by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Yesterday afternoon, the Homestead presented this year’s edition of Christmas Calamities, a living history event that brought five fictional and historical characters to live with a skit at La Casa Nueva that also featured significant interaction with the visitors who came on the five tours given during the day.
My talented colleagues Gennie Truelock, Jennifer Scerra and Isis Quan, with a valuable assist from Jennifer’s sister Lisa Star, and yours truly presented a roughly 45 minute madcap performance from a script that Jennifer and Gennie spent a great deal of time and effort developing over several weeks.
As with last year’s inaugural edition, Jennifer’s Sophie Rowland and Gennie’s Elizabeth Townsend tussled and tangled over who would direct a Puente community pageant for the Christmas 1926 season that was being rehearsed at La Casa Nueva, generously offered by Walter P. Temple for the purpose. There, however, was a new contestant vying for artistic supremacy for the pageant and with a wildly different concept.
Elizabeth, with an abundant display of her overconfident sense of theatrical talent, proposed an epic holiday performance based on the era of cattle ranching and the Gold Rush (even claiming that famed Western novelist Zane Grey was being brought to see the rehearsal).
Sophie, equally confident in her abilities, lamented the over-commercialized Christmas celebrations of the 1920s and yearned to create something that would hearken back to a simpler, more moralistic holiday. So, her idea was to bring in a variety of program elements that came from traditional Victorian celebrations, but without the epic, dramatic and flashy components pushed by Elizabeth.
Meanwhile, Isadora Woolf, an artistic-minded moderne, has her own ideas for a theme that would completely embrace the energy, enthusiasm and exoticism of the Roaring Twenties. A devotee of the great Italian actor Rudolph Valentino, who, sadly, died just a few months prior to the holidays, Isadora proposed, with her penchant for the overly dramatic, that the theme be based on the late actor’s final film, The Son of the Sheik.
As the three women argued about whose idea was the most meritorious, Frank Romero, brother of Maud Bassity, who ran the Homestead household and who worked for the Temples in various capacities, harbored his own high hopes for a prominent role in the Puente pageant while he had a little secret or two waiting in reserve.
As community volunteers (our guests) arrived at La Casa Nueva to begin rehearsals, they stumbled upon Frank stooping over a fallen Christmas tree and removing ornaments and putting them in a box. Surprised by the unexpected early arrival of the volunteers, Frank tried to send them home claiming that the rehearsal wasn’t ready when Mrs. Townsend emerged.
Equally flummoxed by the volunteers coming so soon, Mrs. Townsend took the oppotunity to push her “Old West” theme as Miss Woolf searched for Mrs. Rowland. But when Sophie rushed hurriedly to the group, she quickly and decisively squelched Mrs. Townsend’s outsized ambitions and firmly took control of the situation. Though Miss Woolf smoothly made a pitch for her “sheik” concept, Mrs. Rowland roundly rejected that idea, as well, asserting that her traditional Victorian holiday theme was naturally superior.
When, in some desperation, Mrs. Townsend turned to Frank for support, he tried to seize the chance to advocate for a role in the pageant, proclaiming that her possessed a fine basso profundo, but he was quickly shushed by the three women, especially Mrs. Rowland, who asked what Mr. Temple had asked Frank to do (wash his car, that is.) In a huff, Frank stalked off, while Mrs. Townsend and Miss Woolf ostensibly took to their locations to practice what Mrs. Rowland preached, but had their own “sermons” in the offing.
From there, visitors were taken to three locations for practice with the prima donnas of the Puente pageant. While Mrs. Rowland, assisted by her cousin Ruth (played by Lisa), worked on their tradition Victorian idea in the Living Room, Mrs. Townsend and Miss Woolf clandestinely pursued their own vainglorious ambitions with the “Old West” and “sheik” themes at the front patio and in the Music Room, respectively.
Inevitably, however, Mrs. Rowland would go to check in on her compatriots, only to be flabbergasted by their impertinent insubordination, and demanding that they adhere faithfully to their assigned responsibilities with the traditional Victorian idea. Frank eagerly clinging to the hope that he could curry favor with Mrs. Rowland and win some kind of role in the proceedings followed her from place to place.
