“For years, and long after the holiday’s more clearly identifiable fictions were exposed to me by the well-meaning and the vindictive, I sought to be the good I would find in this holiday. I could spend months planning and preparing. In the weeks leading up to it, I would sing, skip and generally annoy the hell out of those unable to find the joy of existence contagious.” Cusper Lynn
The Occidental Ape
By Cusper Lynn
SARASOTA Florida—(Weekly Hubris)—12/10/2012—My friends have been concerned about me. The holiday season is upon us, and I have expressed none of the joy they expect. My usual exuberance and anticipation has been replaced by resignation and a nearly mechanical plodding through the hours and days that measure the remaining distance to the holiday that falls upon December 25th.
Historically speaking, I am normally enthusiastic about this holiday. It’s when people of good will gather together to express their faith in irrational optimism. There can be no greater good than the idea of a vague and unspecified beneficence to raise up one’s hope for humanity.
For years, and long after the holiday’s more clearly identifiable fictions were exposed to me by the well-meaning and the vindictive, I sought to be the good I would find in this holiday. I could spend months planning and preparing. In the weeks leading up to it, I would sing, skip and generally annoy the hell out of those unable to find the joy of existence contagious.
But not this year.
Many explanations have been offered me.
“Your children are getting older. It’s harder to get excited now,” some said.
“You’re getting older, and you see the holiday for what it really is,” others remarked.
“It’s the economy,” one opined.
“It’s the suffering in the world,” said a committed cynic.
. . . to all of which I respond, “Balderdash!” People have been suffering, dying, and killing one another for tens of thousands of years. The economy has risen and fallen (and risen and fallen). I have sung, danced, whistled, and celebrated with and without children, through economic collapse and countless wars. As to the holiday and its real meaning, it has remained unchanged since the first human looked up at the cold night sky and wondered when the sun would return.
So . . . why wasn’t I whistling, skipping and singing this year?
I tried rekindling the feeling by remembering Christmases past. Hours spent lying under a large tree wired with flashing and bubbling lights; with glass and handmade ornaments casting ever-changing shadows and colors on the walls and ceiling. (I felt a small, but unstained twinge of the spirit.) The sound of a small brass carrousel spinning wildly, small chimes ringing as burning candles drove a metal. (There was a small stab of euphoric optimism that faded almost immediately.)
Then, I remembered Albert Finney singing “I Like Life” in “Scrooge,” and a glow momentarily perfused my heart and my cheeks.
These memories of Christmas Past warmed me. But, like memories of love lost and adolescent longing, they faded quickly. Besides, I’ve been reading Dickens for light comic relief over the last few years, so it’s hard to sustain the transcendent quality A Christmas Carol once imparted.
Even with these insights and false starts, I was still no closer to understanding why the holiday spirit evaded me now. And there matters may have remained right up till the holiday itself . . . were it not for a phone call.
Chet Dilford was a professor of mine during my undergraduate days. At the time, he was teaching “Rehearsal Theory and Performance Technique,” a requirement for theater majors and playwrights.
The course work focused heavily on Stanislavski and Strasberg. You might imagine Chet had been a devoted student of Method Acting, but he wasn’t. The class was a job, the curriculum was set by the university, and Chet, to the best of his abilities, taught the curriculum.
What Chet was in fact in those years was a Guerrilla Theater Producer. Among student performers and playwrights, his unlicensed, unauthorized productions were the stuff of legend. For the unpublished, unappreciated and largely untalented group of aspiring thespians who gathered around Chet, his aggressive, no-holds-barred approach to theater production comprised a well-deserved thumb in the eye to the complacent fat cats who were suppressing the talent and voice of the younger generation. (For several of Chet’s former students who actually went on to be produced or perform in large union productions, Chet came to represent a naïve period in their careers . . . and an outright danger to legitimate theater.)
