The holidays are upon us, and while many see them as a time best appreciated by children, they also have special meaning for people of all ages. As Jerry Herman wrote (and Angela Lansbury so memorably sang), we all need a little Christmas! TheaterMania asked 25 celebrities to recall some of their most cherished — and not-so-cherished — holiday memories.
On Christmas morning, my mom, following an old German tradition, hides a glass pickle somewhere inside the Christmas tree and whoever finds it after all the presents are open gets an extra gift. The prize is usually one any of us can use: a journal, book, or something silly. I’ve found it on several occasions, but my brother holds the record for the most finds. Funny thing, we aren’t German, but we’ve been doing it for years.
My favorite Christmas was when I was 10 and I was beginning to doubt there really was a Santa Claus. Christmas Eve, on the way to church, we were driving through the winding New Jersey hills and a huge deer with giant antlers leapt out and stared straight at us! Needless to say, after that I believed.
Starting in 1988, when Steve Schalchlin and I moved to Los Angeles, we spent Christmases at the home of Kathleen Freeman. She celebrated Christmas like no one else. Outside, her home was covered with lights. Kathleen greeted everyone wearing a Santa hat and ringing sleigh bells. Inside, every inch was decorated with toy trains, snow-covered villages – all leading to a giant tree filled with magnificent ornaments. In 2000, there was the promise that the night sky would host an astronomical phenomenon, a Christmas star as bright as the one that shined over Bethlehem. After dinner, we went to the backyard. I lifted my video camera and saw light shining brightly in the dark sky. I said, “There it is! The Christmas star!” In her unmistakable deadpan, she quipped, “That’s neat since the lens cap is still on.” There was a pinhole letting light in. I mistook that for the star! It was also, the worst of all our Christmases with Kathleen — because it would be her last in that house. The next year, she was on Broadway in The Full Monty; and months later, she was gone. For Steve and me, the greatest Christmas star will always be Kathleen.
It was Christmas evening and all the presents had been opened. My children and I were upstairs watching celebrations from around the world on the TV when I smelled something burning. The staircase was thick with smoke. With no access to the roof, I could only lead the four children down into the smoke with their hands covering their mouth. We made it down. I opened the door and pushed them out. Inside, the floor was ablaze. My sons were filling buckets and I was racing in and throwing water onto the flames. The floorboards began collapsing and my right foot got wedged. As I was able to drag my foot free, my trousers were smoldering. The fire brigade arrived and extinguished the fire and, looking like coal miners, we sorted through the remains under our Christmas tree, all burnt to a crisp. I never found out what stupid head of our family hung a lighted candle too near to the wooden frame of a mirror!
It was New Year’s Eve, and I was performing at San Francisco’s Plush Room at the start of my solo career. Two friends brought a venerable Oscar-winning actress, who was seated at the footlights and thus practically a part of the show due to her gesticulations of delight throughout. She was kind and supportive at the start, but after about 30 minutes she was in a drunken stupor and began heckling me — yelling “get off the stage, you’re terrible”! The audience was suddenly witnessing a train wreck and I was devastated. The great lady then passed out and was ushered out to the relief of both performer and audience. After that ordeal, I received one of my greatest ovations (for bravery and valor); and I had a few belts myself! What an experience! Someday, when the old broad is dead, I’ll tell you all who it was.
The most memorable holidays have been the Hanukahs with our toddlers, who are now 22 and 27, the homemade menorahs made out of clay, mosaics, wood, glitter, and lots of glue, with metal bolts holding the candles. I cherish the uttering of the first blessings, the lights from five menorahs — one for each child, one for gramee and grampee, one for mom and dad, and one for the whole family. I treasure the dancing joy in the children’s eyes with the sight of the Hanukah gelt [gold chocolate coins], the gales of laughter when we played dreidel with pennies, and their excitement as they opened eight presents over eight days. Holidays are a time of remembrance: remembering the pride of simply being who we are in this great America, the pride in our heritage, and the full celebration of our tradition flanked by our fervent patriotism.
On Christmas Eve in 1984, my husband Armand was working with the writer John Barth at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. And since that’s my hometown, most of the family was joining him for the holidays. Armand had taken our dogs Karl and Emily with him, and Emily was expecting imminently. I had a gig, so I was the last to arrive. When I exited the train, I heard the loudspeaker blaring, “Ms. Anita Gillette, come to the information booth. Your puppies are being born!” Armand was on the way with the dogs in the back of his truck. By the time he got to the station, Emily had had three. We named them after each street he passed — St. Paul, Charles, and Saratoga. What a wonderful Christmas present! Everybody in the station was smiling and involved and some came out to see the puppies!