Wednesday, December 15, 2010


The world of Ralphie Parker in A Christmas Story, The Musical! is very different from life today.

Televisions were very rare. Instead, radios and newspapers provided an information lifeline for Americans. Whole families gathered around the radio to listen to news broadcasts and popular programs like “Little Orphan Annie,” quiz shows, mysteries, dramas, music and sports.

Before Harry Potter, Ralphie and his friends might have read books like Daniel Boone and Make Way for Ducklings. But one of the most popular forms of entertainment was found at the local movie house where films like National Velvet, Lassie Come Home, Flash Gordon, Roy Rodgers and Superman costs about 25 cents and included a cartoon. A candy bar costs five cents.

Because personal computers were decades away from being conceived, there were no cell phones or email, Xbox or Wii. One of the earliest computers, the ENIAC was completed in 1945; it weighed 30 tons and was two stories high. A small portion of the computer is pictured to the left. Many of the toys, activities and historic events mentioned in A Christmas Story, The Musical! are unheard of today.

Here is a brief glossary to help you better understand Ralphie’s world.

Red Ryder BB Guns were the preference of Red Ryder, a fictional comic book cowboy in the 1940s, but the Red Ryder air gun, with its lever-action, spring piston, smooth-bore barrel, adjustable iron sights, and a gravity feed magazine with a 650 BB capacity was a real product and highly desired by many American boys. The Red Ryder Range Model Carbine Action BB Gun in the movie A Christmas Story was a fictional model from Jean Shepherd’s’ imagination; it included components like a compass and timepiece which were never a part of a Red Ryder prototype. The “Buck Jones” Daisy air rifle did have a compass and sundial in the stock and could have served as an inspiration.

To see Ralphie, played by Clarke Hallum, sing a song about how much he wants a Red Ryder BB Gun, watch the video clip below.

The Little Orphan Annie Show was one of the first 15-minute daily radio serials made for children. The show was sponsored by Ovaltine and ran from 1930 to the early 1940s. It was inspired by the daily American Comic strip by Harold Gray about a young orphan girl, her dog, Sandy, and her guardian Daddy Warbucks. They encounter many adventurous predicaments sometimes including gangsters, spies and kidnappers. The show was also known for its opening theme song sung by Pierre Andre.

Ovaltine is a brand of milk flavoring created in 1904 in Switzerland and is still available today. The powdery mix, made of sugar, malt extract, cocoa and whey, is often mixed with warm or hot milk. As a sponsor for “The Little Orphan Annie Show”, Ovaltine offered secret decoder rings in exchange for proofs of purchase.

Decoder rings similar to this one were all the rage during the golden age of radio, lending an air of participation to popular radio shows like “Little Orphan Annie”.

Shirley Temple Dolls were manufactured by Ideal Toy and Novelty Company and were fashioned after Shirley Temple, the child star known for her films like Bright Eyes, Heidi and The Little Princess.

Lionel Trains were electric toy trains and model railroads that were embellished with hand-painted details and authentic elements. Elaborate train displays were often featured as part of department store Christmas displays and a Lionel train set was routinely found under the tree on Christmas morning. This photo is of an all-metal Lionel steam engine from around 1938-1942.

The Dionne Quintuplets, born in Canada in 1934, were the first female identical quintuplets to survive infancy. While multiple births are today subjects of television shows like “Jon and Kate Plus 8”, 75 years ago, they were a medical rarity. From their birth, public interest in the Dionne quints was insatiable. The babies became a popular phenomenon and were put on display to the public. Dolls and other souvenirs were created and sold with their likenesses.

Open Road for Boys was a popular boy’s outdoor adventure fiction magazine from 1919 to 1950 that featured advertisements for model airplanes and Red Ryder products.

Jujubes were a candy drop created in 1920 and are still available today. Originally it was a hard candy that you had to suck on and the original flavors were lilac, violet, rose, spearmint and lemon.

-Used with the permission of Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Walt Spangler Gets in the Spirit of “A Christmas Story”

When A Christmas Story: The Musical! was slotted to take the stage in Kansas City last winter, Walt Spangler accepted the task of designing a set for the fun-filled musical. This season, the show about 9-year-old Ralphie Parker and his quest for the Christmas present of his dreams is coming to Seattle with Spangler’s design in tow. Inspired by a brand new score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Spangler has adapted and enhanced his design to suit The 5th Avenue Theatre’s vast house. This is not the first time Spangler’s designs have graced The 5th’s stage. Loyal patrons may remember his eye-popping sets for both Mame (2008) and On the Town (2010) and can look forward to seeing his work in Oklahoma (2011).