Chet’s reputation rested on having been sued by representatives of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber for unauthorized productions of “Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” and by another law firm for his equally unauthorized production of “Cabaret.” Full disclosure: when I was a student of Chet’s, I knew him to do half a dozen or more guerrilla productions a year of anything from “My Fair Lady” to “Our Town.” But I was neither an aspiring playwright, nor an actor and, as the years passed and Chet left the university he and I became friends. He returned to his true passion, choreography and production, for which he did gain some minor plaudits in Off-Broadway productions. But with his history and his dirty secrets, Chet’s career floundered and he went where culture and careers go to die: Orlando, Florida.
“Cusper,” Chet said enthusiastically. “I have something you have absolutely got to see!”
“And that would be?” I asked, not at all excited about anything I might see in Orlando.
“I can’t tell you! You have to see it for yourself to believe it,” he bubbled.
I met this intelligence with stony silence.
“Cusper?” Chet asked, concerned that our connection had been cut.
“Yes?” I answered.
“Look, I know it’s been tough the last few years, but you have to see this! Everything will finally make sense,” he said.
“Everything? The entire shooting match? All the eternal questions?” I began.
“Cusper, normally I would tell you to stop being bitchy. But yes, Cusper, yes: this is really the answer to everything!” Chet said.
“Fine.” I was hooked. “When and where?”
“We’ll meet at my apartment on Saturday at noon,” Chet said. “Plan to stay for the weekend.”
My car struggled on the drive to Orlando, shimmying and emitting a series of small deafening explosions at regular intervals: we’d not been on the best of terms of late, I and it.
Ears ringing, and I-4 jiggling before me, I considered the foundations of my relationship with Chet and was reminded that it was based on an unspoken agreement never to test it by compelling it to bear the full weight of either of us.
Be that as it may, when Chet’s career in New York came to a halt, I was the one he called to share the story of how his productions of “Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” and “Cabaret” continued to haunt him at every turn.
And when my marriage came to an end, it was Chet (whose inability to sustain a meaningful relationship is legendary) who offered me stories of his own struggles and, thus, made mine pale by comparison.
Given this uneven exchange of life’s experiences and companionship, I wondered what exactly it was that had occurred to make him certain he’d found the answer to everything.
Having ruled out God and Amway, I was left with the possibility of . . . The Fantastic.
Chet’s apartment, on the 23rd floor of a downtown condominium complex, looks out over Orange County, affording one a panoramic if not entirely inspiring view of Orlando. The area, which once comprised orange groves and unimproved land, is now a sea of skyscrapers, theme parks, T-shirt shops and a million other bad ideas all pressing in on the highways and streets that martyr this once rural region.
“God bless Walt,” Chet said, ushering me back into his living room.
On the far wall, a black and white picture of Chet and his mother (and Walt) stares out at all who enter. The year was 1955 and, in the picture, Chet is eleven years old
“Did I ever tell you about how my mother and I met Walt?” Chet asked.
“You were extras for the production of the opening day broadcast,” I said, nodding.
“Yes, I guess I did tell you,” he smiled, visibly disappointed at missing an opportunity to retell one of his favorite stories of his life as a child actor.
Chet, whose acting career began in St. Louis, Missouri doing baby modeling for print ads, despises Method Acting for the very practical reason that he was never very happy as an actor.
He was, at a very early age, obliged to appear excited about auditions, roles . . . and casting directors, whom he thoroughly detested.
“There was always a lot of work,” Chet sighed, looking about his apartment.
This was true enough. If Chet was not famous as a child actor, he was “reliable,” which guaranteed constant work for him up into his late teens. Commercials, supporting roles, characters with first names who never spoke a word, an entire portfolio of television series appearances that did not amount to a single major on-screen credit, but that did provide steady income for him and his mother.
“Of course, what I really wanted to do was play baseball and have a pet,” Chet observed, picking a glass wolfhound out of his curio case.
“How is your mother?” I asked, as I surveyed the army of glass and ceramic dogs that stared out of the cabinet.
