How Much Would You Pay To See THE NUTCRACKER & Other Impt Holiday Qs

Certain holiday traditions take on so much significance that people can feel like the tradition = the holiday. When the tradition isn’t something you can control, though — when, indeed, it includes something you have to buy, something that can sell out before you get your hands on it — that can be tricky, as Evan James’ lovely essay in Catapult about working box office makes clear.

For a couple of years when I was in my mid-twenties, I was the one you called if you wanted to see the San Francisco Ballet perform The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker was the company’s annual cash cow. It’s a cash cow for ballet companies all over America, because of its whimsical and family-friendly character. (Unlike The Dying Swan, which recreates the last moments in the life of a swan — a spectacle no family wants to behold during the holidays.) In the phone room at the San Francisco Ballet during Nutcracker season, the lines rang all day long. A flashing red light on the telephone let clerks like myself know that even after we’d finished soothing one frantic mother, another frantic mother awaited. …

“We’ve gone to The Nutcracker every year,” she said. “It’s a Christmas tradition. What am I going to tell them? Sorry kids, no Nutcracker this year? No Christmas?”

The burdens of the season were clearly getting too heavy for this poor lady; she was being pressed down like Giles Corey in “The Crucible.”

Reading her on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown reaction reminded me of this recent letter to (the all new!!) Dear Prudence:

My 11-year-old granddaughter has been determined not to view The Nutcracker since she was very young. We have no idea why, and as long as it never was an option to take her, it wasn’t an issue. This year she will be visiting during the time the ballet will be presented in my town. Her mother and I both are happily looking forward to going. My granddaughter simply refuses to discuss it. Is it wrong to purchase a lovely dress for her to wear and tell her that her going with us is what we would like as a Christmas gift from her this year? It would be a dream come true for me to have my daughter and granddaughter both attend with me.

Mallory naturally provides a droll response: “You could probably make her go, as you and her mother outnumber her, and she’s too young to drive herself home during intermission, but that’s not a recipe for creating a delightful holiday memory.” But the larger point is, what is it about The Nutcracker that has such a Kilgrave-like effect on ordinary people?

Evan James expresses a similar bafflement.

It strained belief that every year more people wanted to see The Nutcracker than were actually able to. There were dozens of performances. The War Memorial Opera House seated three thousand. But toward the end of Nutcracker season, my job consisted simply of denying my callers anything they asked for. No tickets remained. Changing from one performance to another was impossible. I would sit in a small room off one of the somber hallways in the opera house — often it was just me and Katrina during the evening shift — saying, “No,” “I’m afraid not,” “I’m sorry, but,” and “No.”

That may have been the highlight of my not-inconsiderable time in the service industry. There’s something satisfying, for a short while at least, about making a living by being unable to help anyone at all.

My holidays never included The Nutcracker. I’m not even sure I’ve seen the show. I know there are dancing rats in it! And toy soldiers come to life! And there’s a little girl — maybe she goes to sleep and dreams of dancing rats? Poor kid.

I can attest to its continued popularity, though: one of Babygirl’s ballet-loving great aunts has been trying, with increasingly grim determination, to get us all tickets for a special kid-centered production in December. Perhaps if she succeeds I too will become an obsessive Nutcracker Mom, one who cannot fathom of a holiday season minus dancing rats, no matter the cost.

This story is part of our Holidays 2015 series.

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