Jaradoa Radio Theater performed a live reading of a radio play, The Gildersleeve Christmas Show, for residents of a senior living facility, the Kittay House in the Bronx, on December 8, 2009. This was a little less than 61 years after the play originally aired, on December 22, 1948.
The show was run by Jaradoa powerhouse Chris Harbur from a script that had been transcribed, adapted, and gender-equalized by Anika Larsen. (The star of the play, Throckmorton Philharmonic Gildersleeve, was actually a spin-off character from the radio sitcom Fibber McGee and Molly, and starred in dozens of radio plays and seven films in the ’40s, plus a short-lived 1955 TV sitcom.)
But enough backstory. Fourteen Jaradoans arrived at Kittay in the early evening to a crowd of about 75 seniors, attendants, and family members. Before we started, Anika and John confirmed our number-one priority as a cast: Keep the show moving. Given this directive, we naturally started by distributing hats among ourselves—one of Jaradoa Radio Theater’s greatest strengths. A suitcase containing a wide variety of old-school headpieces is schlepped to each play; hat distribution is cutthroat. I managed to secure a sweet tan fedora, and the veiled skullcap—there is probably a better word for this; in fact, I’m certain there is—was snapped up by Lena Moy-Bergen.
Lilli Wosk (also behatted) provided sight-read piano accompaniment, as well as musical sound effects (music box, etc.) via grand piano. All other sound effects (shoes walking, bells ringing) were provided by Garfield, who came well prepared with the appropriate props.
Announcers Chris and Dani opened the story by setting the scene with an ad for the original Gildersleeve sponsor, Kraft, here promoting that Christmas staple, Parkay margarine.
The story focused on Gildersleeve, or Gildy (played by Jaradoa member Sol), the city water commissioner, as he prepared for Christmas. (Given the miniscule number of theater pieces about city water commissioners, the authors almost definitely ripped off Gildy’s occupation from Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People). Having recently adopted a baby girl found in the backseat of his car, Gildy proceeds to go about town to prepare for the family’s first Christmas with Baby (played with surprisingly meaningful goo-goos and gah-gahs by Anika Larson). Gildersleeve and his cousin, Leroy (Joshua), select a tree from new-to-town tree vendor Bob (also Chris, with a different hat). When Gildy can’t afford the tree they select, Bob reveals that the kindly Judge Hooker has already paid for it. This leads to Gildy’s line, “Well, fine old dame the judge is.” For unclear reasons, this brought the house down, and proceedings had to be put temporarily on pause.
Anyway, while prepping for his holiday celebration, the intensely private Gildy somehow gets roped into inviting several other town characters to his party, including his barber (Timothy), the Judge herself (Jenn), town pharmacist Mrs. Peavy (Elise), and Bob, that mysterious Christmas tree salesman. At Gildersleeve’s climactic Christmas party, Bob reveals that the baby is his, but that he didn’t have the means to take care of her when his wife died. His friend, the Judge, facilitated the baby being left in Gildersleeve’s car where Gildy would find her. They all agree to have Bob keep seeing his child even though custody will remain with Gildy, in an early ode to nontraditional family structure.
The Jaradoans love to perform, so in between scenes, they sang Christmas carols. Dani kicked off the first interlude with a beautiful rendition of “I Got Lost in His Arms” from Annie Get Your Gun, which brought a genuine tear to certain people’s eye. Lindsey did a smooth “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and Anika sang “O Holy Night,” nearly destroying the venue’s speakers with her power. Jenn followed up with “Embraceable You,” a George and Ira Gershwin song made famous by Billie Holiday in 1944; sure enough, at least three seniors were seen mouthing every word with her. Joshua wrapped up by singing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” with Chris and Anika, inspired by his soulful take, providing impromptu interjections.
After wrapping, the plan was to keep the evening going by distributing a sheet of Christmas carol music for a group-sing. So the entire cast (except Lilli, who continued to woman the ivories) headed into the audience. After every verse of “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls,” we ended with a roof-raising rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” plus an unplanned a cappella rendition of “Silent Night.”
Immediately after that, we chatted with the residents for a good hour—and most were happy to stick around. One of the reasons Jaradoa enjoys playing in homes like these is that it seems that the residents don’t get talked to, or talked with, very often. The home, Kittay House, isn’t too easy to get to from most boroughs (it’s pretty far up, parallel with the northern tip of Manhattan). A lot of the residents’ conversations with the staff are, by necessity, purely functional. That’s where Jaradoa comes in. We just chatted with them, doing a lot of listening, and heard some amazing stories as well as positive feedback. When polled informally, most said their favorite part of the evening had been hearing Jaradoans sing their solos, but hastily added that they also loved everything else about the show. A few remembered listening to similar radio plays when they were kids.
However, the residents did have some gentle recommendations for improvement. One woman commented, “Next time it should be longer, and have alcohol.” We conceded that both modifications would sit well with us. When Anika pressed further—“Like champagne?”—the response was, “No, like a bottle.” We’re pretty sure she meant some harder liquor was in order—in the holiday spirit, of course. By the way, this advice came from someone who called herself “Caroline—like two meatballs.” Which begs the question: What other type of Caroline is there?
On our way out, we were offered fond parting tips, including “Don’t get drunk on the way back to the train.” We changed plans and did not (for once).
As we packed up our hats and got ready to head back to the subway, the final plot twist arrived, much like Bob’s revelation that it’s his baby Gildy has adopted. Several residents advised us: “Maybe next time, you could sing some Hanukkah songs.” We agreed—next time, we’d try to do that.
“No, seriously,” the residents insisted, “We really enjoy Hanukkah songs.” We asked around our contingent, but no one really knew more than the first stanza of “I Have a Little Dreidel.” Again, we promised to learn some for next time. Still, they kept persisting.
At this point we looked around the room a bit more carefully, like a newborn puppy when it first opens its eyes. This time, we couldn’t help but note the lack of any Christmas tree—there were just menorahs, really. Also, there was a preponderance of mezuzahs. Wait a second. As realization set in on us, Sixth Sense-style, a kindly resident finally clarified matters: “You could sing some Hanukkah songs—because it’s a Jewish home.” Whoops.
Despite the social gaffe (and this actually was the troupe’s second time performing at Kittay House!), we hope we brought some attention, conversation, stimulation, and joy to the seniors we performed for, sang with, and spoke to—even if we missed the entire religious affiliation of this place, even if we didn’t bring any liquor, and even if your name happened to be Carol, like two meatballs.