“As well as can be expected,” he said, returning the wolfhound to its pack.
“She’s in a long-term care facility in Longwood.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said sincerely.
“No, it’s good,” he said, turning away from the cabinet. “Most of her friends in the apartment building have died over the last few years, and she was starting to get lonely. After her surgery, when the doctors said she couldn’t go home, she took it well. Now, she organizes the entertainment and plays the piano for the other residents.”
“Well that’s good,” I said, with feigned enthusiasm.
“Yes, I go out with a few friends and perform with her on Wednesdays,” he said, his smile flickering slightly.
There was a long silence, and it seemed to me that Chet wanted to say something more. Instead, he smiled widely and announced, “I have to get dressed. Make yourself at home.”
Settling onto the couch, facing the curio cabinet, I considered the relatively spartan surroundings. Outside of the curio cabinet and a handful of framed pictures, Chet’s apartment was devoid of any other sentimental attachments. When I first met him, back in college, he’d been renting a three-bedroom house, two of the bedrooms empty, and the family room featuring only a couch and his curio cabinet.
I’d asked him about the cabinet when we first met.
“That,” he had explained proudly, “is my little extravagance. Mother let me have ten glass dogs when I was a kid. But now that I’m more settled, I have 40 of them.”
The curio cabinet, by my count, still only held 40 glass dogs.
Chet excused himself, “to get ready,” he said.
“Ready to go,” Chet announced, stepping from the bedroom wearing a gold lamé suit with a dark red carnation and a green lamé bow tie. Under his right arm he held an equally loud gold lamé top hat.
I am not making any of this up.
“I didn’t know formal dress was required,” I said, not entirely certain if I were making a light joke or proffering an excuse.
“Don’t worry. I have your outfit here,” he said, producing a black sleeping mask from his top hat.
“Is that the entire outfit?” I asked, truly disconcerted about the direction in which things appeared to be heading. I had attended some performance art pieces in the East Village two decades earlier that had expanded my understanding of interactive performance art, and I was no rush to renew my acquaintance with such avant-garde performances.
“No, what you’re wearing is fine. You just have to wear this until we get there,” he said, proffering the mask.
I looked from him to the mask. “Is it in this building?”
“No,” he said impatiently. “We have to drive there.”
“Tell you what,” I said, taking the mask from him. “I’ll put it on when we’re in the car. That way, I won’t break my neck getting there.”
“Killjoy!” he pouted, and we left the apartment.
In the condominium’s parking garage, I was shocked to find we were getting into a Lexus LS 460. The last time I’d seen Chet, he was driving a 1973 Datsun 510 held together with fiberglass and bonding compound.
“Whose car are we borrowing?” I asked, as he put on his seatbelt.
“No one’s. This is my car,” he said.
My look must have betrayed my disbelief because he repeated, “This is my car.”
“OK,” I said. “No offense. This just isn’t the sort of car I’m used to riding in.”
“Blindfold,” he said, peremptorily.
“No, I get it. You have a new car,” I conceded.
“No, I mean it’s time for you to put on the mask,” he said.
“Really?” I asked, looking at the mask and, then, the interior of the car. It had been a long time since I’d ridden in a safe car, much less an expensive car, and the idea that I’d have to do it blindfolded was galling.
“Really,” he said. “This is a super-tip-top secret place. I could lose my job, my home and my car if you don’t. There are rules. So, if you want it and the answer to everything, you will put on that mask right now. Otherwise, you might as well head on home.”
Chet rarely does ultimatums outside issues of choreography, so I put on the mask without further protest.
The thoughts that pass through your mind as you’re riding around the streets of Orlando blindfolded, at the mercy of a theater producer in a gold lamé suit, with matching top hat and green lamé bow tie, are numerous. If you’re of a fairly rational frame of mind, it will occur to you to wonder where your body will be found, and in how many pieces. If you’re of a more avaricious turn of mind, you might wonder how you might acquire your driver’s car, and how long it would take someone to find his body.