Audience members can expect a grand set with magically quick transitions and plenty of beautiful pieces to please the eye. “I really enjoy fantastical, very imaginative, very theatrical ideas…(the show) offers a nice combination where there are some scenes that are very theatrical and vivid and colorful. And then there are scenes, especially in the house, that really pull you back down to a sense of almost Norman Rockwell holiday intimacy.” Because the setting changes so often, Spangler strove to create a design that matches the pace and the rhythm of the music, as well as maintains a cinematic flow to echo the feeling of the film.

The first step in Spangler’s process of recreating the world of the Parker family for the stage was to re-watch the iconic movie. The film premiered in 1983 when Spangler was a teenager, and he soon became one of its countless annual viewers. “Getting the opportunity to design it, I already felt like I was ahead of the game because I was so familiar with the story.” he reminisced.

However, there was an aspect of the musical that the film could not prepare him for: The Jean Shepherd Show. “(The musical) begins in a 1960s radio station as a story that’s being told on the radio by a man and a bunch of foley artists. The idea is to visualize that for the audience so we have a framework that suggests the 1960s radio station, and then when we open up the curtain we reveal onto the world of Hohman, Indiana back in the 1940s.” Spangler was inspired by many elements when creating the town. The Higbee’s Department Store Santa Land plays a crucial part in some pivotal moments of the show so Spangler felt the need to integrate it throughout. Furthermore, when watching the movie, he was struck by the constant blanket of snow enveloping the town. Spangler and his team decided they wanted to frame the town in a frozen blizzard, “seen through the eyes of a Higbee’s Department Store decoration.”

More importantly, Spangler calls on his own yuletide memories to put a personal stamp on the town. “I really love when you go get the Christmas tree, and when I grew up we did that as a family ritual. We actually didn’t purchase Christmas trees because we had family who lived up in the mountains of Virginia and they had a lot of pine trees on their property, so we as a family – my mother, my father, my sister and I – would drive up at some point right after Thanksgiving and get a Christmas tree. We’d go get it, find it, cut it down, and bring it back! That really is my favorite part of the pre-holiday season, more so than the actual day of Christmas which is usually much more chaotic and hectic. And that’s the way it is in the show.” Spangler uses his own family’s holiday aesthetic and traditions to adorn the Parker’s home: a mix of heirloom and hand-made ornaments, a homemade table cloth on the dining room table for a special Christmas spread, and a medley of wrapped and unwrapped gifts beneath the tree.

Spangler is confident that A Christmas Story: The Musical! will appeal to those who have never seen the movie and to die-hard fans alike. He was careful to include the memorable landmarks from the film while keeping in mind the demands of a live show. Ultimately, it’s the spirit of the season that will make audiences fall in love. “It’s one of those things where we all have our memories. I think that certainly my memories of Christmas are classic American ones. [The audience] will be reminded of their own family and that’s the point of the show. It’s very much about family and the relationship and the ups and downs of the family but then ultimately Christmas gels it all together. It makes everyone realize how much they appreciate their family members.”

-Lauren Smith, Education Intern, The 5th Avenue Theatre

To get just a taste of the gorgeous set design, watch this short clip from A Christmas Story the Musical, as the cast sings the title song, "A Christmas Story".

5 Musical Theater Terms You Should Know

1. Eleven o’clock number—A show tune which provides a big finish shortly before the musical ends.
2. Entr’acte—1. Orchestral opening to the second act of a musical; 2. A dance, musical number or interlude performed between the acts of a play
3. Libretto—Text of an opera or musical
4. Sitzprobe—A seated rehearsal where the singers sing with the orchestra, focusing attention on integrating the two groups. It is often the first rehearsal where the orchestra and singers rehearse together.
5. Wandelprobe—When singers go through the actions (wander) on stage while the orchestra plays.

10 Questions + One with Justin Paul and Benj Pasek

1. Where do you find inspiration?

Justin Paul (JP)—As a person? From my wife -- I don't think I could do what I do without her. And from my amazingly supportive family -- my dad, mom, brother, but also my grandparents, aunts and uncles, the whole lot of them -- they are all my heroes. Truly. And creatively, I suppose I find it in other artists who are passionately driven and insanely talented. I've been lucky enough to work with some people who are true geniuses at what they do, and it is humbling and inspiring in so many ways. And while I'm on the subject of inspiration, I gain so much of it from my faith, my spiritual beliefs. Whenever I'm feeling empty, I know I can always fill up on God.

