All the World's a Stage

Haul Out the Holly

I’ve recently learned that Madison Square Garden Entertainment will no longer have touring companies of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. This is bittersweet news to me because for six years I was blessed to have been a member of those touring companies. The people I worked with became friends and in some cases family. The memories, the life lessons learned about myself, others, and the world; the tears, the laughter, the relationships—I thank God for each and every one of them and you.

The decision has far-reaching ramifications for hundreds of people—production staff, cast, crew (road and local), and the people in the cities where the Christmas Spectacular toured. In honor of you, our relationships, memories, and the countless blessings I’ve received, here’s Chapter 14 Christmas Is, a recounting of my first season with the Christmas Spectacular from my book Walking Tall: A Memoir About the Upside Small and Other Stuff.

So let’s “press on” and haul out the holly one more time, kids!

Chapter 14 Christmas Is

The days after September 11, I sat riveted to the images on my television like the rest of the nation. The thought of flying across the country was unnerving, but when October 17 came, I boarded a plane at LAX with enough clothes to survive autumn in New York and Atlanta, and a December in Cleveland. En route to New York, I stopped in Orlando to drop off Jack at my mother’s for a Florida vacation while I headed off to Gotham.

A somber feeling came over me as I looked out my airplane window. The televised images of 9/11 became all the more real to me as I noticed the gaping hole in the New York skyline where the World Trade Center towers once stood.

At baggage claim an upbeat young man helped me gather my luggage and drove me to the appointed hotel on Central Park West. Once I got a few things unpacked, I met the other elves in the show: Aaron, Trixie, and Kacie. Aaron was in his early thirties, recently married, had the looks of a drama scholar and fancied himself as such. Trixie was in her mid-twenties and resembled Rosie O’Donnell, only on a smaller scale and more effervescent, but without Rosie’s brassiness. And then there was Kacie. She had to be the most physically like what people would consider an elf: thin, perfectly proportioned, with straight light brown hair that fell to her waist. Despite being in her early twenties, she had the personality of an old soul with a love for all things Hello Kitty. And then there was me, the old man of
the group.

The next morning the four of us hopped a train down to Union Square for our first day of rehearsals. We got to 890 Broadway, presented IDs, took the elevator up, and were greeted in a hall by Peter, the executive producer. Peter had to have been the nicest man I’d ever met. There was no pretense about him, and over the next few weeks he demonstrated care and concern for each member of the his production.

I heard a piano and drummer playing and a chorus of female voices singing “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells.” My elfmates and I walked into the main rehearsal room and found an out of the way spot that wasn’t covered with dance bags or backpacks and watched the practice session. The room looked like it had been ripped from All That Jazz or any of a dozen other movie musicals with scenes depicting preparations for opening a show. The ceilings were high with exposed pipes. A requisite ballet barre and mirrors lined the back wall. The stage manager and his assistants huddled around a long folding table at one side of the room. Dancing their hearts out in almost three-inch heels in the center of the dance floor were twenty of the most stunning women I’d ever seen in my life, the Radio City Rockettes.

Even in their rehearsal attire, the Rockettes were beautiful.

Their hair was either up in a bun or pulled away from their faces, and they radiated poise and precision. Every fiber of their being was caught up in perfecting their choreography. Not only were they dancing in unison, but they were singing, too. Aloud. Yeah, I was definitely in the world of Broadway.

Scrutinizing every eye-high kick, inspecting every flick of the wrist, was the woman who ran the audition I attended two years prior, Linda. She patrolled the rehearsal with a withering gaze. When she clapped her hands to give corrective notes to the dancers, all music and dancing stopped and the Rockettes’ composure fell. Then and only then did they show any sign of exhaustion.

I had been in rehearsals for all sorts of shows at Disney in the past, but the Christmas Spectacular rehearsals made those others look like high school plays. It was obvious that Linda ran a tight ship. She commanded the respect of everyone in the room—cast, crew, musicians—everyone. There were no interruptions of unruly personalities or conversations. Only the sound of shoes on a wooden dance floor, people singing, and musical accompaniment filled the room. It was eerie when I considered how many people were present in the room.