My sense of time drifted as we moved from what I thought were surface streets to the interstate and back. Based on my experience of Orlando, ours was probably at least a 20-minute drive, and there were a few abrupt stops.
“Almost there,” he said happily.
The car came to a stop and I heard the whispering sound of the window sliding downward. Then, I heard orchestral music and voices in the distance.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Dilford,” a voice said pompously.
“Good afternoon, Brett,” Chet chirped happily.
“Who do we have here?” “Brett” asked. (I could smell onions, mustard, and some sort of deli meat rolling into the car with the man’s words. I was going to have to kill him, too, and then have the car detailed.)
“A friend of mine. I’ve already gotten clearance for it,” Chet said a little too quickly.
“Mr. Dilford,” Brett said slowly, clearly leaning in through the window of my car and breathing more onions into its pristine interior, “you know I’ll have to check with the Operations Manager on this.”
“That’s fine,” Chet said; then, a beat later, “How did the wife and kids enjoy the show?”
There was a silence and finally Brett said, “Go on through.”
As we pulled forward, I heard the sound of gates closing behind us, the orchestral music grew closer and then the window slid silently shut. I was amazed. There wasn’t a room in my house this quiet.
A few minutes later, we came to a stop.
“We’re here!” Chet announced.
“Can I take off the mask?” I asked.
“Yes, Silly,” Chet said, and got out of the Lexus.
“It’s beautiful!” I announced, getting out of my side. “I see what you mean! It all makes perfect sense now.”
“Stop being such a bitch and give me a hand,” he said, opening the trunk.
“No, really. I’ve never seen an underground garage in Orlando before. Actually, I don’t think I’ve seen one in Florida before,” I continued.
“Here.” Chet shoved a box into my chest. “Don’t make me regret bringing you here.”
“Can’t promise that,” I smiled. “By the way, where are we?”
“For me to know and you to find out,” he said, walking to a glass double door at the far end of the garage.
Along long passages and corridors that wound through different colors and different street names, we wandered for at least five minutes, Chet, striding purposefully along and me trailing behind, disoriented by the labyrinth through which we were moving.
“Is this some sort of theme-pa . . . ” I began.
“Uh, uh, uh!” he said, spinning about and cautioning me. “This place is tip-top-super-secret. Even Orlando doesn’t know what or where this is, yet. But they will soon.”
“So it is a them . . .” I continued.
“Zip it,” he said. “You’re going to see things here that you have not imagined. So shut up and follow me.”
He opened the door to a changing room where a group of men were all decked out in gold lamé outfits.
“Yep, Chet. You’re right. Five decades on the planet and several years in theater, and I have never seen, much less imagined, it was possible to populate a room with flamboyantly dressed men,” I snipped at him.
“Patrice!” Chet called out.
A thin young man with a wisp of a moustache, black hair and blue eyes came running forward from the crowd of men. I looked down at his feet.
“Are those spats?” I asked the universe in general.
“Patrice,” Chet said, pointedly ignoring my question, “this is my friend, Cusper. I want you to take him up to the theater. I’ve reserved a seat for him in Section B, Row 19. Would you please escort him up there? Oh, and let the House Manager know he’s to bring him anything he asks for.”
“A redhead, a bourbon, a Cuban Cohiba . . .” I began.
“. . . within reason,” Chet amended.
“Yes, Mr. Dilford,” Patrice said, ignoring me as well.
I gave Chet a jaunty salute and followed the young man out of the room and back into the corridors. After we’d walked for what I was certain was three blocks in the passages, I decided to break the silence.
“So, are you a native Floridian?” I asked, certain he wasn’t.
“No, I am from Montreal,” Patrice answered.
“Really,” I smiled. “I would never have known.”
“I have an excellent accent coach. After I moved to study dance and theater in Toronto, I started working with an accent coach there and he helped me develop an American accent,” Patrice said, in an accent that slid between Columbus and Trenton, by turns.
