From One Play, 80 Years of Tradition
Monday, December 25, 2006
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- The winter that Ansel Adams shot one of his most renowned images of Half Dome, Yosemite's iconic granite crest, he nearly gave up photography to become a classical musician.
This year, a play he wrote and set to music from that time, "The Bracebridge Dinner," celebrates its 80th anniversary in performances at the park's Ahwahnee Hotel.
Hundreds of families have made a tradition of attending the elaborate Christmas story about a fictional English squire, flying in from around the world to eat the accompanying sumptuous eight-course meal.
For the electricians and park rangers who make up the pageant's Renaissance-era ensemble cast, it's a chance to play a role in Adams's imaginary world.
"He brought the way he viewed the world to all of our eyes," said Dave Giles, a payroll manager at the park who dons tights to be an extra. "He loved Yosemite, and the Bracebridge was one of the many ways he was able to bring that out."
Conceived as a ploy to lure travelers to the park in winter in the mid-1920s, the play tells the story of a holiday evening at Bracebridge Hall, home to an unusual English nobleman based loosely on a character in a short story by Washington Irving, author of "Rip Van Winkle."
Until 2002, tickets to the performance were distributed by lottery, with as many as 60,000 people annually applying for 2,000 available spots. Now the event has expanded to allow open ticketing, and audiences have filled the 350 available seats each night, despite the $345 price tag. This season's performances conclude Tuesday.
On a recent snowy evening, a dozen hotel chefs fanned out bearing trays of pears poached in Riesling, in preparation for the onslaught.
Guests decked out in evening wear sat in near darkness as singers wearing brocade, furs and sequined pantaloons pranced into the Ahwahnee's dining room.
"Let the feast begin!" boomed Lord Merrick, a.k.a. Squire Bracebridge, played by San Francisco actor Michael McCarty.
Like any production, the dinner has had its share of glitches, cast and crew said. Once, a squirrel chewed through the electrical wires. Last week, a prop was lost in the vast hotel.
Adams wrote the script, arranged the music, oversaw the show's choir, and played both jester and host for the more than 40 years, and he always preferred community involvement to professional polish. So generations of park employees and Yosemite locals have grown up playing characters in the play.
"If you lived in Yosemite, you want to be a part of the Bracebridge," said the photographer's son, 73-year-old Michael Adams, who has moonlighted as villager and wassail bearer over the years.
No one knows that tradition better than the dinner's executive producer, Andrea Fulton, whose father took over direction of the pageant when Adams retired in 1973.
"Ansel was a very detailed person. I can remember sitting at a dress rehearsal that lasted until 4 in the morning while he aimed and re-aimed a light," she said.
Fulton added lines and songs to Adams's original pageant six years ago to reach a contemporary audience.
"His contribution was making a beautiful, sedate pageant, but I thought we needed more laughter," she said.