At the Magic Kingdom, I worked with other choreographers who had assistants demonstrate the choreography for their dancers. This was not the case with Linda. She wore dance attire and character shoes like everyone else, and when a step wasn’t performed as choreographed, if a simple corrective note wasn’t enough, she stepped onto the dance floor and whipped off the move as well as, if not better than, anyone else on the floor. She had arguably the best dancer’s legs I’d ever seen.

We elves were taken to our first rehearsal, a vocal rehearsal, where we were greeted by Mark, the same pianist from that audition a couple years ago. He handed us folders for the Santa’s Workshop scene. I don’t know what I was expecting to see inside the folder, but when I read that Mark wrote the songs we would be singing, I knew the pressure was on. The guy who wrote the song was teaching us the song. Thank God for those years of piano lessons, otherwise my attempts at trying to read the score would have been futile. Mark was encouraging, yet firm in his direction: enunciate and project; at the same time he kept the rehearsal light, but lively.

The actors who were cast as Santa and Mrs. Claus were delightful. I could tell right away from the way they carried themselves that Broadway had been coursing in their veins from way back. To my mind, Scott was surprisingly thin for a Santa, but he boomed out a Santa voice that was big and warm and charming, and somehow paternal.

Bethe was blond with striking cheekbones and refined facial features, and a bubbly personality. Her interpretation of Mrs. Claus was a combination of two of America’s funniest comediennes: Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen. Together, Scott and Bethe were charming to watch and the chemistry between them was palpable. And they were just as engaging when they were themselves as they were as Santa and Mrs. C. The average age of the cast had to be around twenty-five, but having those two in the cast eased my own anxieties about being forty years old, as they were a couple years my senior.

A few weeks after I accepted the Radio City job, I got a package containing my contracts, tentative performance schedule, and cast list. I looked over the cast list and one of the names looked familiar: Stevi. I knew I heard that name before, but couldn’t remember where from. A few days later, it finally dawned on me that one of the dancers at Disney from years ago was named Stevi. She was a kid at the time and proved to be talented even then; and there she was—listed as a Rockette “swing” (an understudy responsible for covering numerous dancers’ roles) and doing eye-high kicks in perfect Rockette form. Later that day we hugged each other and got caught up.

At that moment, I truly felt old.

As time went on, I realized that this show was massive in all respects and I was pretty darned blessed to be a part of it all. Considering I had been hired on a phone call and a two-year-old audition, it seemed only fitting to thank whoever was responsible for the opportunity I had been given.

A couple of days into rehearsals, while walking down one of the halls at 890 Broadway, I ran into Linda.

“Hi,” I said in a cheery voice.

“Hello,” Linda said. Her walk was purposeful. (Of course, her walk was purposeful. She was the director and choreographer for the show.)

“Who should I thank for casting me in the show?”

“That would be me.”

That was my cue to gush gratitude, which I did. Linda was mildly amused at my nervousness and continued on her way to whip some more dancers into shape.

One other thing that became clear as time went on was that Linda was the creative force behind the show. Not only was she the show’s choreographer, but she also developed the concept for the show, wrote it, and was the show’s director. And at some point during the run of the show when I asked her how she did it all, she humbly said, “I surround myself with very capable and talented people.” The show was brilliant on so many levels. There was something about the way she directed that was magical. She was sparing with compliments, but at the same time she inspired everyone to give their best.

After a week and a half of rigorous rehearsals in New York City, we moved on to West Point (the military academy) for a week of technical rehearsals at the Eisenhower Hall Theater. This was officially where my brains seeped out of my ears. Everything I had learned in the rehearsal halls in New York—the choreography, the songs, the blocking—got left behind at the 890 Broadway rehearsal halls. We got on the stage and I felt as if I was starting all over from scratch. I think it was the novelty of seeing the set pieces, the costumes, and the lights that made me come undone.


Next we moved on to Atlanta for a few more days of tech rehearsals before we opened. The process of opening a show was basically a layering process. First we learned the onstage stuff: choreography and lyrics, then combined the two. Next, the backstage activities were added: costumes, backstage traffic patterns, and costume quick-changes. Same as with Disney shows, mastering the costume changes and traffic patterns added a new layer of stress, but just like everything else with Radio City the stakes had been taken to a whole new level.

