If you’re enjoying live music, theater, dance, and local clubs this holiday season, give a tip of the Santa hat to the folks who make it possible.
By FORT WORTH WEEKLY STAFF
As a young man in Ireland, Matt McEntire sometimes made the rounds of bars on Christmas Eve with his friends, stopping just long enough to get the traditional free drink at each place before moving on. So he’s OK with customers who do that at the pubs he’s run over the years in Fort Worth – the Blarney Stone, McEntire’s, and the Shamrock – where he continued the tradition.
That first free drink “is my Christmas gift” to the folks who keep him in business, McEntire said, and his homage to those pubs back in Ireland that were a major part of the holiday tradition. They were closed on Christmas Day itself but on Christmas Eve were the places where everyone in town went to eat, drink, listen to music, and celebrate with their neighbors.
Around Tarrant County, this year as every year, actors and musicians, bartenders and belly dancers are working their way through the Christmas season, giving us the emotional equivalent of those Irish pubs while we shop, take time off, make the rounds of holiday parties, entertain relatives, and hit the clubs and theaters. For some in the entertainment and service businesses, it’s the busiest time of the year – and the most lucrative. Some work on Christmas Eve because they drew the short straw; others, like McEntire, are there because handing out spirits is part of the spirit of the season, so to speak. And increasingly, Fort Worth is providing alternative entertainment options for the huddled masses of Christmas revelers who are yearning to break free of mall crowds, canned carols, and, yes, sometimes, the house guests.
So we checked in with some local characters to put together a Cowtown Christmas Carol of sorts, to tell the stories of the folks who are out their jingling their bells for us, complete with Scientology, Dickensian cheer, and ghosts of Grandmas past. When you’re out on the town this week, consider buying a round for those professional merrymakers in this neck of the woods.
For the past five holiday seasons, North Texas booking agency Spune Productions has put on “A Spune Christmas,” a rock concert/gift giveaway that takes place in both Fort Worth and Denton (but not simultaneously). Spune owner Lance Yocom said he started the alt-music Christmas event because he felt the need to close out the year in a big way.
At this year’s Fort Worth party, at the Longhorn in the Stockyards, a couple hundred people had donned their gayest apparel to nosh on free tacos, drink at happy-hour prices, and be regaled by performances by The Wood Brothers, Devil Doll, Telegraph Canyon, Josh Weathers Band, and Dirtfoot, among others. iTunes gift certificates, an iPod Shuffle, and an Xbox 360 were given away.
In the Denton event, a legion of Decem-bearded scenesters descended upon the town’s coziest joint, Hailey’s, for the Spune Christmas party on a recent Saturday. A quick count revealed that three out of every four males sported facial hair, from the wispy Johnny Depp fu-manchu to neck-bearded Karl Marx look-alikes. “It keeps your face warm,” one attendee said. Likewise, the majority of the (mostly male) musicians on stage were rocking the beard or at least the deliberate stubble.
Free tacos, chips, beans, and salsa disappeared quickly, and hot wassail punch (with rum added on request) powered the evening. Two Christmas trees framed the stage, and a tangle of lights was spun around the club’s rafters and columns.
As band succeeded band, the bar grew increasingly crowded and the head- and face-gear more varied. Retro headwear appeared – cabbie hats, bowlers, and even what looked like a top hat made for a Dickensian scene, though more Oliver Twist than A Christmas Carol. The crowd peaked at around 100 just before Denton success-story Doug Burr, frontman for the Lonelies, pulled his stool onto the stage for his semi-solo set.
It was pretty much what Yocom intended. “Kind of like one of the best end-of-year office parties in town,” he explained.
Randy Brooks has played many a Christmastime gig with one band or another, but these days he plays only when he chooses. The North Texas songwriter moved out of the struggling musician category sometime after 1979, when a song he wrote in a couple of hours turned into a moneymaker that is still helping put his kids through college.
Christmas always brings surprises, along with royalties, for Brooks, whose “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” was first recorded by Elmo and Patsy in 1979. Each holiday season, Brooks is amazed and pleased by the various ways the song is marketed.
He figured the “punch line would be over after people had heard it a few times,” but he’s been garnering royalty payments for three decades from sheet music, Christmas CDs, movies, an animated TV special, and an endless array of specialty toys that sing the song.
“Sometimes they sell a quarter million of these toys a year,” he said.
