Emlyn Williams, George: An Early Autobiography
Archives for December 2015
An excerpt from City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy, my first book, published in 1991.
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Not long after Thanksgiving, my mother would spend the better part of a Saturday afternoon making Christmas cookies and filling two round aluminum tins with dark brown squares of homemade chocolate fudge so rich that we were allowed to eat only one piece at a sitting. David and I cut the sticky cookie dough into stars and bells and silhouettes of Santa Claus and lovingly laid each piece on a greased cookie sheet. The Santa Claus cookies were special, for I took Santa Claus seriously. I left him a glass of milk and a plate of Christmas cookies before going to bed on Christmas Eve, and they were gone by sunup. When I was six years old, my family moved to 713 Hickory Drive, a house without a chimney. We had a long, tense family discussion that year about how Santa Claus would be able to get into our new house to bring us our presents. My father, a true man of the world, calmed me down by explaining that Santa Claus had a master key that unlocked the front door of every house on earth.
One terrible morning, my Sunday-school teacher announced in a matter-of-fact voice that there was no Santa Claus, a piece of news that left me choking back tears for the rest of the day. It took a little while for me to figure out that since the presents that magically appeared under the tree every year weren’t coming from the North Pole, they must be stashed somewhere in the house. That was when I gave up on Santa Claus and took matters into my own hands. I worked my way through all the upstairs closets. I opened every drawer and inspected every shelf that I was tall enough to reach. I spent whole afternoons quietly poking around the basement, a dark, cluttered cavern full of dusty shelves and moldy cardboard boxes, every one of which had to be opened and checked out.
Hunting for Christmas presents became an annual ritual, one that helped to ease me through a bad patch in my childhood: the year we added two rooms to 713 Hickory Drive. I don’t think my parents ever quite understood how frightening it is for a child to see his home torn up and transformed right before his eyes. To make matters even worse, my very own bedroom was schedule for demolition. After years of sharing a room with my brother, I had been allowed to move into the guest bedroom, which contained a phonograph and a long bookshelf and a double bed with flabby springs and a soft mattress. No sooner did the carpenters show up than this sumptuous retreat vanished in a cloud of sawdust. Before the week was out, my bedroom had become a hallway and four clothes closets. My father swore I’d have a bigger bedroom, but I didn’t care. I was furious.
My fury softened after I moved into my parents’ old bedroom, a bright and spacious corner room complete with half-bath, and it disappeared altogether as soon as I learned that one of the new closets would be lined with cedar panels. I loved the tart, cinnamonlike fragrance of cedar, so much so that I occasionally sat in the closet and read books by flashlight. Within a few months, it was so full of clothes that I couldn’t sit down anymore. By that time, though, I had a more compelling interest in the cedar closet, for I discovered one December afternoon that my parents were using it to hide Christmas presents. This discovery, about which I said nothing for several years, made it possible for me to keep track of the arrival of incoming presents. It also taught me how satisfying it is to keep a secret.
When the top shelf of the cedar closet was filled to the ceiling with toys, I knew it was time to bundle up, jump in the car, and drive down snowy country roads to spend Christmas Eve with the family. My grandmother started cooking when the sun came up, and by the time we got to Diehlstadt, you could smell the turkey and dressing a block away. After the last roll was buttered and the last gooey dessert tasted, we loosened our belts and sat down in the living room, where a scrawny little Christmas tree shed pine needles on an enormous mound of gifts. My grandmother invariably bought pathetic-looking Christmas trees whose limp branches drooped toward the floor like the arms of a starving man. I can’t imagine where she got them. Maybe she grew them in the root cellar out back….
Once we got home, David and I put out milk and cookies for Santa Claus and went to bed. Though we usually tried to stay up as late as we could, we never complained about going to bed early on Christmas Eve. We knew that the sooner we went to sleep, the sooner we would wake up and run down the hall to the living room in our pajamas and start tearing open presents….
My mother tucked me in and sang a chorus of “Winter Wonderland,” my favorite lullaby. Then I closed my eyes tightly and listened for the faint rustle of boxes being pulled out of the cedar closet. Weary from the long, happy day, I soon fell fast asleep.
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Louis Armstrong sings “Winter Wonderland” in 1952. The arrangement is by Gordon Jenkins:
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
• An American in Paris (musical, G, too complex for small children, reviewed here)
• China Doll (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)
• The Color Purple (musical, PG-13, virtually all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Fun Home (serious musical, PG-13, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Hamilton (musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• The King and I (musical, G, perfect for children with well-developed attention spans, reviewed here)
• Matilda (musical, G, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, closes Sept. 4, reviewed here)
• On Your Feet! (jukebox musical, G, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Spring Awakening (musical, PG-13/R, closes Jan. 24, reviewed here)
• Sylvia (comedy, PG-13, closes Jan. 24, reviewed here)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
• The Flick (serious comedy, PG-13, too long for young people with limited attention spans, reviewed here)
Louis Armstrong recites Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas.” This was Armstrong’s last commercial recording. He made it at his home in Queens on February 26, 1971, five months before his death:
To learn more about the history of this recording, go here.
In today’s Wall Street Journal I review the new Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Here’s an excerpt.
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How often should a classic musical be revived on Broadway? In the case of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which has just opened there for the sixth time since 1964, it’s hard not to wonder whether a point of diminishing returns might possibly be drawing nigh. “Fiddler” is a marvelous show, but the last revival, directed by David Leveaux and starring Alfred Molina, dates from 2004, and it was a fine one, both fresh and faithful. Granted, Bartlett Sher’s new version sports an even more impressive star turn by Danny Burstein, plus new dances by Hofesh Shechter, an Israeli-born modern-dance choreographer. All interesting, all promising—but do we really need another “Fiddler”? Now that I’ve seen this one, my answer is…maybe.
Mr. Sher, as always, has found his own way into “Fiddler,” taking a tack that owes nothing to Jerome Robbins’ original 1964 staging or any other version of which I’m aware, and I was sure for the first 15 minutes or so that I’d be writing a review as enthusiastic as the one I wrote of his letter-perfect Lincoln Center Theater revival of “The King and I.” But no: This production, intelligent and imaginative though it is, falls short of the mark…
We first see Mr. Burstein in modern dress on an empty stage, reading a book as he waits for a train. Then a shadowy house with a fiddler perched precariously on the roof is slowly lifted into view. Mr. Burstein shifts as if by magic into Orthodox Jewish garb and the stage fills with villagers. As the fiddler and the roof fly into the rafters and the cast strikes up “Tradition,” we see (or think we see) the bare brick walls of the stage itself. And as everyone starts speaking in accents indistinguishable from those you might hear on a present-day New York streetcorner, you get it: This is an “Our Town”-like “Fiddler on the Roof.” It’s also the most American-sounding “Fiddler” I’ve ever seen, and that’s the point: It is as if we are watching the Americanized descendants of the Jews of Anatevka retell the tales their great-grandparents told about shtetl life in 19th-century Russia….
But as the evening progressed, I realized, very much to my surprise, that I wasn’t feeling the intense emotions that by all rights ought to be stirred up by “Fiddler.” It is, after all, a musical about deadly serious matters, starting with the bloody pogrom that breaks up the wedding of Tevye’s daughter and ending with the forced emigration of every Jew in Anatevka. Such things ought to make us weep—and in this production, they don’t….
Mr. Sher has throttled back the feelings too far. One feels distant from his “Fiddler,” neatly framed as it is by the vaulting proscenium arch of the 1,761-seat Broadway Theatre, which is too big for the show….
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Read the whole thing here.
Scenes from a rehearsal for the new Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof: