When they were first released, some holiday classics could hardly be considered successes, said James Sanford, a film critic and former creative manager of Kalamazoo’s Alamo Drafthouse.
Despite lukewarm reviews and poor audience attendance, A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life are among a number of works that eventually managed to secure a coveted spot among the most sought-after holiday entertainment options.
“It’s very interesting how that evolution takes place, when you look back on a lot of the books and plays and films we now hold up as cherished classics and find out that when they were originally released, they didn’t make that much of an impression or they were a flop,” Sanford said. “If you go back and read the reviews of The Wizard of Oz, which was released in 1939, it was not well-liked and had some pretty nasty reviews and lost money.”
In fact, It’s A Wonderful Life wiped out Frank Capra’s production company after its release in 1946.
“For many, many years, you couldn’t even see It’s A Wonderful Life because Capra had locked it up,” Sanford said. “The first time I saw it was in a class during the 1980s at Western Michigan University. We watched it in two parts and when part one ended, we all went bananas because we wanted to see the rest.”
Like so many holiday movies, plays and musicals that draw people in, the appeal of It’s A Wonderful Life lies in the idea of stepping back from where you are and seeing the bigger picture, Sanford said.
“This includes the realization that each of us plays a crucial part in keeping the world the way it is and that if you take one person out of the equation, all sorts of scenarios can develop,” he said. “For a lot of people, they don’t think about that on a daily basis.”
The ability to draw out those emotions relies on a well-written story as much as good acting, said David Kiley, editor and publisher of EncoreMichigan, which focuses on the state’s theater scene. He said Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story are examples of well-written stories that have become holiday classics.
But when A Christmas Story first premiered, it did so with the words, “From the director who gave you Porky’s,” and people ignored the 1983 film. It wasn’t until several years later when the movie was on cable television and video that people finally discovered it, Sanford said.
“My dad said this was exactly what his childhood was like. There’s a lot of family tradition that plays into it,” Sanford said.
“We want to watch something that represents an old-time classic, that you kind of hope is what Christmas will be and then here’s what it turns out to be,” said Jennifer Furney, managing director of Kalamazoo’s New Vic Theatre, founded by her parents 50 years ago.
In 1980, the New Vic began an annual staging of A Christmas Carol. Every year since its debut, the show has been a sellout, Furney said.
“My parents were both nuts for Christmas. My dad had a love of Charles Dickens and he created a script and we did it as a regular performance,” Furney said. “We did a five-week run and it sold out, so the next week we added some shows and we had people coming to make reservations for the next year before they left.
“We didn’t intend for it to become a tradition, but it just kind of snowballed.”
People who saw the show when they were younger are now bringing their children and grandchildren and have made it part of the holiday celebrations.
Sanford was a cast member in a 1997 performance of A Christmas Carol at the New Vic, and said cast members joked that if they ever forgot their lines, they could count on the audience to provide them, because so many people were silently mouthing along.
Kiley said these holiday entertainment staples provide a predictability that audiences gravitate to. For many people, attending a performance of The Nutcracker Ballet or a staging of a holiday-themed show may be the one time of the year they watch a live production.
“Christmas shows are money in the bank,” Kiley said. “It’s these kinds of shows that are the cultural moorings for us. We know what’s going to happen with Scrooge, but we still want to see that. I would expect those kinds of shows to do even better this year, because the economy is good and so many of us don’t know what’s up or down anymore. It’s a known thing.”
A Christmas Carol
New Vic Theatre
134 E. Vine St., Kalamazoo
Nov. 17-Dec. 28, $25