During the tech rehearsal all the elements were put into place. Choreography we rehearsed for weeks was moved to the stage where ginormous set pieces flew in and out. Dozens upon dozens of lighting instruments that were capable of producing any color of the lighting spectrum in the blink of an eye had been hung in the wings and overhead. And the numbers of costumes, wigs, shoes, and accessories were mind-numbing. Last and certainly not least were the thirty plus people in the crew it took to make it all happen.

For me, the biggest challenge wasn’t learning the choreography, but having to sing and dance at the same time. While performing at Disney, I wore a Donald Duck head, so it didn’t really matter what my face was doing. But during the Santa’s workshop number, my face was out there for all the world to see. And since those clever lyrics were oh-so-similar in verse after verse, that only made getting through the number all the more challenging for me.

Add to that the blocking (the route you move on stage during a number), which made perfect sense with the lyrics. The important thing was to land exactly on your spot on the right cue every single time. I finally memorized my choreography, blocking, and lyrics successfully by the time opening night rolled around. The show opened to rave reviews in Atlanta.

Radio City had some great traditions, one of which was opening night gifts for the cast from the production staff. And in exchange, as a token of appreciation, the cast collected funds to purchase opening night gifts for the production staff. The opening night party was where the cast and crew got to heave a sigh of relief and blow off a lot of steam. And celebrate the show’s opening.

The opening night bash took place at a swanky Atlanta restaurant and everyone noshed to their heart’s content on hors d’oeuvres, beer, wine, fine spirits, and desserts.

The majority of folks opted to call it an early night and returned to the hotel for a good night’s sleep before the next day’s shows.

 The rest of us, the hard core contingent—a mixed bag of straights, gays, females, and males—straggled into one of Atlanta’s after-hours gay bars with a heightened appreciation of one another’s talents, thanks to more than a couple of cocktails. I made my way into the bar with a handful of people from the show and was shocked to see one of the guys from the crew seated at a table. I remembered his name. It was Frank.

“Hello. Guess which one of Santa’s elves is gay,” I said.

The ice was not broken, but shattered.

Frank laughed and invited me to join him at the bar for a drink. He didn’t have to tell me, I knew he was straight. He was one of those super nice guys who was sensitive and caring. And straight. Frank was also comfortable in his own “straightness” that he was not intimidated in the least by gay men.

“What kind of men do you like?” Frank asked.

“Physically? Or emotionally?” I knew the question was offered as an ice-breaker, not the beginning of a formal investigation, but I was still a little caught off guard, as I couldn’t recall anyone ever asking me that before.


Not having been involved in a relationship for who-knew-how-long gave me more time than I cared to give the matter a lot of thought. I was thrilled that someone, anyone, had an interest in what appealed to me. I recited my wish list with all the enthusiasm of a kid on Santa’s knee.

“I like guys who are smart. If a guy’s not too bright, we’ll have little to talk about. He’s got to have a good sense of humor, life’s too serious to not be able to laugh about things. I like guys who are independent.”


“Guys who have a life and aren’t all needy and smothering.”

“Yeah, independence is a good thing,” Frank chuckled and nodded.

“And good character is a must. By that I mean it’s not just enough for a guy to know the difference between right and wrong, it’s all about being able to choose right over wrong the majority of the time.”

“Hm,” Frank mulled over my wish list. “Physically?”

“I like beefy guys, but not with a whole lot of marbling. Thin guys, not so much.”

Frank looked a little puzzled, so I simplified things.

“Think firemen.”

I’m sure we talked about other things, none of which I remember, but I do remember that I went to join the rest of the hardcore contingent for a very late night of dancing.


My first season with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular rolled along. We did show after show after show. I was getting paid to have more fun than I had ever had over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. And I loved it. At the end of November, we left Atlanta and moved on to Cleveland, where we went through the entire tech and dress rehearsal process with the Cleveland crew in their theater and again the show opened to rave reviews. And just when I thought I reached the zenith of my Christmas stint, they rolled out Secret Santas, the old grade school gift-giving game. Of course, I went for it—hook, line, and sinker.

Custom dictated that each cast member go out, be creative, and purchase inexpensive gifts for the person whose name we pulled from the hat. I put forth a valiant effort in buying thoughtful gifts for my person, but the person who pulled my name worked me into a lathered mess.

