“Christmas Is” Excerpt

Chapter 3
Forget Dorothy


Broadway—the name shared by one of New York’s major thoroughfares and its world-renowned theater district—held a special lure for Franklin as a child. At night the colored lights, the marquees, and the larger-than-life images mesmerized him as they hinted at the magic within its grand theaters. But in the harsh light of day, the evening sparkle gave way to the reality that human hands wrought the razzle-dazzle of all the theaters; except the Haberman, especially at Christmastime. Even in broad daylight, the Beaux-Arts theater glittered like a jewel box wrought by artisans of light and magic.

“Christmas Is” book cover.
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His cab snaked its way uptown and turned off 8th Avenue and onto 46th Street. He hadn’t been to the Haberman in a few years. Would it still look the same? Would he recognize it at all? He took in the view. After all that time, 46th Street felt the same, but it looked different.

“Which side you want to get out on?” the cab driver asked.

“The right. Here’s good,” Franklin said and pulled a move rarely executed by New Yorkers: he stepped out of his cab—lugging his bankers box—on the side of the street opposite his destination. The view of the Haberman from across the street was better than he imagined. 

Atop the awning that covered the theater’s entrance, rested a whimsical tableau that rivaled the most sophisticated department store windows. In it, a whimsical gathering of Santa, Mrs. Claus, gingerbread men, a couple of reindeer, and fantastic toys to shame the most prolific toymaker, skated on a frozen lake. Above it all, floated a gigantic red ribbon with the words Christmas Is in twinkling gold lights.

As he approached the theater, the smell of fresh cut pine trees and peppermint filled his lungs. The producers piped in the scents in the hopes of sending a subliminal message to theater patrons that yes, the Haberman Theatre was Santa’s official home away from home for the Christmas season. 

The “Opening Friday” banner hanging underneath the awning drew Franklin and the other patrons in. He queued up at the Will Call window, claimed his tickets, and followed the stream of people entering the theater for the preview performance.

•  •  •

With a ten-thirty arrival for an eleven o’clock curtain, Franklin had a little time to review the agency’s books before his meeting with Sandy. He found a seat in a quiet corner in one of the theater’s lounges and read through old records written in his father’s hand.

One particular book caught Franklin’s eye; a time-worn, leather-bound journal with a masking tape label on the front with the words Client Roster scrawled on it. Franklin thumbed through the pages of actors Rudy represented over the thirty-eight years of his career.

It came as no surprise to Franklin to find that his father kept an alphabetized list of actors names and phone numbers, but the accompanying birthdates, signing dates, and departure dates threw him for a loop. Franklin assumed “departure date” referred to the date his father’s clients left for representation with another agency. He noted only a small percentage of the actors actually parted ways with his father, and as indicated by the word “back” followed by the date, many of those returned.

Rudy separated his clients into two categories: Day Players & Background and Principals. Over the years, Franklin made a conscious effort to avoid involving himself in his father’s business unless Rudy brought up an issue to him, but he was familiar enough with the entertainment industry to know the difference between the two. Day players and background players, more colloquially known as extras, were performers without speaking lines hired at a lower pay rate to populate scenes on a daily basis and their counterparts, principal actors, received scads more camera time, speaking lines, and money. Instead of having an equal mix of both extras and principal actors, Rudy’s client roster consisted of  ninety-six day players and background players, and only three principal actors: Helen Trimble, Bill Willis, and Judy McPhee.

Franklin took out his phone and crunched numbers. At first glance, Franklin expected the earnings of ninety-six extras to far exceed that of the three principals given that they worked more, but this was not the case. Based on the previous year’s totals, the principal actors’ income exceeded that of the extras. Franklin wrinkled knitted his brows. Just to be sure, he worked the numbers a second time only to arrive at the same end. The combined commissions from the principals and extras would provide enough income to bring his monthlies current and give him a little breathing room through the end of the year. And if Franklin found a buyer to take the agency off his hands he could then open his own financial advising firm in January. 

Franklin loaded the books back into the box.

But before he took a step, a nondescript man in an ill-fitting suit rushed up to him. “Ben Franklin Albright?” Suit man asked.

“Yes?” Franklin questioned.