Benj Pasek (BP) —Sitting in coffee shops and observing people. I love wondering why they do what they do, think what they think and say what they say.

2. Which artist’s work do you most admire and why?

JP—One single artist? I could never pin down one! In terms of musical theatre writing, I'd say the old cliché of worshipping Stephen Sondheim. That's definitely true for me. But there's actually a few other songwriters/arrangers that I would say have been so influential on my feelings towards music, and on writing music, that I truly admire them the most. Stevie Wonder -- possibly the greatest songwriter in the past 50 years or more. And there's a lesser-known guy, a guy by the name of Rob Mathes, who is a music director/arranger/pianist/songwriter/vocalist. He's insane. I want to grow up to be him. I sit and listen to his music and one half of me wants to go out and write a symphony. The other half wants to go into dentistry.

BP—Those who expose the ugly, beautiful and fascinating parts of themselves and their larger world through their work.

3. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JP—Well, I didn't know Rob Mathes at the time, so it wasn't him. I always thought I'd end up as a lawyer or politician. All the way up to my senior year of high school, I was looking at colleges to go to where I could do some kind of pre-law work. I was always fascinated by the legal system, by our government, and I was one of the thousands of kids who thought he could be president one day. Or at least vice president.

BP—I'm still trying figure that out… but maybe I'll be a fireman one day, or a figure skater.

4. Who is your real life hero and why?

JP—I said it earlier -- but I'll say it again: my family. My wife, who is the most solid, dependable, creative, brilliant person I've ever met. I'm astonished by her every day. And my parents—they were strong but not demanding, unconditionally supportive of what I wanted to pursue, and they modeled a way of living that I'm still striving to achieve. They passed down traditions of faith and morality that I'm so thankful for. They are my heroes... because at the end of the day all that life stuff is a heck of a lot more important than writing show tunes, right?

BP—My mom and dad. They taught me to see what could be rather than what is.

5. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

JP—Well, I'm hoping that I haven't achieved it yet! But thus far, I'm really proud of the scores we've written, and of the collaboration and friendship Benj and I have formed as writing partners. But as far as accomplishment goes -- it's up to my wife. If she says I have been a good husband, then that would really be the greatest accomplishment I could claim so far in my life. Being a good husband, being a good father. Those are my goals in terms of accomplishments. Only time will tell.

BP—Surviving middle school

6. What is your idea of perfect happiness?

JP—Perfect happiness is living where I can see the water, being in a funk band that plays at local clubs just for fun, having a happy home and happy family, and writing musicals that mean something to people. Aaahhh…

BP—Eating Thai food and playing running charades with the people I love.

7. What do you most fear?

JP—Drowning. Not pursuing opportunities aggressively enough. Running out of ideas.

BP—Crocodiles, serial killers, and falling short of personal goals.

8. What is the trait you love most about yourself?

JP—While it makes me a somewhat intolerable person, I really enjoy the organization and structure of my life. I like that I make to-do lists practically every day, and I have my entire life scheduled in my iPhone, which immediately and remotely syncs to both of my computers. I'm happy to be a hyper-structured person. It just makes living with me a very difficult task.

BP—My spontaneity.

9. What is the trait you hate most about yourself?

JP—I hate that I cannot stop eating cookies and pies and cupcakes. I really, really hate it. I have the most horrible sweet tooth, the most awful gluttonous spirit when it comes to food and dessert. And I know I'm doing something wrong, there is just this place deep within me that demands more and more. It's absolutely an addiction.

BP—Being disorganized. I'm working on that though...

10. What is your most treasured possession?

JP—Three things: 1) This one isn't actually mine... it's my parents' baby grand piano. I like to think we share it; it just permanently lives at their house. But it was at this piano where I spent a large portion of my childhood. 2) I have a collection of notes, cards, and sweet messages my wife has left me since the time we first started dating. I cherish these. 3) My Bible. While it's certainly true that I don't read it enough, I could never live without it.

BP—Old photo albums.

11. What do you love most about musical theater?

JP—I love the storytelling and I love the invitation to suspend the rules we've lived by for just a few hours and transport to a different world. The coolest thing about musical theater is that every story we see up on the stage is ours -- it resonates, it relates, it reminds of something or someone from our own life. And yet we don't realize because we're watching something magical and out of this world. Characters sing big productions, giant sets move on and offstage, animals come to life, magic is real -- and we buy it all. Because we know that underneath it all is a story that feels as natural and familiar to us as the conversation we had yesterday with a friend or the journal entry we wrote last night. I love being deceived into thinking I'm watching something other-worldly, but then reminding myself that it couldn't be more like my life.