“Wonderful. So you followed your coach down here to keep studying?” I asked, as I had him on every actor’s favorite topic, himself and his Craft.
“Oh, no. I have a new coach here. There was an ad for the exchange program, and I earn money and credits, so it is a very good opportunity for me, no?” He smiled.
“Ah, so this theme-pa . . .” I began.
Patrice spun on me furiously, “Non, we do not say that! It is impossible!”
“We don’t say what? Theme-pa . . .” I began again.
Patrice stepped forward, placed an index finger in the air before me and gave me a severe look. “It’s not just because there are those who would close us down. It’s not just because there are those who would sue us. It is because this is art and . . .”
“. . . this place is tip-top-super-secret?” I ventured.
Patrice paused, looking deflated that I had taken his best line. The index finger withdrew and he looked down at his spats. Then he looked up at me with all the solemnity he could manage and said, “Just don’t say it, please.”
“Fine,” I sighed, and we began to walk again.
After proceeding for another ten minutes, Patrice took a sharp left and motioned for me to stop. On a green door that was nearly indistinguishable from the green corridor wall were printed the words: “Main Lobby Concession.”
“Do not say anything, stay close to me, and let me do all the talking,” he said, affecting a Georgia drawl.
I nodded my head, unsure why this moment (of all others) seemed filled with such gravity as I was, after all, following a French-Canadian dancer wearing taps, spats and a gold lamé suit. But, for whatever reason, I remained quiet.
Patrice opened the door and we stepped out into a red-carpeted lobby, bedecked with cut glass chandeliers, golden cherubs and amply proportioned nymphs who held aloft spheres of light surrounding a series of bars where men and women in black and white service uniforms were attending to patrons.
I looked about in wonder. The place reminded me of the opera house in Philadelphia, except that the patrons would not there be wearing T-shirts, flip flops, and holding stuffed animals and balloons as they stood in line for drinks.
A balding, thick-set man with a huge dark moustache walked purposefully across the lobby towards us, his hands held rigidly to the small of his back. Patrice stepped forward to meet him halfway, and whispered something. The man’s countenance shifted slightly. He looked over at me and then back at Patrice, then nodded. Then Patrice nodded. Then the two of them walked towards me.
“This is Monsieur Garneaux, the House Manager,” Patrice said, introducing the thick-set man.
I made as if to extend my hand, but the man instead gave a bow.
Recovering, I inclined, slightly, in return.
“A pleasure. I understand you are a special friend of Mr. Dilford,” he said, producing a little smile.
I tilted my head slightly and smiled, not clear what “special friend” was meant to signify. I was struggling to see how I might gracefully inquire as to this phrase, when Patrice came to my aid.
“Monsieur Garneaux will arrange for your refreshments and see you to your seat,” Patrice explained.
“Thank you,” I said, giving up on further clarification of “special friend.”
“Also, after the performance, please wait for Mr. Dilford,” Patrice said.
I nodded my consent and watched as Patrice went to a wooden panel, pressed it and slipped quietly out of the lobby and into an adjacent service corridor.
“If you will follow me . . .” Monsieur Garneaux said, and led me to the bar.
While the redhead and the Cuban Cohiba were not behind the bar, just about everything else one could want was.
“What may I get you?” Monsieur Garneux asked.
“A Coke?” I ventured.
Monsieur Garneux’s face darkened. “We do not . . .”
“I’m sorry. I’m not supposed to say that? I really . . .” I began, concerned that I had blundered across yet another tip-top-super-secret thing you weren’t supposed to say.
“No, that’s not it,” he said. “It’s that . . .”
“Look, any corporate cola will do,” I offered.
“I was going to say that we are awaiting another delivery of Coca-Cola in the next ten minutes,” he said, slightly ruffled. “However, yes, we can, as you say, provide you another corporate cola. I will have it delivered to your seat.”
