CHAMBERSBURG, PA. -- It was one of those all-American scenes Norman Rockwell might have painted.
The portals of what used to function as the town's junior high school were decked with wreaths, garlands of fir and bright red ribbons. Around a twinkling tree in the lobby, carolers, dressed for a Victorian Christmas, were singing "O Come All Ye Faithful," as some 750 townsfolk jostled their way merrily into the auditorium.
Backstage, Scrooge was applying the final touches to a putty nose that hooked downward nastily and threatened to join his upper lip. In a few minutes, the curtain would go up on "A Christmas Carol." It was an event in this community of 17,000, about 75 miles northwest of Washington, a largely rural area rich in dairy farms and apple orchards. If not the first production of "A Christmas Carol" to play here (memories are hazy on this count), it was definitely the first professional production.
What Rockwell wouldn't have painted, however, although Dickens himself might have savored it, is the brouhaha that erupted when two local school administrators put the kibosh on an eagerly anticipated matinee planned specially for students.
Theater personnel were crestfallen. Teachers were upset. The local newspaper, the Public Opinion, branded the decision "bullheaded, indefensible and downright silly." One of the administrators, C.T. Fenstermacher, assistant superintendent for elementary services, now flatly refuses to discuss the episode, while the other, Superintendent George A. Tjiattas, was fined $1 at a meeting of the Lions Club for getting his name in the newspaper.
It all began innocently enough, as these things usually do, when Carl Schurr, who runs the Totem Pole Playhouse, a nearby summer theater, decided last August to reassemble the troops in Chambersburg over the holidays for a two-week run of "A Christmas Carol." He was immediately contacted by several teachers from the district's 19 schools who wanted to know if a morning performance could be arranged just for their students.
Schurr, who at 47 has managed to retain his childlike belief in both the theater and Christmas, seized on the idea, negotiated the extra performance with Actors Equity, and set aside the morning of Dec. 9. Although it meant taking a loss, tickets would be offered at $3.50 -- which later became a bone of contention. It was not the only one. The inscrutable forces of bureaucracy, as Dickens could have predicted, also figure in this tale.
Sue Powell, who teaches fifth grade at Duffield Elementary School, was one of the first to put through a field trip request in September.
"For some of my students, Hagerstown is as far away as they will ever get in their lifetimes," she says. "I thought, 'What better experience for them than to see a live stage production.' " Other teachers followed suit. A week later, Powell says, her request came back from Fenstermacher's office. Permission denied. Just why was not clear.
The administrators' arguments have undergone a series of flip-flops as they've attempted to shore up a clearly unpopular decision. Marty Walker, a lawyer, whose son Greg is one of several residents playing bit roles in the production (he's the "Turkey Boy"), believes that "part of the difficulty was that the idea was not proposed by the higher-ups. It came from the teachers first and maybe they bypassed the powers that be. That seems to be a sin. If so, it's a shame that our administrators couldn't overlook it."
"A Christmas Carol," it turned out, wasn't on Chambersburg's list of officially approved field trips, drawn up about five years ago. The list, periodically revised, sanctions high-minded visits to Gettysburg's historic sites and museums, but also endorses outings to a pumpkin patch at Halloween, cow milking stalls and the town's Pizza Hut. The latter, according to Superintendent Tjiattas, is not to be sniffed at.
"Take a second-grade child who is studying community business," he says, in defense of school visits to the pizza parlor. "He can see the development and preparation of food in his own town. What kid wouldn't enjoy that?"
"A Christmas Carol," however, apparently fell into the more questionable area of "entertainment," despite a moral some might think of as mildly salutary.
There was also the question of money -- Fenstermacher claiming (when he was still talking to the press) that he "didn't feel we should charge children for programs taking place during the day." Backing up his colleague, Tjiattas asserted that Schurr merely "wanted a captive audience at $3.50 a kid" and asked, rhetorically, how a schoolchild who couldn't afford lunch could buy a ticket.