A copyright administrator in Nashville licenses the song’s use. Rarely does Brooks know in advance which items will be marketed, but he starts seeing them pop up in November and December. Already this year, he’s seen “Grandma” toys at Wal-Mart and Home Depot, and the song is included on We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year, a CD featuring an all-star lineup of rockers from Motörhead, Kiss, Foo Fighters, Black Sabbath, Ratt, and others. The animated special from 2000 aired again on Dec. 5, and just a few nights ago Brooks was watching TV and saw the “Grandma” music video on NBC’s Greatest Holiday Moments: Songs of the Season Countdown.
“Clearly I must be the luckiest kid on the block,” he said. “I spent a couple of hours throwing together a song to get some cheap laughs in a bar and unknowingly started an industry.”
And here’s a first – this year, a California-based toymaker is releasing a plush toy that sings Brooks’ “Percy the Puny Poinsettia,” the flip side to “Grandma” on Elmo and Patsy’s 45 rpm record.
“Never overestimate the taste of the public,” he said.
Tarrant County theaters didn’t heed Brooks’ advice this year. The 2008 holiday theater season in these parts has been distinguished by two trends: a willingness to take risks with fresh DELETEs rather than staging reliable cash cows and an abundance of backstage drama to accompany those premieres.
Two companies that put the kibosh on Scrooge and sugarplum fairies were Theatre Arlington and Circle Theatre. While TA’s friendly, family-oriented Fruitcakes and Circle’s edgier A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant are very different animals, both offer unknown fare rather than the comfortably familiar – a gamble, at a time when the economy is lurching under ticketbuyers’ feet.
“We have five or six different shows in repertory that we can program during the holidays,” said B.J. Cleveland, artistic director of Theatre Arlington and director of Fruitcakes. They include It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story. “But everyone knows them so well that if I scheduled A Christmas Story, audiences might say, ‘That show again?’ even if the last time we produced it was five years ago.”
Cleveland feels some pressure this time of year to put on his best, rather than his most reliable, material. “Holiday shows are the only time all year that a lot of people will go to the theater,” he said. “So that’s our best chance to hook them and bring them back.”
Hence his decision to offer the regional debut of Julian Wiles’ white-trash heart-warmer Fruitcakes, about a boy who runs away from home and encounters a small Southern town full of oddballs, including an angler who recites T.S. Eliot to the fish (he figures it’ll bore them to death) and a nativity pageant where the kids fight over the baby Jesus doll. Fruitcakes represents other firsts for Theatre Arlington – it has their largest cast (21 actors) and contains the most prop-intensive demands ever, including 40-odd fake fruitcakes and 11 Christmas trees that need to be moved between scenes.
Backstage at a recent sold-out matinee, the proceedings were deceptively calm. The costumed child actors, cheerful but quiet, milled around in angel wings made of feathers, oversized knitted mufflers and tall red hats with gold tinsel. They sat on couches or stood shifting from foot to foot, waiting for their entrance cues. A nearby refrigerator was frequently raided for soft drinks or bottled water.
One young man – long-haired, a little more brooding than the others – stood apart in sneakers and a denim jacket. Carson Ingle, 14, has the biggest role. He plays the boy who runs away after quarreling with his father, who has left the family. The resemblance between actor and role was not lost on him: This month marked the one-year anniversary of the divorce of Carson’s parents. He has “stupid fights” with his own father, who moved out of the house before the divorce proceedings.
“I’ve done plays all my life at school and church,” he said. “I want to get into movies. But since I got older and started doing parts at bigger theaters, my dad isn’t happy. He wants me to do something more … athletic.”
“I’d never run away [like the character],” he said. “But sometimes I think my dad’s given up on me.” The line turned out to be a quote from the show. His character Jamie told the Christmas-tree seller Mack Morgan: “Sometimes I think my dad’s given up on me.”
Morgan is played by Burl Proctor, who Cleveland said is his go-to person whenever a DELETE demands a “wise old man” character. The 67-year-old is a retired Air Force pilot and Vietnam veteran. During his overseas career, he performed around Germany as part of the community theater arm of the military. He eventually settled in the tiny town of Dodd City, Texas, about a mile east of Bonham. Though he loves small-town living, Proctor can’t be cured of the stage bug he caught in the military. Since 1996, he has averaged about six shows a year in different North Texas community theaters. Theatre Arlington is his favorite, even though the trip from Dodd City to Arlington is about 99 miles each way.