Before he knew it, suit man handed him an envelope with FINAL NOTICE rubber stamped on it in crimson ink. “From your condo association. Court proceedings begin in thirty days.” The process server disappeared as quickly as he came.

The reality of losing his home loomed six degrees closer. 

Franklin headed to the theater’s concession stand.

From fancy natural mineral water, to sodas, to espresso drinks, to hard liquor, honey-roasted nuts, nachos, and everything in between, the Haberman concession stands were a veritable smorgasbord. Franklin hopped in line.

The first movie Rudy took Franklin to see in a theater was Home Alone. While the movie was one of his all-time favorites, the most memorable part of the experience for Franklin was the trip to the concession stand where father and son began the practice of ordering Cokes and a single bucket of popcorn bigger than both their heads. The habit brought a smile to Franklin’s face every time. 

The Lion King was the first Broadway show he attended with his father, but father and son made it only as far as the concession stand before Rudy’s then state of the art flip phone vibrated. 

“Albright,” Rudy said into the phone. Franklin felt his father’s grip relax a little. Once again one of their special moments had been cut short. “They want you to do what? No client of mine does that, not for that price. I’m on the way.”

Franklin lived through a similar scenarios a number of times and there were only two possible outcomes. Either Franklin would be shuttled back home to stay with neighbors while Rudy took care of business or he’d be dragged off to some TV or movie set with his father.

Rudy kneeled beside Franklin, lifting his son’s chin. “Franklin, I’m sorry,” Rudy started.

“But, pop,” Franklin pleaded.

“I’ve got to keep food on the table, son.” Rudy peered deep into his son’s eyes. His heart broke at having to disappoint Franklin. “Look, why don’t you see the show without me and you can tell me what I missed when I get back. How’s that?”  

Franklin went quiet.

Rudy stuffed some cash into Franklin’s hands and called over his shoulder to Franklin as he rushed off. “I’ll be back before you know I’m gone. I promise.”

The concessioner asked, “What’s it going to be today?”

Franklin was lost in his memories when the cashier repeated his question a second time. “What’s it going to be today, sir?”

He hesitated for a moment. With eggs Benedict in his stomach, there was no room for a barrel of popcorn. Besides, it probably wouldn’t make a good impression on Sandy.

“The espresso. I’ll have a double espresso,” he said. “Can you throw some mocha in there, too?”

“Sure,” the cashier said while pulling the espresso shots.

Based on the numbers, Franklin would have to cut overhead wherever he could, with the biggest savings coming from eliminating staff. Now he was having conflicting thoughts about Sandy. Hopefully, she wouldn’t be too likable. That’d make letting her go all the more difficult.

The overhead lights flashed, signaling that the show would begin shortly. Franklin checked his seat assignment, paid the cashier, and tucked everything back into his coat pocket. 

Somewhere between setting the drink on top of his bankers box and turning around to head to his seat, Franklin tripped over his feet, lost his balance, and tumbled into the woman behind him in line. He managed to keep control of the box, but the double café mocha splashed all over the front of the woman’s white trench coat. The resulting splatter very much resembled the silhouette of a reindeer head with a set of eight-point antlers.

The woman was mortified, and so was Franklin.

“SERIOUSLY?!” the woman said at the top of her lungs.

“I’m so sorry! I’m really sorry,” Franklin said, scrambling to scoop up the cup and lid from the ground. Somebody handed him a handful of paper napkins. He dabbed at the coffee on the woman’s coat.

“What are you doing?!” she said, outraged that a stranger would touch her torso under those circumstances. Tears welled in her eyes.

Franklin realized his double faux pas. He wanted to be any­­place but where he stood. “Look, I’m running late. I’ve got someplace to be and someone to meet,” he said. He placed the napkins in her open hands and left her for his meeting with Sandy as fast as he could. “I’m sorry! I really am.”

•  •  •

The auditorium of the Haberman Theatre boasted a shimmering crystal chandelier, ceiling murals, columns, and statuary; all the trappings of a 1920s movie cathedral. A butt sat in every seat along Franklin’s row, except for two seats near the middle. He surmised one was for himself, and the other for Sandy Fox. Still rattled by the espresso debacle, but relieved to be there before the start of the show, Franklin worked his way past the seated patrons. With his bankers box.

