T'was the night before Christmas and all across Raleigh, theatres were closed and quiet -- not jolly. Memorial Auditorium sat vacant and dark, as Scrooge had not yet come to give it a spark.
You wouldn't expect Ebenezer Scrooge to be the hero of holiday cheer, but Raleigh's own Scrooge is responsible for one of our hometown's most popular Christmas traditions.
Let's travel back to the Christmas of 1974, when he changed Raleigh forever by breathing Christmas spirit back into Memorial Auditorium.
Raleigh Christmas Past
An Abandoned Auditorium
Prior to its major renovations, the auditorium locked and bolted its doors during the holidays. Ira David Wood III, dazzled by the energy and magic of seeing The Nutcracker at the North Carolina School of the Arts, wanted to create that kind of Christmas wonder in Raleigh.
He wrote "A Christmas Carol" and performed it at Theatre in the Park, sparking a tradition that generations of Raleighites have enjoyed ever since. When the show outgrew the theatre's capacity, Wood said: "I asked the City Manager if we could see Memorial Auditorium."
"We actually cut the chain off the door of Memorial Auditorium," he said. "Nobody could find the key!"
"A rat as big as a beagle dog ran by," he laughed. "But when we stepped into that beautiful darkness we saw that stage."
That dusty stage would soon come to life, not only for the holidays but for the rest of the year!
"Our theatre was the first to bring shows to the stage of Memorial Auditorium again. When I drive past it, I feel kind of proud that we blazed a trail and brought some attention back to that building."
Connecting with the Village Subway
When A Christmas Carol launched in 1974, they dipped into the Raleigh music scene. At the time, many local bands played underneath Cameron Village in the now-abandoned Village Subway. Tom Bryan of Hard Times Jazz Band has played the musical score for Wood's show for decades.
"Tom used to come into rehearsals wearing flip-flops," Wood said. "I was mesmerized by Tom Bryan's big toe. It could keep time to the music!"
Hard Times Jazz Band was a tongue-in-cheek jazz-punk fusion band that frequented Cafe Deja Vu and the Cat's Cradle. With cool hats and vintage dress, the band had a flair for the theatrical that fit A Christmas Carol perfectly.
"These guys have been with us since 1974," recalled Wood. Though Cafe Deja Vu and many other popular music venues have closed in the past decades, the old Raleigh music scene comes back to life each Christmas at Theatre in the Park and Memorial Auditorium.
The Toe-Dance Bill of 1963
In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge works in business and banking. Wood, however, was born to be a farmer.
"I was a Future Farmer of America -- not by choice," Wood said.
Schools in Halifax County didn't offer music and theatre classes, so this future thespian went out for sports. In 1963, Governor Terry Sanford passed the Toe-Dancing Bill and created Wood's future school, the North Carolina School of the Arts.
According to Marion Ellis' history of Governor Sanford, "Not many people believed that a Southern state could produce any art worth the price of admission."
Decades later, it's produced Emmy winners and incredible artists. Wood says he found a square foot of the universe that belonged to him. "We were known as the toe-dance kids, and we made a name for ourselves."
Wood maintains his farming roots, however, "I quote my Vocational Agriculture teacher more than I quote Shakespeare. He said, 'You can take so much out of the soil, but unless you put something back to fertilize the soil, it won't grow. It'll be depleted.'"
"So I stay in North Carolina to put something back to a state that's given me so much."
Inspiration for Tiny Tim
Wood's father passed away suddenly when Wood was only 12 years old.
"I retreated into a world of make-believe. It was a world I could control and feel safe in."
"Childhood is a kingdom where nobody dies. When death comes through your life like that, your childhood is sucked away," he said.
For the past 44 years, audiences have shared, perhaps unknowingly, in Wood's childhood grief, while listening to Bob Cratchit sing "Christmas Song" to Tiny Tim on stage.
"I wrote that scene because the last time I ever saw my dad, he came and tucked me in and then walked out of my life. I wanted Bob Cratchit to sing the words I never got to hear. I think every parent would want to say this to their child on Christmas day."
During "Christmas Song," the lights dim on Scrooge, and for a few moments, Wood sits in the dark and watches this scene.
"It's my time to visit with my Dad."