“I learn my lines by recording them on tape,” said Proctor. “I listen to the tape driving back and forth from rehearsals.” The long drive is sometimes more eventful than the chore of memorizing lines would suggest. Proctor could hardly believe what he encountered late one night while driving home from a recent rehearsal. “I hit a herd of wild boars. I killed about six of them. It took $1,600 to fix the body damage on my truck.”
Standing near Proctor, her hands clasped and her head tilted to the high ceiling, was Vandi Clark, who plays the mean-spirited, Jack Daniels-swilling Miss Sara. Clark has one of those great intense faces etched by the best and worst of life’s experiences. The 63-year-old has a long resume of area stage, TV, and film work, including Semi-Tough, Barney’s Rhyme Time Rhythm, and, most notably, the beloved 1980 PBS adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s sci-fi novel The Lathe of Heaven. (Cultists will recognize Clark as Aunt Ethel in that movie.)
Fruitcakes is the first play she’s done in 22 years. Day jobs and work in front of the camera occupied Clark until 1999, when her husband was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “He had smoked four packs a day, though he quit almost 20 years [before his death],” she said. His was a gradual and painful decline that took more than six years. Clark was his primary caretaker for the last three.
The decision to return to stage acting after a two-decade absence was, she said, “about deciding where my first love was. I had to exorcise some demons” before she came back – demons she declines to specify – “but it was like a homecoming. I studied theater in college. My parents met while they were building sets for a play.”
She had some problems memorizing her lines for the Theatre Arlington show, but other than that everything feels right behind the footlights. “Theater is about the joy of giving,” she said. “Actors have the opportunity to help audiences forget about their troubles. That’s our driving force.”
All the backstage intrigue at Circle Theatre’s A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant began early with the casting and rehearsal process. Director Jaime Castañeda had to confront the possibility of displeasing two powerful forces: the Church of Scientology and the parents of his eight cast members ages 10 to 14.
Scientology Pageant began as an Off-Broadway smash that satirized holiday school pageants. The show walks a fine, sometimes creepy line between exposing the ludicrousness of L. Ron Hubbard’s intergalactic teachings and appearing to embrace them. Castañeda talked to the show’s creator, Kyle Jarrow, for input on the Circle production.
“He told me that theaters in New York and Los Angeles [that staged Pageant] both got bullying phone calls from Scientologists,” said Castañeda. “And some parents of cast members were getting calls at home.” There were no explicit threats, just vague “You should reconsider doing this play” remarks. They ultimately came to nothing.
Circle Theatre and its cast experienced no such intimidation. But as Castañeda began casting the show, the theater offices did receive a few calls and e-mails from concerned parents of kids who auditioned, essentially saying, “I don’t want my child to become a Scientologist.” Castañeda had already worked with many of the Pageant cast members on theater pieces at Kids Who Care, so he was acquainted with their families. Still, he had to offer official disclaimers that neither he nor anyone at Circle Theatre had a hidden Scientological agenda.
At one point, the director did get a little nervous. During the show, the cast members parade across the stage flashing copies of Hubbard’s novels as if they were hawking them. During downtime at the rehearsals, he saw bored kids flipping through the books and waiting for their turn onstage.
“A thought crossed my mind that was like, ‘What if these kids are picking up Scientology on their own?’ ” Castañeda said, chuckling. “I had this picture of parents taking turns strangling me.”
By the close of the show’s run, there were no reports of cast members spouting Dianetics dogma to their friends and family. Scientology Pageant turned out to be a big hit for Circle Theatre, drawing in younger adult audiences who appreciate the show’s Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert type of stinging satire.
There’s no satire in handbell ringing. Strong wrists? Yes. Hearing damage? Maybe. But if there’s any group of musicians for whom Christmas truly is the season, it’s these folks.
“We’re all handbell fanatics,” said Karen Thompson, founder and current president of Concert Bells of Fort Worth. The choir has recorded a CD and, for the 10th season running, is in the midst of its busiest time of year, playing mostly traditional Christmas carols to crowds averaging 200 people, at churches, libraries, and community centers. Their schedule is limited by that fact that everybody in the group has day jobs – and the choir can’t perform unless all 14 members are there.
The work they get at Christmas “lets us play all year long,” Thompson said. In other seasons, they perform concerts of secular music written specifically for handbell groups.
