Some little groups do a big thing ...
Some big groups do enormous things
At 3 p.m. Dec. 15, hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators will enjoy the tradition of the Jaycee’s Fort Smith Christmas Parade, held in downtown Fort Smith. The parade date was moved to Dec. 15 because of weather.
What few know is that this big event is organized by a small group. The Jaycees number fewer than 20 active members, according to Anna Gunther, an officer of the civic club.
“It’s all hands on deck,” she said of parade day. “Digital parade registration is a huge help. There’s a lot of communication!”
Taking all the data of parade entrants, the Jaycees plan the parade line-up on paper by numbered zones.
“The Fort Smith Police Department provides a lot of manpower for traffic,” she acknowledged. “The Fort Smith Fire Department drives its ladder truck for Santa,” she said. Both departments are essential partners.
Not all the Jaycees themselves see the parade when it turns onto Garrison Avenue. A few will help the announcer’s stand, where KISR’s Joey Hayes has volunteered as the master of ceremonies for many years.
“We usually hop in a truck just ahead of Santa, but, of course, we’re overshadowed by Santa,” she said of the Jaycee parade crew. If you see the Jaycees this at this year’s Christmas Parade, shout out a big thanks.
The classic Christmas ballet “The Nutcracker,” always has the character of a young girl, Clara, who dreams a fantasy about her toy nutcracker figure that includes a Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier.
According to Melissa Schoenfeld, executive director of Western Arkansas Ballet, “The Nutcracker” is expanded or adjusted by any dance company to produce a ballet with as many or as few dancers as necessary. In the past several years, WAB’s performance has grown to a cast of about 120 dancers. The school has a faculty of four. How does this even work?
“It’s like one big puzzle that keeps getting added to,” she said. Starting in September, with dance students as young as 6, auditions and casting are held with the dance company’s available costumes in mind. Once the show is cast, rehearsals for each number are held separately. The dancers of the company rehearse on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Younger and supporting casts rehearse in small groups. Adults who appear in the ballet’s party scene rehearse on Sundays and many double as members of the crew, operating the fog machine and other backstage tasks.
Many parents and helpers work backstage to costume and coordinate the smallest dancers.
About a week before the actual performance, guest dancers arrive and work with the company. For the 2018 ballet, the guest Cavalier will be an alumnus – Jammie Walker of Jessica Lang Dance, New York. Haley Altman-Cipot of the Ballet Theatre of Indiana will be the Sugar Plum Fairy. Noah Klarck from the University of Oklahoma will dance the role of the Nutcracker Prince.
Schoenfeld tries to see the production through the youngest children’s eyes each year. It is a big moment for the youngsters when the ballet all comes together in dress rehearsals.
“That’s when they realize what we’ve been telling them, that they’re a part of something bigger,” Schoenfeld said. “That is when they see the mirrors (of the practice studio) are not onstage and that they can’t watch everyone else. That’s when they understand they’re telling a story.”
With equal parts of skill and Christmas magic, it all does come together. This will be the 33rd “Nutcracker” production of the Western Arkansas Ballet. Schoenfeld has begun to teach the children of the dancers of previous companies. One couple, Ed and Gail Newlin, were at the first production and have attended almost every year since, Schoenfeld said. It has become a holiday tradition for many families.
Each year, the two performances are a near or complete sell-out, Schoenfeld said. The ballet is also performed twice, in a morning and afternoon of the same day, for audiences of third-graders, many of whom have never seen a ballet performance. The production, and the ballet school, are supported by tuition, a guild and patrons.
Their public performances are on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Then, the sets and costumes are stored away for another year while little dancers dream of growing up to be the Cavalier or the Sugar Plum fairy.
Ticket information for the 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15 and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 16 performances can be found at waballet.org.
Many Christian churches present a Living Nativity scene at Christmas. One church with “maybe 180 present on a big Sunday” presents a ride-through pageant of the birth through death of Jesus in which almost 120 of its members participate.
Tracy Ryan, a church member who may enjoy this annual project more than anyone, said that the cast of volunteers who act in the Tour of Christmas range in age from 3 months to 82. She loves that almost the entire Eastside Freewill Baptist Church of Muldrow membership finds a way to participate “as a ministry, our gift to the community.”
Older members have conjured a marketplace in Bethlehem at the tour entrance, inside the activity building. As merchants and townspeople, they sit in market stalls of fabric, rugs, fish, bread and other goods. The tax collector weighs out coins on a scale. Volunteers serve cocoa and cookies.
Guests board a hayride that passes by 11 scenes from the life of Christ. A narrator tells the story as each group comes upon the lighted, realistic vignettes with live actors and animals. Shepherds tending their sheep hear the tidings that a Savior is born.
Despite a tiny budget, each scene is theatrically lighted, painted and artistically set-dressed, due to the resourcefulness of church members find materials and the volunteer work of many electricians and laborers, Ryan said. She has made some very convincing palm trees from cardboard carpet rolls. Each year the Tour of Christmas grows more visually rich, even though the scenery is taken down and stored until next year.
Ryan said the extra details added each year all come from love. “Everyone owns this now,” she said of her fellow church members. After a career as a teacher, she is now semi-retired. She learned to take different approaches to engage and teach individual children. She said it is their hope that the artistry of the Tour of Christmas is one way to teach children that God loves them and reach adults visitors, as well. The Tour of Christmas is held 6:30-8:30 p.m. Dec. 7-9 at the Eastside Freewill Baptist Activity Center Muldrow, Oklahoma I-40 exit 321 and U.S. 64B. Muldrow.
Now in its eighth year, Christmas Honors is firmly established as one of the community’s loveliest traditions. Hundreds of volunteers make light, fast work decorating each headstone at the Fort Smith National Cemetery.
It is a two-day process. One day is for unpacking and freshening up the greenery of the wreaths and putting each red velvet ribbon just so after the wreaths have been packed away all year.
People of all ages and abilities assemble at the Fort Smith Convention Center for the workshop day. Most are local but Phil Merry, point man for the volunteer program since its inception, has met others who travel here just to participate. More than 16,000 wreaths are unpacked, handled and prepared for transport to the nearby cemetery.
This year, the preparation workshop is at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 5. Merry, who has been the steward of every detail of Christmas Honors, has worried that the numbers may decrease. Judging from the way the community has embraced this event, there will likely be more than enough people for the job.
On the wreath-laying day, Dec. 8 this year, families of loved ones interred there are given time to place the decorations. Each year, the planners have increased the time set aside for families. It will be from 8 to 11 a.m. this year. Wreaths are banked all along the cemetery streets to make it no more than few steps to any headstone. The extra time is provided because there are so many volunteers standing by to make sure that no grave is forgotten.
After a short memorial ceremony at the central pavilion, such a number of volunteers step forward that the cemetery is fully decorated in a very short time. Those who wish to help may take note and pitch in, instead, for the work day that is a little harder, Jan. 8, to pick up all the wreaths. Work begins at 9 a.m. Volunteers may enlist at the website christmashonors.org.
Donors gave enough funds to replace all the original Christmas Honors wreaths. Those surplus wreaths have been paid forward and now help to decorate three regional veterans cemeteries.
Many other hometown holiday celebrations are found in the calendar of events of this issue.
This article appears in the December 2018 / January 2019 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.