Once, sitting in the shadows, Wood says he looked out in the audience and saw a Grandfather, a father, and a son. "I saw the Grandfather put his hand on his father's shoulder, and they both put their arms around the son." This, Wood says, is the Christmas present he wants to give Raleigh. "The awareness that we live in the moment and we have each other together this Christmas. We need to celebrate each moment in life."
Raleigh Christmas Present
A Decade-Long Magic Trick
Despite running for so many decades, the show has changed every year, adding new pop-culture jokes and political commentary.
"Actually, it changes every night!," Wood says.
For each show, Scrooge pulls a random audience member--often a child--to help with the famous "Christmas Trick."
"We are really redlining there," Wood laughed. "We never have any idea how the child will react or what they'll say!"
The Christmas Trick involves taking a dollar bill from the participant. "Nowadays," says Wood, "I make sure to return the dollar at the end of the show. But years ago I didn't give the dollar back; I just stole their dollar!" For years, the family built an annual joke about the fact that the kid never got his dollar back from greedy old Mr. Scrooge.
"Years later, the Dad came and told me about this family's annual joke."
Wood made a plan to surprise the son, now grown up, at the show.
"That night, after I gave the first kid his dollar back, I reached in the bag and said, 'Oh my goodness! There's another dollar in here! It's all moldy and old, and it has a name on it!"
And a 6-foot 4-inch man came up on stage to collect his dollar after all those years.
An On-Stage Wedding
"We've had half a dozen proposals on-stage," Wood wistfully recounts. "Men will call and set it up ahead of time. They will excuse themselves to go to the restroom, and we will call the woman up on stage as if she's been chosen at random for the trick. We bring up a huge box, and the guy steps out of the box with roses."
One lucky audience was treated to a once-in-a-lifetime romantic Christmas story. "We once 10-minute wedding right here on stage. We brought in a minister, and Scrooge was the flower girl!"
Raleigh Christmas Future
A New Generation Takes Over
When asked if Wood knew, when he first started playing Scrooge, if he would still be playing Scrooge and sharing A Christmas Carol 44 years later, he said, "I think I did. When talent and work join together you can expect a miracle."
Now, being 71, Wood says he's closer to being Scrooge now than he was in the beginning. He's watched the generations turn.
"I watched kids come to show, and now they're coming back and bringing their own kids. It's a wave of emotion, you realize how short a lifetime is. How quickly it goes."
This year, a new generation is stepping up to take the reigns. Wood's eldest son will take on the role of Scrooge for half the shows this year.
"It's a warm feeling to know the show will outlive me," he said.
Raleigh's Lost Christmas Past
Raleigh has grown so much, the city is nearly unrecognizable from the 1970's. Generations of Raleighites remember driving to see the Cross Family lights on New Bern Avenue. We recall nights of freedom and music at the Village Subway. We remember the sweet-nutty flavor of Grandma's fruit cake, and getting out of school for one inch of snow.
"Good theatre can help cleanse your emotions, blow some carbon out of the pipe," Wood said.
The audience can cry, then laugh in the next moment with tears still on your face. Christmas is a good time to connect with those memories and to build new traditions.
In the playbill every year the show has a page of people no longer with us.
"Every year I see it's growing, it's growing. You get in a point in your life where there's more goodbyes than hellos," he said somberly.
"Don't You Recall" is a song in the show about Christmases long ago. Wood invites the audience to experience "Christmas mourning" and grieve Christmas past during this song. "This is your chance to bring those lost loved ones on the stage."
Christmas is all about tradition. Generation after generation, we share those same sights and smells and songs. Because these sacred traditions are meant to always be the same, the loss of a loved one or an old favorite tradition is starkly highlighted during the holidays. "We want to go back and touch those memories when our loved ones used to be," says Wood.
A Christmas Carol allows families a night to spend time together, to laugh together and shed tears together, and to create those memories that will one day be part of Christmas Past.
"It's an honor," says Scrooge, "to be part of generations of local families' Christmases."
Heather is an ABC11 Influencer. Read more of her work on her blog.
Raleigh's Own Scrooge Ira David Wood III: A Hidden History of Christmas Past
(Stephen J. Larson)
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