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Yuletide Traditions

November 5, 2010

Chloe Veltman on the extravagant festivities of the Bracebridge Dinner

Outside the vaulted windows of Ahwahnee Hotel’s banqueting hall, the Yosemite Valley snow is thick and the surrounding peaks shimmer dully in the freezing dark. Lines of cars with brown, slush-thickened tires wait out the night. A couple of parking attendants in snow-boots talk ice-hockey scores until a car alarm’s blaring fanfare interrupts their conversation. Meanwhile, a middle-aged man in a blue ski jacket paces the parking lot trying to get reception on his cell phone.

The scene inside couldn’t be more different. Against a backdrop of flickering candlelight, polished silver and stained glass, around 40 performers in flamboyant Renaissance-era costumes process across the cavernous banqueting hall with giddy aplomb. In the company of some 300 hotel guests dressed in elegant evening wear, they caper about, sing boisterous seasonal songs and intermittently cluster around a lavishly laden banqueting table to form jovial tableaux. The lord and lady of this seasonal fiefdom take center stage flanked by their servants, courtiers and a court jester clad in parti-colored cap and bells. The room looks like a still from a Shakespeare production by Sir Henry Irving.

Now in its 84th year, the annual Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite is a yuletide theatrical and dining experience that, in keeping with other such seasonal staples as The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol, seeks to transport audience members to a festive world far away from the everyday. The production transforms the hotel’s rustic-grand dining room into the setting of a group of short sketches describing a rural English Christmas from Washington Irving’s Sketch Book (1820), complete with carols, plum pudding and wassail. “There’s an aspect of detachment from reality that Bracebridge represents,” says cast member Jimmy Kansau of the experience of performing in and watching the colorful holiday pageant, which combines a performance with a four-hour-long, eight-course dinner. “It’s very much its own animal.”

The surreal aspect of the event is further matched by the price tag. A ticket to the 2010 Bracebridge Dinner costs $425 a head, excluding accommodation, which, at the Ahwahnee Hotel, amounts to $469 for an average room per night. Nevertheless, the production attracts close to 2,500 people to the Yosemite Valley each December, many of whom travel hundreds of miles through adverse weather conditions to be there. “Lots of people look forward to The Bracebridge Dinner,” says Jarrod Lyman, director of marketing and communications at the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau. “It combines all the best that Yosemite has to offer in terms of food, theatre and scenery into a single evening’s entertainment.”

With the possible exception of Mark Morris’s radical reinterpretation of The Nutcracker and Marcel Marceau’s mimed version of A Christmas Carol, holiday season theatre isn’t known for being cutting-edge. Despite slight modifications and evolving casts over the years, The Bracebridge Dinner remains in many ways as resolutely tied to tradition as a nativity play at a convent school. Launched the same year that the hotel was opened in 1927, its script is largely the same today as it was in 1929 when the event’s then artistic director, the photographer Ansel Adams, penned it. An artistic all-rounder, Adams’s skills as a pianist fed into his approach to versification: The four beats per line meter of his script reflected the rhythms of the chorus processionals. As in its first incarnation, a country lord, Squire Bracebridge, and his wife, Lady Bracebridge, preside imperiously over the festivities while the Lord of Misrule (a role originally essayed by Adams) makes merry with his bosses and the dinner guests.

Over the years, The Bracebridge Dinner has introduced some superficial changes. Extra performances have been added to meet demand. For many years, the production was so popular that would-be attendees had to enter a lottery to gain the chance to buy tickets. Now there are eight performances in total (this year running Dec. 13–25), up from five in 2000, and the lottery system has been discarded. For a brief period in the late 1920s, audience members wore Renaissance costumes. The practice ended before the 1931 performance because, according to Scott Taylor, The Bracebridge Dinner’s official historian, “many of the guests preferred to wear their own finery.”

The present artistic director, Andrea Fulton, has brought about a slew of small creative alterations since she began her tenure in 1979, after having performed in the production since she was five years old. (2010 represents Fulton’s 61st year of involvement with the event. Her parents, Eugene and Anna-Marie, were longstanding collaborators of Adams’s and took over the directorship of the event in 1973 when the photographer retired.) Fulton’s innovations include penning a poetic introduction expounding the beauty of the Yosemite landscape; augmenting the role of the Housekeeper (which she herself assumes each year); and retiring that of the butler character, the Major Domo, from Irving’s story. She has added female singers to what was previously a men’s choir, created more characters and heightened the humor. In one of the highlights of last year’s event, the fool, played by Johannes Mager, hilariously made his way across the banqueting hall by hopping from one chair to another, shunting startled guests aside while doggedly playing his tuba.

And, perhaps most significantly, Fulton has made the production more secular in feel. The crowd of earth-tone-costumed “forest folk” that Squire and Lady Bracebridge invite in to join the celebrations (played by a volunteer corps of around 45 Yosemite Valley residents) harks back to non-Christian traditions. And many of the songs and carols come from similarly non-denominational roots. At one point in last year’s show, the cast sang a version of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. “You can’t go up to Jewish or Middle Eastern guests and sing ardently Christian Christmas songs,” said the petite, snowy-haired Fulton, while holding court in her production-office-come-boudoir at the Ahwahnee Hotel in a purple velour robe and fluffy pink slippers last December. “The forest folk create an ecumenical atmosphere which works for Christians, Jews and tree huggers alike.”

From the perspective of the Ahwahnee Hotel’s general manager, Chance Jorgensen, “The guests have appreciated the little changes that Andrea has implemented over the years.” But the feeling that prevails over the Bracebridge Dinner is one of maintaining, rather than overturning, tradition. It’s the sort of event where the introduction of a turkey tartlet to the dining menu (which happened in the mid-1960s) is considered a landmark. And according to Taylor, not everyone took to Fulton’s alterations: “Some longtime guests questioned the changes to Adams’s script; some missed the quiet interludes between the food courses and the more solemn and religious experience.”

Hanging on too tightly to the past may not be the best way of securing a future for The Bracebridge Dinner and the few other remaining professional holiday productions that still exist in North America today. In the early part of the last century, seasonal theatricals were relatively common in the grand hotels of this country. But their number has dwindled owing to ever-tightening budgets and the fact that extravagant Christmas pageants harking back to esoteric old world customs can’t compete with modern Broadway musicals and other more easily accessible fare. “The Bracebridge Dinner is profitable, but only barely,” says Jorgensen, who has declined to disclose financial details about the event.

Still, tradition is a powerful driver, especially during the holiday season. It is ultimately the longstanding relationship between the Ahwahnee Hotel, its guests, and the Andrea Fulton Production company that keeps The Bracebridge Dinner going. As Fulton put it last December, “The Bracebridge Dinner is an icon of Yosemite. Even if the hotel lost money, they’d still keep it.”



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