Seeing some opportunity to either ingratiate himself with Mrs. Townsend or, more deviously, look to drive a wedge between her and Mrs. Rowland, Frank tried to assure the former that her “Old West” concept, especially with some cow props, was “udderly mooving” and was “milking the idea for all it was worth.”
His over-excitement, however, caused him to inadvertently launch his own complaints about his exclusion, which did not sit well with either Sophie or Elizabeth. As for Miss Woolf, Frank seemed out of his league intellectually and thoroughly confused by her heady artistic ambitions, while she deftly dismissed him out of hand.
His pride sorely wounded, Frank had his own measures of revenge and retribution, however. For example, he clandestinely placed a flyer for a competing pageant in Whittier, which Mrs. Townsend dismissed as a vastly inferior place to Puente, in the Living Room for the volunteers to see. Mrs. Rowland stumbled upon the broadside and, before she could say much about it, Frank rushed in to bring her attention to Mrs. Townsend’s “improvisations” on the theme. As she left, he calmly pilfered some props, doing so when he went out to try to score points with Mrs. Townsend on her concept and when Miss Woolf was confronted by Sophie about why an Argentine Tango was being used as a dance for the traditional Christmas tune, “Good King Wenceslas.”
These attempts at subterfuge proving elusive in success, Frank turned to more extreme measures. As Mrs. Rowland tried to salvage what she could of her traditional Victorian theme in the Living Room, Frank strode in, munching on a cookie, and asked her if she smelled anything burning. When she annoyingly replied to the negative, he added that there was a strong aroma of burning cookies, which she’d placed in the oven in the nearby kitchen not long before. Rushing to the kitchen and finding it smoke-filled, Sophie ran for a bucket of water, while Frank smugly stood by sampling his well-cooked cookie.
With the rehearsal in all but total disarray and much time wasted on argument, clandestine destruction by Frank, and competing visions from the three ladies, it was announced that Mr. Temple, with the famed author Mr. Grey in town, was soon to arrive back to the Homestead. Everyone was hurried to the lawn next to the courtyard at the rear of La Casa Nueva for a last-ditch effort to provide something presentable to them.
Alas, when the group was gathered and readied, it was found that many of the props to be used in the performance were missing. With Sophie, Isadora and Elizabeth all besides themselves and wandering to and fro in confusion, Frank surreptitiously passed around another Whittier pageant flyer, this one including his photograph and proclaiming him as director.
Enraged, the three woman asked Frank for an explanation, upon which he launched into a rampaging tirade, citing the continued dismissal by Elizabeth, Isadora and Sophie of his desire for inclusion and ideas for improvement as reason for his theft of the pageant props and his torching of the cookies. Beyond that, he was recently appointed director of the pageant in Whittier, which was so casually denigrated by Mrs. Townsend, so he could hardly have competition.
Isadora then spied Mr. Temple and Mr. Grey exiting a car parked in front of the Water Tower and making their way toward the house. Horrified, Sophie and Elizabeth fled in embarrassment and anger, while Frank tossed them a final taunt, asking them if they wanted a cookie before they left. As he triumphantly walked back to the house, Isadora was left to ask the volunteers to make their way to the auditorium adjacent to the Water Tower (and where our Homestead Gallery is today) for refreshments, while something was decided about what to salvage from the theatrical debacle.
It was certainly fun playing Frank, not as a pathetic bungler, but as a pathetic conniver and manipulator. In their various ways, Mrs. Townsend, Mrs. Rowland and Miss Wolff all had their patheticisms well-honed and practiced, too. Visitors seemed to have a good time with the humor, awkward situations and the interactions, whether this was playing roles for the “Old West” skit, reciting for the traditional Victorian offering, or trying out the Argentine Tango (introduced to America, it was said, by Valentino) under the severely critical eye of Isadora.
We’ll see what we do for 2020, but don’t be surprised if “Christmas Calamities” returns for a third installment with some more tweaks and surprises in store!