Quaint Past

Each holiday season, Lamb’s Players presents an annual Christmas show at its resident theater and a three-hour extravaganza, An American Christmas, at the Hotel del Coronado. Set 100 years ago, the program for American Christmas includes music, dance, recitals, and a five-course meal (the entrée: filet mignon and prawns). The festive event promotes cheer and banishes negative thoughts. Since it isn’t a drama, and since many readers would be unable to afford the tickets, I decided to report, rather than review, the evening: a living time capsule of America a century ago.

From the air, Coronado in 1908 looked like a pair of beige-tinted glasses, the right lens larger and more pointed at the bottom than the left. Coronado was two islands, linked by a slender isthmus. In between was Spanish Bight, a shallow bay brimming with sand sharks. North Island was mostly sage and scrub (the first plane wouldn’t take off until January 23, 1910). Guests of the Hotel del rode a bridal path or hunted quail and rabbit.

The southern island was growing fast. The Coronado Country Club, at the west end of Sixth Avenue, had a polo field, one-mile track, stables, and a golf course (where L. Frank Baum played nine holes after writing his Oz books all morning). John D. Spreckels built his “villa,” now the Glorietta Bay Inn, on a bluff across from the Hotel del. His architect, Harrison Albright, later designed Coronado’s city library, the distinctive, wedgelike Coronado Bank Building, the Spreckels theater building, and Balboa Park’s Organ Pavilion.

In the “story” for the Lamb’s event, the Marshall family has a reunion every Christmas at the Hotel del. Members are as diverse as the country. They greet you in the Grand Ballroom. Six huge, oval chandeliers, their teardrop crystals dangling like wind chimes, loom over 40 tables. Above the conical-shaped roof sits the hotel’s trademark pergola and flag. It takes no effort to go back in time. Combine the round, spacious ballroom with Jeanne Reith’s array of period costumes, and you’re already there.

Deborah Gilmour Smyth, her hair done up à la 1908 (with curls drooping like the crystals overhead), plays Willa Ray Marshall, the party’s gracious, ebullient hostess. Smyth’s real-life husband Robert, who wrote and directed the show, plays Ian O’Casey, the host and one-man vaudeville routine as eager to tell a joke as find a match for his daughter Fiona (Erika Beth Phillips). At one point, Ian proposes a toast: “Champagne to our real friends, and real pain to our sham friends.”

The Smyths head a cast of 30. Compared to most local theater, American Christmas has de Mille–like proportions, and yet it’s always intimate and personal. In a way, this is the exact opposite of watching a performance on a

proscenium stage. In the ballroom, it’s theater-in-the-surround: the audience sits in the center, and the cast performs on the perimeter, along with waiting tables and interacting with patrons. Often the songs and live musicians create a stereophonic effect, near and far, and on several sides of you. (It’s a treat to have singers at your shoulder, rather than hearing them miked, say, 15 rows away.)

To acquaint us with the year, performers announce significant events of 1908 like newspaper headlines: the invention of the paper cup, a Model T Ford costing $850, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid killed in Bolivia. For sports fans, the Chicago Cubs won their second straight World Series — “a sign of many more to come,” says a newspaper account. (Later in the program, cast members sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” written in 1908.) In the more-things-change department: the stock market had a serious slump in 1908, resulting in a financial crisis that makes the Marshall family wary.

The family doesn’t linger long over that news, however (they have 364 other days to do that). Instead, after the entrée, the production turns up the theatricality. The cast does a barn dance, a waltz (to Juventino Rosas’s “Sobre las Olas”), and even swings to Scott Joplin’s “Lily Queen Rag,” which would have been an eyebrow-raising, risqué choice in those days.

A 25-person choir and barbershop quartet sing traditional songs from the period (“Harvest Moon,” “Cuddle Up a Little Closer”) and Christmas carols. The Water Glass Orchestra plays an ethereal “We Three Kings” by rubbing wet fingers on the rims of large wine glasses filled with varying amounts of liquid. Framed by baskets of poinsettias, Dina Valdez and Chanlon Jay Kaufman sing the beautiful “La Flor de Noche Buena,” a song from Mexican folklore about a handful of weeds, picked by a little girl on her way to Bethlehem, that transform into poinsettias at the Nativity.

By the end of the spirited production, you feel as if you’ve spent the evening inside a cornucopia of historical detail: here is how people dressed, danced, sang, and felt 100 years ago. Comparisons to today are inevitable, and the past often seems quaint, the problems smaller, in hindsight. But just as one begins to feel older and wiser, the question arises: What headlines will the Marshalls report, come Christmas 2108?

FIELD NOTES: For more on architect Harrison Albright, see Cynthia B. Malinick, “Classicism and Concrete: Harrison Albright’s Architectural Contributions to Coronado,” Journal of San Diego History, spring 1997, vol. 43, number two (online at sdhistory.org/journal); Wikipedia also has an entry.

An American Christmas, by Robert Smyth
Lamb’s Players Theatre, Hotel del Coronado ballroom, 1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Robert Smyth; scenic design, Jane Lamott, Evelyn Peirson; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Chris Givens; musical director, Charlie Reuter; choreographer, Colleen Kollar Smith
Playing through December 28; nightly (except Christmas) at 6:30 p.m. 619-437-0600.

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