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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Christmas past, present and future: The Hippodrome’s holiday season

‘A Christmas Carol,’‘The Ultimate Christmas Show’ connect generations of actors

<p>Actors from The Hippodrome are seen on stage for A Christmas Carol. </p>

Actors from The Hippodrome are seen on stage for A Christmas Carol. 

To some people, Christmas begins when a shining star is placed on the peak of an ornamented fir tree. For others, it starts when the radio decides it’s time to air Christmas music. But for many people in Gainesville, the holiday season doesn’t kick off until they view a theatrical spin of a classic tale. 

From Nov. 25 to Dec. 23, “A Christmas Carol” and “The Ultimate Christmas Show” will be sharing the mainstage at the historic theater, bringing a classic tale and a comedic production to local audiences.

“A Christmas Carol” has been a staple of the local holiday season for over 40 years. In this year’s production actors both new and old partook in the classic holiday tradition, kicking off the Gainesville holiday season. 

For Gainesville local Jason Smith’s family, “A Christmas Carol” has been a quintessential part of the Christmas season for over 39 years. He, along with his wife, kids, and extended family, have faithfully seen each yearly rendition of the tale at the Hippodrome, thanks to his mother, Connie Smith.

Each year, Connie rounds up the family into two rows in the Hipp’s audience to watch the production, bringing together her three sons and five grandchildren. The tradition began when Jason Smith was a child. 

“Every year she finds out how many tickets we need and she makes sure we all get them,” said Jaime Smith, Jason’s wife.

Jaime saw the play for the first time with her soon-to-be husband when she was 15 years old. Now at 47, she’s seen it with him every year since, except for 2020. The pair can recite the lines of the production verbatim.

“They have the whole audience sing Jingle Bells at the end and it’s just so fun,” said Jaime Smith. “It makes you feel like you’re part of the community when you go to the Hippodrome.”

After decades of experience, the Smiths have their traditions associated with the play. The usual group of 11 family members, with the occasional added guests, dress up and pile into two rows in the audience. When the play is finished, they eat out at a restaurant downtown and relish in the Christmas spirit.

“It brings tears to my eyes almost every single year somewhere in it,” said Jason Smith. “They do such a great job of kind of touching human emotions.”

The Smith family are not the only people who cherish “A Christmas Carol.”

“A lot of people say to us, individually or collectively, that their holiday doesn’t really start until they see the show,” said Greg Jones, the actor behind Ebenezer Scrooge. 

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Greg Jones is returning to the Hippodrome this year for his 25th run of “A Christmas Carol,” playing the grumpy miser who begrudgingly learns the meaning of Christmas. 

But he hasn’t always been Scrooge. 

For 16 years he played the role of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s ghost business partner, alongside Hippodrome legend Rusty Salling. Before Salling’s passing in 2016, he told Jones he wanted him to take over the role of Scrooge when he’s gone.

“He kind of bequeathed it to me, and I was honored,” Jones said. 

For the past six years, Jones has been faithful to his promise, bringing the grumpy Victorian English character to 21st-century downtown Gainesville. 

His favorite part of being involved with this show is working with and mentoring the 22 child actors involved in the show, Jones said. 

“It’s just a delight because you’re seeing theater and creativity through their eyes,” Jones said. “You’re seeing the wonder and the joy of Christmas.”

For five days a week, the cast puts on matinee performances for students from Alachua County Public Schools. After these shows, the students can ask questions directly to the actors during talk-back sessions. 

“This production is just such a part of the fabric of this community,” Stephanie Lynge, the creative director of the Hippodrome, said.

Along with their annual show, the theater is simultaneously showing “The Ultimate Christmas Show.” The comedic Christmas-themed play is returning for its second time at the Hippodrome. 

“Seven years ago, we did ‘The Ultimate Christmas Show,’” Lynge said. “People still tell me how much their sides hurt from laughing.”

The plot follows three characters as they scramble to put together an entire Christmas pageant by themselves after none of the acts scheduled to perform show up. The result is an amusing amalgamation of holiday traditions, carols and stories from different cultures and religions, completed with the help of some audience participation.

Kevin Rainsberger, who plays a caricatured version of himself, takes the stage as one of the Christmas show performers . A veteran of over 30 shows at the Hippodrome, he was also the first to perform as Scrooge in the Hippodrome’s current location in 1981.

“There are three characters in the show that are really three generations apart,” Rainsberger. “We got three guys 20 years apart that bring their own experience to the show, and I think that’s a cool aspect.”

The play also stars Jonathan Bangs, playing himself. Originally from Los Angeles, he eagerly returns to Gainesville this year for his second show at the Hippodrome. In January, he starred as the titular character in “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.”

“Knowing that I had an opening for the winter season and saw that they were doing this show, there’s no other place I wanted to go back to,” said Bangs. “It’s honestly like a dream come true to be able to start the year here and close the year here.”

For actors, directors, set designers and other people involved in putting on these productions, the rehearsals and preparation makes Christmas come early. 

“You’re already thinking about Christmas in mid-October, or even earlier than that,” said Rainsberger. “Christmas is the last quarter of the year. And I’m not saying you ever get sick of it, but Christmas is in your brain.” 

Both shows are performed on the same stage, which brings a unique challenge to each play’s setup and scenery. 

When “A Christmas Carol” finishes its matinee in the early evening, its crew strips the stage of its props while “The Ultimate Christmas Show” crew sets the stage for its completely different location in just a few hours. 

“It’s a lot of work to do two shows in the same space,” said Lynge.

But despite the hard work that goes into these shows, there is no lack of Christmas spirit at the Hippodrome.

“It almost feels like ... Santa Claus is real,” Bangs said. “It feels like you’re working for Santa Claus because you’re bringing Christmas to people.”

Contact Bonny Matejowsky at Follow her on Twitter @bonnymatejowsky 

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Bonny Matejowsky

Bonny Matejowsky is a third-year journalism major and a Fall 2023 Avenue Reporter. When she’s not writing, you can find her thrifting or watching Twin Peaks.

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