Published in KPBS On Air Magazine December 1998

Okay, here’s a surprising holiday tidbit:   It isn’t “Deck the Halls,” it’s “Deck the HALL,” as in dining hall. And that’s perfectly apt for “An American Christmas”, which is produced by Lamb’s Players Theatre in the turreted Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Del Coronado.   Robert Smyth, Lamb’s artistic director, corrected the oh-so-common error. This production, as it happens, had its inception eleven years ago, in the Great Hall at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Then, it was called “Dickens, Dining and Song”.

“When we think of a traditional Christmas,” says Smyth, “we always go back to a Victorian image of what Christmas is.   And that got us thinking, ‘What would make a distinctly American celebration?”

They tried out the “American Christmas” concept for three years at Granger Hall, an acoustically excellent, turn-of-the-century music hall in National City. When the Lambs moved to Coronado five years ago, they hooked up with the Hotel Del, which even provides special overnight packages in conjunction with the show.

It’s dinner theater, of a sort, but really much more. “Everything is completely integrated and woven together,” Smyth explains.   “It’s as if you walked back in time, to join a family, the Marshalls, celebrating Christmas at the turn of the century.”   This go-round, the show is set in 1908.

The 24 actors and musicians intersperse music, dance and humor with a five-course gourmet dinner.   There’s a capella singing, as well as a harp, guitars, a hammer dulcimer.

“Before TV,” says Smyth, “this is the way families would get together; they’d entertain each other.”

Everyone sits at round tables of eight, and the cast interacts with the audience for most of the three-hour evening.   In between courses, and during the champagne toast and Parade of Meats, there are solos and group numbers, recitations, poetry, comedy sketches, barbershop quartets, and traditional and original songs (the new ones composed by Vanda Eggington) appropriate to the era.   There’s talk about the national and local events of the day, as well as the history of the Del, Coronado and San Diego.

“Immigration was an important part of this country at that time,” Smyth says. “And this year, two of the Marshall brothers are married to immigrants — one Mexican, one Asian. But we’re not trying to confront heavy issues. It’s just a fun, enjoyable, celebratory evening. There isn’t really a story line or overarching theme, but there are little intrigues.”

It’s intriguing that, though the event doesn’t come cheap ($59-90, “and most of it goes to the Del”), it sells out almost all 11 performances, with up to 400 people attending each year.   And that’s only one of the Lamb’s holiday presentations. There’s also the 21st annual “Festival of Christmas”, this year a revisit of “A Christmas Waltz,” written and directed by Kerry Meads. And there are the two touring productions, “Heaven and Nature Sing” and “Parables of Christmas.”

In Smyth’s production of “An American Christmas”, many Lamb’s favorites will appear, as well as six local kids and the Turner family water-glass orchestra.   Speaking of favorites, don’t forget to practice up on “Deck the Hall.”

©1998 Patté Productions Inc.