My Secret Santa took the requisite list of items I supplied and put their own creative spin on each and every item. I received all of my favorite things, including a Nutcracker, tinsel, peppermint patties, and a three-foot tall Toy Soldier that lit up. Not only did someone actually take the time to buy my favorite things, but they also took the time to cut out individual letters from newspapers and glue them together into daily rhymes that looked like ransom notes. With up to four shows a day, I couldn’t imagine who had that kind of time or energy to compose those notes. As an arts and crafts kind of guy from way back, I fully appreciated the time, energy, and creativity that had been invested on my behalf.

One day, amidst all the Secret Santa madness, I felt the need to take a mental health day. In other words, I called in sick so that I could enjoy a little quality time alone. I knew some might consider it unprofessional, but for me it was a survival strategy.

My phone rang almost the whole day with calls everyone wanting to know if I was okay. I couldn’t come right out and tell them the real reason for my absence. To my surprise, my callers proved to be less interested in my Tony Award-worthy explanation than in discovering if I had seen my make-up table in the guys’ dressing room. Of course, I hadn’t seen it, but my curiosity was piqued. I had no idea what to expect the next day and no one offered any clues. And I didn’t ask. I was not privy to a grand conspiracy that was apparently underway.

The next day as I made my way to the theater, I couldn’t help but notice how quiet it was backstage. Normally, the halls were buzzing with the stagehands pre-setting for the first show of the day. There was always some type of music playing that mixed well with the hubbub of a forty-member cast chatting and carrying on. That day it was as if no one was around.

I walked into the guys’ dressing room and approached my make-up table. It was festooned with blinking, multi-colored Christmas lights which weren’t there the last time I was at the theater. I could feel a crowd of people gathering behind me. I moved closer to the make-up table and deposited my backpack on my chair. There was another ransom note-style message from my Secret Santa. I read it. And then I saw it, taped to my mirror, staring me in the face: a 2002 Firemen of New York calendar.

To give myself a little time to figure out how to react, I slowly pulled the calendar from the mirror for a closer inspection. If there was any question as to my sexual orientation, all doubt had been summarily dispelled the moment someone took it upon themselves to “out” me in a very public way. As far as I was concerned, outing anyone showed a lack of decorum. At the same time, I remembered that my Secret Santa had shown great thoughtfulness in choosing all the other gifts he or she had given me and invested a lot of time and energy in their presentation. I knew there was no malice in the choice of gift.

Another Secret Santa participant—in management, no less—had received only adult novelties. From the moment I heard the tales of that person’s gifts, I knew God had smiled on me by sparing me that level of humiliation on a daily basis. Should I deny that I had been called out correctly and overreact? Or had the moment arrived for me to come to terms with who I was and have a sense of humor about the whole thing?

With the crowd gathered behind me, I flipped the calendar over, gave a cursory glance at the twelve thumbnail images of the firefighters on the back cover. It was a nice calendar, a great calendar. It was a gift that couldn’t have been found in the immediate vicinity of the theater or our residences. So someone went to great lengths to get it for me; and like everything else my Secret Santa had given, it was indeed something I liked.

I broke out in laughter and gleefully ripped off the shrink-wrap. And the crowd that encircled me joined in my delight with my gift. As I had done in the past, I posted a note of thanks to my Secret Santa on the callboard. Other gifts followed, including a high quality Cleveland Fire Department sweatshirt. None were quite as provocative, but all were equally as thoughtful.

When the time finally came for the Secret Santa big reveal, I was still perplexed as to my Secret Santa’s identity. At the final reveal, I received still more thoughtful gifts. And when Frank, the straight crew guy that I had inadvertently outed myself to at the opening night after-party in Atlanta, identified himself as my Secret Santa, I nearly fell off my feet. Later we talked, and Frank confessed that he wasn’t quite sure how I’d react to the calendar. I assured him that while it certainly wasn’t something I would buy for myself, it was received in the spirit it was given.

One thought on “Haul Out the Holly”

  1. Sitzy says:

    Thanks to you Clay, I’m sure I’m not the only one that was encouraged to go and see one of those touring productions. Let’s hope that something else fantastic will bring the big-city holiday spirit to theaters outside of NYC. Of course nothing will be able to replace this show. I’m grateful that I was able to see it.

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