BP—That you get to capture memories and stories in songs.

Watch the video below to hear a portion of the song "Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana", written by Pasek and Paul.

Memories of Jean Shepherd by -Lorraine McConaghy, Professor of Museum Studies, University of Washington

Jean Sheperd. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah (above)

As a girl my transistor radio – a pale beige plastic box with rounded edges – first opened nighttime worlds to me. My Uncle Charles, a dashing bachelor, drove out to our tract house in northern New Jersey each Christmas from his New York apartment. Even as a child, I saw his sophistication, his polished and urbane contrast to my parents. And he always gave me Christmas gifts I really wanted. One year, it was a subscription to Seventeen magazine. Another year, a gift certificate to Bloomingdale’s. Each year, each gift, my mother frowned and shook her head. But finally, in 1959, I unwrapped my own transistor radio, with the batteries already installed, and took my transistorized Nutcracker to my little pink bedroom and closed the door. In the Christmas afternoon’s deepening twilight, with snow drifting past the window, I began to explore the world through my radio. Those parts of the world, at least, that boasted a strong enough signal. It was great. I learned that there were alternatives to our drab suburban life of meatloaf, layoffs and property taxes.
I especially liked listening to the radio after dark, in my bed – the house was still, my imagination worked better and so did the reception. I pressed my face to the transistor radio on my pillow, so that my mom wouldn’t hear that I was still awake, listening to “that damn thing.” Occasionally, I could get stations from Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Wheeling, West Virginia – I’d hold my breath so I could hear better. I heard my first gospel, my first jazz, my first folk music. But radio was much more than music. I also heard my first John Birch Society member, my first Marxist, my first holy roller. And, boy, did I listen. My transistor radio opened the world for me.
My first great AM radio love was Jean Shepherd, who broadcast out of a New York studio on WOR. I stumbled on him, just cycling through the stations, and after that, I listened to Shep’s show every night. He seemed to be speaking just to me, in the dark, over the transistor radio, creating an extemporaneous and magical story. I thought of him much differently as a kid than I do now. Jean Shepherd was a brilliant American humorist and writer, a gifted monologist, an uncompromising social critic and a Renaissance man of many skills and interests. But back then, he was just Shep. He had grown up in Hammond, Indiana, and remembered the town, its people and himself with penetrating insight.
Shep began so many radio stories, “So I’m this kid, see…,” and his voice was warm and confiding. And then he would weave a story before the eyes of my imagination – his mom stirring a pot in the stove wearing her rump-sprung chenille robe, his dad doing battle with the coal-fired furnace, his kid brother sobbing quietly under the kitchen sink, his teacher Miss Shields, the neighborhood bully Scut Farkus, and his pals Flick, Bruner and Schwartz. Shep invoked Ovaltine promos, a guy’s batting average, freezing your tongue to a metal pole on a triple-dog dare, gazing at the allure of a lamp modeled as a woman’s leg, ads from Popular Mechanics – “Do you really know any popular mechanics?”, he would ask, “I mean, really? Are there any, anywhere?” And then he would chuckle, a deeply amused and knowing rumble. He moved easily back and forth between being a kid and being a grownup, exploring the mutually incomprehensible terrain. Shep could convince me that a Red Ryder BB gun was a kid’s holy grail, and that grownups just didn’t get it. “You’ll shoot your eye out!”, they all said, foolishly. But there it was, under the Christmas tree. As a kid myself, I felt liberated by Shep’s triumph but, after all, his dad did buy the gun for him and he nearly did shoot his eye out. Life, I learned from Shep, was nicely complicated.
Jean Shepherd was a satirist who mined his own life to develop his art, and his humor was benevolent and wise, endearing and enduring. And so we are drawn to the gentle satire of “A Christmas Story,” which Shep was working on in his monologues when I began listening to him in 1959, on my little transistor radio. For all of us, Jean Shepherd is the voice of our childhood and somehow, also, the voice of our adulthood. We see both, through his eyes, and we just have to smile and shake our heads.

Adapted from “Waves and Signals: Greenwich Village and Jean Shepherd,” originally published in Humanities Washington’s Port, 1999, with many thanks to Humanities Washington.