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Holiday Chestnuts Now, Interlopers Only Recently
NEW YORK TIMES

December 24, 2010

Many holiday entertainment traditions hark back centuries — or at least decades. Handel’s “Messiah” at the San Francisco Symphony and “The Nutcracker Suite” at the San Francisco Ballet clearly fall into that category.

But among all the chestnuts, new seasonal fare continues to arrive. Some of it sticks and finds a regular place on the holiday calendar.

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy is one of the better-known events of this new breed. This year it celebrates 18 years of Jewish comedians’ performing at a Chinese restaurant over Christmas. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus has offered “Home for the Holidays,” which features a mix of Christmas tunes with secular music, since 1990.

And then there is “Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes,” a drag version of the television show featuring the original scripts, that is now in its fourth year.

Heklina, a drag performer who started the Bay Area’s long-running Trannyshack series, said “Golden Girls” was her most family-friendly fare. “I look out in the audience,” she said, “and see actual golden girls, mothers and grandmothers. And kids. It’s really weird.”

These nontraditional holiday traditions may not be universally popular, but what is striking is how much these events have in common with standards like “Nutcracker.”

Most audiences that seek out holiday singalongs, even ones at the Castro Theater (where “Home for the Holidays” is performed), are not looking to be challenged with new material.

The holidays are about family, community and nods to the familiar, even if the familiar is four drag queens acting out holiday episodes from a popular TV series.

“We’ve created our own tradition,” said Kathleen McGuire, director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. “Certainly, the Gay Men’s Chorus, who is about to have its 33rd season, has been around long enough to build families. It’s sort of like, a lot of people miss the stuff they had growing up and this is a way to replace it.”

The holiday concerts started as an afterthought, a nonessential addition to the chorus’ schedule, but were immediately popular — thanks in part to marquee billing at the Castro Theater, but also to the sense of community created by the event.

“The Gay Men’s Chorus began offering these holiday concerts when the AIDS epidemic was at its worst,” Ms. McGuire said. “Some people were ostracized by their families or simply had nowhere to go for the holidays. The chorus provided an alternative to church for many members of the gay community.”

Repetition is an important component of the holiday entertainment experience. “The Santaland Diaries,” a theatrical production of David Sedaris’s dark monologues from his time as a professional elf at Macy’s, has been going strong in San Francisco for nine years.

But when producers added Mr. Sedaris’s companion piece, “Season’s Greetings,” to the mix in 2007, they got negative feedback for the first time. The black comedy includes a scene in which a baby is thrown into a dryer. “San Francisco likes irreverent humor, but we went too far,” said Matthew Quinn, the artistic director of Combined Artform, the play’s producer.

This year’s “Santaland Diaries” will feature a more elaborate set, but no changes to the show’s material. “What makes people want to see an event with the same words?” Mr. Quinn said, repeating a reporter’s question. “I guess it’s the simple truth of the writing.”

Lisa Geduldig, the founder of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, said she knew from the beginning that her idea — Jewish comedy in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve — helped “fill a void” in the holiday season. What she did not anticipate was its almost two-decade run. She has extended the performances to eight from one, and has brought in nationally known comedians like Henny Youngman shortly before his death in 1998. This year features Wendy Liebman and Joe Nguyen.

“We have people coming back every year,” Ms. Geduldig said. “I’ve met people who are like, ‘Oh, its our 10th time. I brought my family from Boston.’ People reserve an entire table of 10 more these days.”

Paula Grace, of San Francisco, is one of those repeat visitors. She estimated that she had been going for 15 years. This year, she will take along five non-Jewish friends.

As someone who does not celebrate the holidays, Ms. Grace said she found Kung Pao to be a relief from the onslaught of Christmas activities; it also fosters a sense of camaraderie among attendees. “I’ve found a friend there who I met 10 years ago,” she said. “We’re still friends.”

Howard Siegel, a Pacifica resident, along with his wife, Laura, has been every year since Kung Pao started. As a native New Yorker, he said the show reminded him of his hometown. “It’s what the Jews do on Christmas,” Mr. Siegel said. “One year we took our family; one year we took out-of-town guests; now we go with another couple. Always on Christmas Eve.”

Ms. Grace pointed to another thing that the Kung Pao event had going for it. “In San Francisco, on Christmas, the streets are empty,” she said. “It’s easy to park.”

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