warehouse, to its present-day venue in the elegantly reappointed old post office in downtown Gainesville.
As the theatre changed its venue, so did the Hippodrome's adaptation of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" undergo a similar transformation, becoming more polished and professional as the years have gone by. Salling says in the first few years the play was produced, "there were wooden benches that (the audience) had to sit on, and so you were advised to bring your own cushion, unless you wanted to be really uncomfortable."
Now the Hippodrome has comparatively luxurious seating and utilizes special effects and high-tech lighting techniques to add an eerie dimension to its production.
The wooden benches are long gone, and some of the children from the early productions of "A Christmas Carol" have grown to become TV stars, such as Malcolm Gets, who is best known for his role on the TV sitcom "Caroline in the City." Thus, the tradition of "A Christmas Carol" will continue to haunt the stage at the Hippodrome as well as the hearts and memories of audiences yet to come.
Comments are currently unavailable on this article