Several of the district's PTAs (Parent-Teacher Associations) and PTOs (Parent-Teacher Organizations) had the answer to that one. They were willing to subsidize the cost of tickets.
Says Powell, "Our PTO was going to pay half the ticket price for any kid who didn't have enough money. I teach in a fairly poor school and I can't believe there isn't a kid in this district who doesn't have $1.75. They may choose to use it to buy a pack of cigarettes, but they've got it."
Mary Schollaert, a guidance counselor in the school system and president of the Mary B. Sharpe Elementary School PTA, says her PTA was ready to underwrite the costs, too. Heading off to a bimonthly meeting of the PTA-PTO Council in early October, she resolved to get the council members to stand up to Fenstermacher and challenge his decision. Wasn't the Council supposed to promote cultural activities?
By the same token, no one was all that convinced that Fenstermacher, who has a reputation for sticking to his guns, could be won over to the side of Tiny Tim. After pleading her case, Schollaert had to leave before the meeting ended. By the time it did, the issue had been tabled.
Schurr, who can't go to a grocery store without falling into a long chat with the checkout clerk, says his attempts to talk with the administrators "ran up against a brick wall" almost from the start. Repeated phone calls got him nowhere. In a small town, however, you can't do much without everyone eventually knowing it -- a natural process that tends to be hastened along when you're also putting up posters.
As the company geared up for rehearsals in November, parents themselves started inquiring about the student matinee. That's when the Public Opinion, in a story headlined "Pupils won't get the Dickens," broke the bad news.
"I was concerned about the loss of school time," Fenstermacher informed the paper. "There's only so much school time and teachers are always saying they need more class time."
Schurr couldn't believe his 90-minute production was considered a useless diversion. Especially when the schools dutifully closed down on Nov. 30 to mark one of the area's official holidays: the opening of deer season.
Taking Fenstermacher and Tjiattas to task, the Public Opinion noted that their "first names are not Ebenezer, but should be" and subsequently ran an editorial cartoon of Tjiattas on a psychiatrist's couch. The shrink in the cartoon is asking, "Now, once more Dr. Tjiattas, what did you say the Ghost of Christmas Past left in your stocking?" Tjiattas was not amused.
Gossip around town intimated that the administrators were afraid of getting embroiled in a controversy over the separation of church and state. "That's what I was told originally," Schurr says. "But that didn't make any sense to me. We were putting Scrooge on the stage, not the Virgin Mary." Bill Pukmel, executive editor of the Public Opinion, heard that story, too, but says the paper could "never pin it down as a real motive."
Whatever their reasons, the school officials refused to back down. So did Schurr, who proceeded with the matinee. Last Wednesday at 9:30 a.m., 163 pupils from Corpus Christi Catholic School in Chambersburg and Big Spring Elementary School in outlying Newville got what amounted to a command performance of "A Christmas Carol." Neither school falls under Tjiattas and Fenstermacher's jurisdiction.
Jacob Marley's ghostly emergence from Scrooge's vault -- chains clanking about his ankles and billows of fog swirling about his grizzled head -- took some momentarily aback, and the graveyard scene was deemed scary. But as one pupil pointed out afterward in a fan letter to the company, "I think that Mr. Scrooge learned his lesson. Did you think so, too?" "The children have been talking about nothing else for a solid week," says Barbara Herter, Corpus Christi's principal.
Tjiattas now concedes that he didn't expect such a reaction to the ruling and that maybe next year, if "logistics" can be worked out, "A Christmas Carol" will make it onto the list of approved field trips, up there with the kitchen at the Pizza Hut. But it won't be his baby. He's retiring in June.
Meanwhile, the publicity hasn't hurt the production -- only feelings -- and most performances have sold out at prices ranging from $7 to $10, with children getting in for half price. If that's a bargain -- and the consensus around here is that it is -- it's a bargain that Tjiattas is nonetheless resisting.
"I'm sure it's a wonderful opportunity," he says. "But I doubt I'll go. I've seen Ebenezer Scrooge many times."