Handbell ringing isn’t exactly fraught with the dangers of, say, hard-rock music or playing for tough crowds at country music bars, but it does have its stresses. Hearing damage can be a problem, especially for those who are handling or standing next to the smaller, higher-pitched bells. Concert Bells’ ringers don’t wear earplugs, but some musicians in other handbell groups do.
“We do warm-up exercises,” Thompson said. “Some ringers don’t ring in healthy ways. … You want to avoid hyperextending the wrists and shoulders. You don’t want to clench.”
Christmas Hafla. OK, you non-Arabic speakers, go ahead and take a guess. No, it’s not a traditional Polish dish that your immigrant granny used to make. How about “Christmas dance party” – as in “belly dancers”?
Every year, Fort Worth’s Crescent Moon Belly Dance Studio & Boutique presents its Christmas Hafla show at Orchestra Hall in the southwest part of town. About 30 local dancers participated this year.
There wasn’t much of a Christmas theme on the surface: a decorated tree in the lobby but no wreaths or lights on the stage. A live band played “Little Drummer Boy,” a wonderful version with a double-dulcimer and tablah (sort of an Arab version of bongos).
The dancers mixed the ancient with the modern. The younger ones, in their 20s, did a hip-hop mix, moving their feet and their hips while the lyrics to the song mentioned “booty” over and over. Nasim (all the dancers asked that only their stage names be used), as both a dancer and a snake charmer, performed with an albino boa snake. Louisa, one of the studio teachers, was nothing less than a Nubian princess. Dragonia danced in a cowboy hat and held a six-foot spear.
The Christmas hafla is a way for the belly dancers to stay in touch with one another and to present their art to friends and family as well as the public, in a season when the studio is closed and they are usually busy individually with performances. The dancers are of all ages and shapes and ethnic backgrounds. “It is very empowering for women, almost a spiritual thing, a celebration of beauty within ourselves and with all of the other dancers,” said Saphira.
A belly-dancing party might not seem a traditional Christmas event to outsiders, but there’s no denying its historical accuracy – it dates back a lot further than reindeer or jingle bells and to the right part of the world. “We can safely say that belly dancing predates the birth of Christ,” Saphira said.
For the first time in18 years, Matt McEntire isn’t actually running a pub in Fort Worth. (He’s preparing a new space for his old pub, the Blarney Stone, on Carroll Street, which should open in March.) But he’s still planning on spending some time at a bar on Christmas Eve, at Poag Mahone’s, the club run by his stepson and two partners in McEntire’s old Shamrock Pub space around the corner on West 7th Street.
Christmas Eve is for old friends. The crowds that night, he said, have a distinct character – shoppers, people who are all dressed up, and some customers he sees only on that night. “I look forward to it – a lot of them only come in once a year to see me,” he said. Many of those Christmas Eve regulars are Irish, but others “probably don’t understand what I’m saying” with his Irish accent.
His pubs have always operated on Christmas Day (“365 days a year,” he said), but opening at 6 p.m. rather than the usual 3 p.m. And the crowd on that day is very different, he said. “You get young people, people living on their own, people who don’t celebrate Christmas,” he said. He usually asks his unmarried male bartenders to work that day.
Some people like working that shift, he said – “It’s one of the biggest tipping nights, because people feel sorry for you.” He remembered that one bartender in particular, Mark Irving, loved working Christmas.
Irving agreed. He’s working in catering now but put out the word to the bar owners he knows that he’d be available for bartending on Christmas. As a single guy, he said, working on Christmas means “you’re letting [other bar employees] have … that one day in the year with their families.
“I always liked working it,” he continued. “You feel like people, after being with their families, they need that break, that release. … Christmas is a stressful season. You watch people go through stages. Starting in November, their moods are up and down.”
The tensions pile up as Christmas approaches, he said. “The whole week of Christmas, you see it coming to a head. … You kind of have to reach out to a lot of them, remind them that, hey, Christmas will pass, we can get through this together.”
Irving said he always feels like he’s doing a public service. “You’re helping them through the holidays, through rough waters,” he said. “It makes you feel part of something, too. It feels like community. And then January first comes, and you get back to life.”
Staff writers Jeff Prince, Jimmy Fowler, Dan McGraw, Kristian Lin, editors Gayle Reaves and Anthony Mariani, and freelance writer Pablo Lastra contributed to this report.