Monsieur Garneaux led me from the lobby to a large archway that opened out onto what looked like a baseball stadium. A woman in a red uniform with black trim met us at the top of a stairway that descended into the stadium.
“This is Mr. Dilford’s special friend. He has a seat in Section B Row 19,” Mr. Garneaux said, nodding to the woman.
“Very good,” she said, and bowed slightly to Mr. Garneaux.
“If you need anything, please let Melissa know and she will inform me,” he said; then departed back into the lobby.
“If you will follow me . . .” the usher, whose name I presumed to be Melissa, said.
We descended at least 40 rows from the lobby level before we arrived at section B. From there she led me across to Row 19 and indicated my seat was to be seat number 1.I had an unobstructed view of a large and empty floor that looked to be about the size of a baseball field.
“What sort of stadium is this?” I asked, taking my seat.
Looking down, I could see that Section A was another 15 feet below me and its seating extended up to the edge of the field.
“This is a theater, not a stadium,” Melissa corrected me.
“But it has a field,” I argued.
“No. That is the stage,” she said, gesturing out at the large area that the seating encircled.
Looking at it more closely, I did have to admit that it was not green but, instead, a slate grey.
“Ah, and this is the theme-pa . . .” I began.
“Sir,” she interrupted me, “this is a theater. I will return with your drink.”
As she left I realized that the theater was gently humming. I listened more closely and recognized the song “We Need A Little Christmas” from the Broadway musical “Mame” playing in the background. This song gave way to “Frosty the Snowman,” then “Christmas Time Is Here” from “The Charlie Brown Special,” “Jingle Bells” performed by the Jackson Five and, then, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Elvis was beginning to sing “Blue Christmas” when Melissa returned with my corporate cola.
“So, it’s a Christmas thing?” I hazarded.
“What is, Sir?” she said, seeming truly clueless.
“The . . . performance?” I asked.
She smiled, “That, Sir, is a . . .”
“No, wait. Let me guess,” I interrupted. “It’s a tip-top-super-secret?”
She smiled. “Exactly.”
I sipped my cola and wondered what the hell this place was. It was in Orlando but didn’t want to be called a theme park, everything was “tip-top-super-secret,” and yet every aspect of the place felt like some sort of middle-American amusement park . . . just not one I could name.
For all that was odd about the place, the patrons who filled the theater up to the highest seats were typical tourists and theme-park-goers.
Families with small, whining children, and parents tending shrieking and soiled infants were crushed in among elderly snow birds who ushered sullen teenagers to seats they did not want to take. Younger couples, hetero and homosexual, were out on the peripheries of this sea of families and noise.
The “theater” was nearly three-quarters full when Melissa inquired after me.
“I’m fine,” I said, not really wanting her company or to be tempted to ask more about the tippy-top-super-secret place I was in.
Twelve minutes later, the place was packed, my nearly empty glass of corporate cola was replaced with a fresh one, and the lights went down.
An hour and a half later, I was sitting alone in the theater when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to see Chet behind me in his gold lamé suit.
“It was . . . beautiful,” I said, grinning like an idiot, tears still streaming down my face.
“I know,” Chet said softly, “and there’s more.”
“Really?!?” I was shocked and amazed. How could there be more?
“Oh yes, he wouldn‘t have done this show if I hadn’t agreed to do the next show. This one is just that important to him,” Chet said with great solemnity.
“Can I . . .” I hesitated to ask: they had given me so much already that afternoon.
“It starts in 90 minutes,” Chet said happily. “Stay in your seat, and I’ll have Melissa bring you another drink.”
And Chet was right. It was everything he’d promised, and more. Nearly three hours later, I was hugging Patrice and Chet like truly special friends, I had my Christmas spirit back.
“Are you sure you won’t stay?” Chet asked.
I shook my head. “I have to get home and write this all down as soon as I can,” I said.
