Once upon a time there was a young man named Bob Bowen. who was then the city's recreation coordinator, who got this crazy idea for something for Davis children to do over the holiday vacation. He happened to see an issue of “Women’s Day” magazine and an article about how to put on a production of The Nutcracker for pre-school or elementary school children. A lightbulb went off in his head. “It was a pared down version. It didn’t involve copyright so I could rewrite it (which I did a lot). It doesn’t take full orchestra. It’s just a little stage production.” He decided to produce the Davis Children's Nutcracker. Anybody who auditioned would be in the show and he would find roles for everyone. 70 kids showed up for that first show, and everybody was cast was something.
How do you produce a show with 70 excited, inexperienced children? They were divided into groups by character. There was the clown group, the Russian dancer group, the snowflake group, and so on. Each group had its own directors. They rehearsed independently and then two days before the big show, they all got together at the 325-seat Veterans Memorial Theater and put it all together.
Amazingly, it came off beautifully. Well, if not "beautifully," at least it was impressive, the parents were thrilled and when 70 kids spread across the stage for their bow, it was really something.
That first show took two weeks to rehearse and only one performance was scheduled. Bowen didn’t know if he could sell all 325 seats, but he actually over-sold seats and had to turn the mayor away at the door because she had no ticket and had no child in the production.
Four of our five children were in that first production. You had to be at least 5 and David was too young (he joined the cast the following year).
It was so successful they immediately started planning for the next year. Now, 40 years later, they are rehearsing the 40th production of the Nutcracker. It has been a huge part of our lives. While they were young, all of the kids acted in it.
When they were too old to be in the cast (they aged out at 12), some of them went on to become group leaders or to work on the tech crew. Ned worked on the tech crew it seems like forever with his best friend Greg, whose son Brycen went through the cast, moved on to group leader and now is on the tech crew like his father for so many years. (Greg is on the right in this photo, with both of his sons...since Greg's mother had worked on the earlier versions, his kids are the third generation of the family to be a part of the Davis Children's Nutcracker.)
Nutcracker was a big part of our lives. When we had a surprise 50th birthday party for Walt at the theater, we sat him on the big chair Ned and Greg had built for The Nutcracker.
Jeri and Phil put a picture of the two of them sitting inside the sugar plum they had built for The Nutcracker many years before on their wedding invitation.
Our kids and their best friends were on the tech crew and always tried to make the next production better than the last. "We were insane,” said Jeri. “We had the run of the place and we had Bob Bowen who trusted us and was willing to go along with anything we wanted to try” (like drilling holes in the stage floor and filling tubes with flour that they could blast through the holes when a canon supposedly went off).
In the 10th year, the thing had grown so large they couldn't include all kids who want to perform--it had become a Davis institution and too many kids applied, so now they have to fill out an application and they are chosen by lottery. They have set a cast limit at 200.
With 200 in the cast, there weren't enough groups to accommodate them. In 1977 there were 8 groups of clowns, mice, soldiers, Russian dancers, etc. In 2006 there were 18 groups, including some that Tchaikovsky never envisioned, like country line dancers, bees, birds and insects, and gnomes.
When I interviewed Bob for an article about The Davis Childreln's Nutcracker in 2009, he said, "This has become a crazy institution that is part of growing up in Davis. It has become a shared experience between parents who once performed in the show and kids who are in it now. Maybe that's my enduring legacy. That's pretty cool."
Last night, we attended a party celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Davis Children's Nutcracker. The halls of the theater were decorated with posters from each year.
It was fun to see how many people showed up.
Ned, Marta and another veteran from the first production chatted with Bob Bowen, who long ago resigned as the head of this Davis tradition.
When they began dating in high school, Ned and Marta discovered they had both been members of the clown group in 1978, where they first met. They have now been married more than 25 years. Their wedding cake, which I decorated, had a clown theme.
I had a show to review in Sacramento, so we couldn't stay for the slide show, but we left the party thinking how incredibly lucky we--and all our family--were to have been a part of this very special Davis event for so many years.