“Excuse me. Coming through,” Franklin said. “Pardon me. Thank you. Lovely scarf. Did someone make that for you? Excuse me. Thanks.” He took his seat. Sandy Fox was due to arrive any minute.

He looked over his shoulder and peered at the woman from the concession stand treading down the aisle with her coat folded over her arm. He scrunched down in his chair so as not to be seen and struck up a conversation with the person seated next to him.

The woman with the coat worked her way down his row, nimbly squeezing past patrons and saying, “excuse me,” along the way. Franklin recognized her voice. 

In the few minutes before opening curtain, he didn’t have time to offer a proper apology, much less a proper introduction. Perhaps he could say how sorry he was again, as a stranger, to take the edge off her anger before she realized who he was.

He turned to her and said, “Hi. Mind if I join you?”

She looked at him askance. “Yes, I’m waiting for someone.”

“Could I wait till he arrives?”

“No,” the woman said, growing more impatient. “I really need you to leave.”

“But I’d like to talk to you for just a minute,” Franklin said.

“Yeah, that’s not happening.” She heaved a heavy sigh and then turned. “I’m leaving.”

“What about your friend?” Franklin asked.

“You can explain to him why I left. Enjoy the show,” she said and worked her way back to the aisle.

To Franklin’s disappointment, she walked up the aisle, pulled out her phone, and exited the theater. He felt like a jerk for what happened. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He fished it out and read a new text message —

Unable to make it. Personal emergency. See you at the office afterwards?

Franklin felt even worse, but he would straighten it all out later. He messaged back —

I understand. See you then.

The orchestra played a medley of well-known Christmas standards and carols. The house lights dimmed. The audience members reined in their excitement, ready to behold the splendor of Christmas Is. Franklin was eager to see the talents of two of his father’s clients performing as Santa and Mrs. Claus.

The Austrian curtain rose to reveal a forest of snow-covered trees. A chorus line of tall female dancers, dressed in sparkling white leotards with enormous translucent snowflakes invisibly strapped to their bodies, flitted across the stage creating geometric patterns. Other dancers, dressed in Currier & Ives costumes, cavorted among the snowflakes. Everyone celebrated the fullness of winter. 

A tantalizing gingerbread house rolled onto stage right. A couple of snowmen knocked on the peppermint door and sang their request for its residents to come out and join the fun.

Santa and Mrs. Claus exited the gingerbread house and entered arm in arm to thunderous applause. The two cooed the lyrics to “Winter Wonderland” as they strolled among the snowflakes and Currier & Ives couples. 

The entire stage flowed and ebbed to the music. Gigantic snow-covered mechanical trees began to sway to the music and move across the stage.

Then it happened.

The sickening thud. Followed by the sound of grinding metal. Helen Trimble, Mrs. Claus, squealed, and disappeared from sight.

An audible gasp rose from the audience.

“Are you freaking kidding me?!” Franklin yelled at no one in particular. He stood on his seat to get a better view.

There, centerstage, for all the world to see—

Mrs. Claus lay flat on her back while her red skirt, red and white striped leggings, and holly-accented shoes stuck out from under the massive, gingerbread house that now obscured the upper half of her body from the audience. Everyone on stage froze with terror as they stared at the visible half of Mrs. Claus. The strains of “Winter Wonderland” faded away. In the silence, Santa ran off the stage shrieking in a voice much higher than anyone would assume possible for a man of his stature.

Mrs. Claus’s slightly muffled voice came from under the house. “Hello? I’m all right … but could someone call an ambulance? Please.”

The curtain slowly came down on both the stage.

Still with his bankers box, Franklin climbed past seated patrons in his row and ran for the stage. So many thoughts raced through his mind. One of which was, I am living The Wizard of Oz. The scene on the stage oddly resembled Dorothy Gale’s unannounced arrival in the land somewhere over the rainbow. Franklin would have sold all the pizza in New York to swap lives with that silly girl from Kansas in that moment. She had ruby slippers, Glenda the Good Witch of the North, a scarecrow, a man made of tin, and a cowardly lion. She had tons of help. Now the agency had only one commissionable client in the show and he still had months of back due monthly maintenance fees, no job, and there was no Glenda in sight. He hated that movie. Forget Dorothy.

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