“I understand, but you do realize that this is . . .”Chet began.
“. . . tip-top-super-secret,” I said, smiling maniacally.
Taking a cab from the theater to Chet’s home, I began to think of how everything Chet had done over the course of his life had led to this moment. This production, both productions, really, had been the fulfillment of Chet’s lifelong vision.
“Where did you find her?” I had asked him of the main singer.
“She was one of the Elles in our Northern Music Gazebo,” Chet explained.
“You have a Shirelles tribute?” I asked, impressed that this place had such a thing.
“Not really,” Chet corrected me. “Our show features The Ellettes. We couldn’t afford the licensing or the actual Shirelles, so we have an African-American girl tribute group that performs an homage to all African-American girl doo-wop, R&B, Soul and rock’n’roll groups.”
“Oh.” I took this in. “That’s great. Must be hard for her to transition to this.”
“She’s a trooper, an absolute trooper,” Chet said proudly. “She finishes up here and then heads straight to the Gazebo to pick up her next performance.”
“And the guy with the sax?” I asked. “Tell me you have a Jazz Gazebo.”
“No. A Kenny G tribute show,” Chet explained. “We could afford that.”
“How unfortunate,” I said, slightly resenting that a Kenny G reference was harshing my Christmas buzz.
“It’s all right. You can see he really is better than that,” Chet answered.
Retrieving my car from Chet’s condominium complex, I made my way to the interstate. Thirty minutes later and 14 miles west on I-4, traffic had come to a complete halt.
“Multi-car pile-up,” the driver next to me announced. “Traffic’s snarled in both directions.”
I switched off my ignition and waited.
Closing my eyes, I lay back in my seat and began to relive the afternoon’s experiences.
A massive video screen rose up in the theater with images of children from around the world sharing their ideas of the Christmas miracle as an orchestral version of a holiday medley surged. Then, came a poignant pause as a little bald girl spoke out from her hospital bed about peace on earth: in the middle distance, a saxophone solo was heard.
A spot light flared and up in the nosebleed seats the saxophonist straddled the aisles, sweating and coaxing from his horn the notes to “Silent Night.” Then, he stepped to the guard rail. Climbing up to it he stood, playing “Keep Christmas With You.” Then . . . he leapt. Patrons screamed, children cried, only to stop and laugh in nervous relief and then joy to see the sax player gliding to center stage without missing a note. His playing waxed furious as he moved into a techno version of “The Nutcracker Suite,” for which the full orchestra returned, strings backed by cannons.
The video monitors flared and flashed, the song rose, there was a brief moment of darkness and silence and the lights came up to illuminate a gold, five-pointed star on stage. But it wasn’t a star; it was, instead, an army of dancers . . . in gold lamé suits and top hats. “New York, New York” filled the theater as the dancers high-kicked and moved the five-pointed star formation around the stage.
The star morphed into a cross, and the dancers began tap-dancing in unison. The big screen revealed that their synchronization was perfect. Ah, Chet and Patrice! They moved to the edges of the stage, pulled off their gold lamé, to reveal . . . wet suits! Then, the stage drew back in four wedges. One by one, the men dived into the water as the strains of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” sung by Bing Crosby, welled up. A fully-lighted Christmas tree was lowered from above, spun dazzlingly, and then dropped into the water below.
The audience cried out as the dancers spun about the tree in two concentric circles. From the center of these circles, wearing a beard and Santa hat, rose a majestic Orca whale, which spun about in time with the music. The light narrowed to highlight just the Orca, and the synchronized swimmers slipped out of the water.
A brief pause permitted the audience to clap, stamp and cheer. Then, a platform descended from the video monitors and, on the platform, stood the lead singer from the “Ellettes” Music Gazebo, dressed in blue lamé.
She opened with a deep and soul-shaking “Awaaaaay” as she offered up an entirely new take on “Away in the Manager.” At a far corner of the pool, a small bald girl stood and did a dramatic reading of “The Three Wise Men” while the music died down.
Three whales then circled the pool, flipped and danced as a single star shown at the apex of the theater’s ceiling. Then, the whales each went to a corner of the pool and picked up a figure for The Nativity that they balanced on their noses and set down on a platform that rose in the midst of the water.
With great care, they placed Joseph and Mary and the rest of the figures in The Nativity. Owing to a small technical glitch, the smallest Orca, which was carrying the baby Jesus, dropped him and, while trying to retrieve him from the pool, inadvertently swallowed him.
But no one seemed to notice. The Ellette singer’s voice rose and then transitioned from “Away in the Manager” to “I Must Tell Jesus.” The dancers, still wearing their dive suits and barefoot, danced between exploding fountains of color and water that sprayed over the front-row seats all around the arena. Dolphins joined the Orcas in the pool and did backward and forward somersaults as the lead Ellette reached her crescendo.
Then, another holiday music medley swelled, and the dolphins and the Orcas took turns swimming backwards and sideways along the edge of the pool. The video monitors filled with hundreds of Christmas images clipped from movies and television specials. The Ellette rejoined the canned music, rising up to another crescendo with a run that took her, finally, to “Jesus is King!”
Then, a single image appeared on the screen—the bald girl in the hospital bed saying one single world, “Miracle.” Thunderous applause followed, darkness, and then the house lights came up.
Nearby, a grandmother wept and held her grandchildren close to her. “You see, it’s true!” she said. “Even the whales know that Jesus is King!”
Later, I would learn that the whales, or at least the star whale, was Jewish. Shalom the Whale, Chet explained to me, was only willing to do the Christmas tribute show for the Gentiles if Chet agreed to do a second tribute show featuring Hanukkah.
The two productions were nearly identical as to choreography (the five-pointed star was replaced by a Star of David, and Shalom the Whale appeared wearing a yarmulke instead of a Santa hat), but there were some minor changes in musical selections and tribute videos.
Also, the readings included were performed by a small boy.
Interestingly enough, a minor technical glitch occurred in this production as well, when the Orcas were moving the giant menorah to the center platform. The smallest orca’s yarmulke fell from its head as it was helping move a menorah. Again, most of the audience seemed not to notice, except for one orthodox rabbi who was in the front row and complained loudly to his wife and family about the faithlessness of the smallest whale.
Dolphins spun dreidels, leaping Orcas lit candles and the Ellette singer belted out a soulful ballad whose lyric’s faithfulness to Hanukkah’s traditions was certainly no more tenuous than that of the previous show’s references to Christmas.
I dozed lightly in the gridlock of I-4 as my fellow motorists honked, shouted and greeted one another in the spirit of the season by yelling, “F**k Off!” out their windows.
How could this be, I mused to myself? How could the spirit of Christmas be again so alive, I wondered. Veritably, Chet had shown me the light. After all these years, after the horrors of his childhood, after being sued for trying to stage an all-animal production of “Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” and later lawsuits and arrests for trying to stage an all-dog production of “Cabaret”(when the Weimeraners slipped their handlers and attacked a critic who was talking loudly throughout the first act) Chet had realized his vision . . . and provided one for me.
Irrational, insane, idiotic and an absolutely guileless mixture of the sacred and the profane: well, it was the absolute essence of Christmas and I could not have been happier!
Oh, and before I left, Chet let me in on another little tip-top-super-secret. They’ll be staging an Easter production this spring. In Orlando.
Shalom the Whale has agreed to play the lead. They’ll be bringing to stage and tank The Stations of The Cross. You know I’ll be sitting front and center on opening night. I can’t wait to see who plays Pontius Pilot! I’m hoping it will be the littlest Orca, but I expect it’ll end up being one of the dolphins: type casting.
So, on behalf of my very special friends, Chet Dilford, Shalom the Whale, Jesus, and Santa, let me wish you and yours a Very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a prosperous New Year!