Wartime holiday show in Vandergrift hits sentimental notes
The clouds of war are on the horizon as a family celebrates Thanksgiving Day in 1941.
Barely two weeks later, their Christmas preparations are interrupted as they gather around the centerpiece of their home, their radio, to listen to president Franklin D. Roosevelt's historic declaration of war against Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor the day before.
In a month that is supposed to be filled with joyful anticipation of the holidays, confusion and fear reign.
It is against this backdrop that the 17th annual Hometown Christmas, the Alle-Kiski Valley's largest community holiday production, plays out Friday through next Sunday at the Casino Theatre in Vandergrift, with the musical “Hope is Just Around the Corner.” It is presented by Vandergrift borough and Alle-Kiski Valley residents who volunteer their time.
“The story is about family and community at a very difficult time in our nation's history. It is so profound. You can really feel how the people in the family feel. It is very moving to see the hope this family finds in Christmas,” says director Patti Albert of Washington Township.
“The time is right, and I fell in love with this one when I found it,” she adds. She loves all of her Hometown Christmas shows, but this and 2005's “A Christmas of Hope” are her favorites. “It is a must-see for anyone. It is funny, entertaining, moving and will make the audience perhaps shed a tear or two,” she says.
Although the times are troublesome, there are moments of light-heartedness as the family turns to its radio for entertainment and escape, listening to the big-band music of the era, stories of “The Lone Ranger” and “The Shadow,” classic programs such as “Fibber McGee and Molly” and various skits of the airwaves, all brought to life on the Casino stage by a choir, musicians and actors.
The soundtrack includes familiar Christmas songs and classics such as “Boogie, Woogie, Bugle Boy,” “Over the Rainbow” and “In the Mood.”
The story is narrated for the audience by family patriarch Howard West (portrayed by Dan Albert of Washington Township), the grandfather, who also interacts with his family. “It is about finding the true meaning of Christmas at a time of great hopelessness in our country,” he says. “I like the storyline; it's funny and compelling at the same time.”
Parallels can be drawn to today, he says, as we enter a holiday season with our military engaged in foreign battles and the economy struggling.
“It really hits home, a slice of life story and, sometimes, those are the most touching,” says Karissa Lloyd of Vandergrift, who portrays Angie West, the younger daughter of Howard. “The radio dramas are pretty funny. I would definitely listen to radio more if it (today's radio) were like that.”
Lloyd had performed every year in Hometown Christmas, until 2006, when she entered college. “This is my first year back, and it's just been fantastic. The sense of community is definitely welcome,” she says.
There are several new cast members, Patti Albert says, “and what is really exciting is the number of returning adults who were in the show as kids.”
Mark Riffer of Allegheny Township is making his Hometown Christmas debut, returning home after a 24-year career in the Air Force, including a year in Iraq.
“I enjoy the family atmosphere and seeing and hearing all the different talents in our local areas,” he says, “and being a part of something that takes commitment and dedication to, hopefully, reach someone with a great message. It's not easy with our busy lives to make such a commitment.”
He is especially enjoying the opportunity to share the experience with his daughter, Holi, 10, who is in the youth radio choir.
Mark Riffer is in the choir, an announcer in the “Lone Ranger” skit and a newscaster. He is amazed at the talent and dedication of Albert. “She keeps us all on task and brings it all together, all while showing an amazing upbeat, professional attitude. We need more people like Patti in this world.”
She treats everyone in the cast as a family member, adds Joanne Zboran of Allegheny Township.
Zboran, who is in the radio choir and in a trio that sings “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” has been in all 17 shows. Hometown Christmas isn't just the name of a show. It's friends, family and total strangers gathering together to celebrate, joy, hope and love at Christmas time,” she says. This year's is a “very sentimental” offering, she says.
“It makes you think of how lucky we all are to have each other and to try to always find that glimmer of hope no matter what the odds,” she says. “If we all stick together, hope is just around the corner.”
This is a unique and emotional show, says radio choir member Allison Checkeye of Oklahoma Borough, who hopes that the audience comes down with a case of “the warm-n-fuzzies.” “Old music through the radio has this velvety golden sound to it. It reminds me of Christmas at home listening to old records,” she says.
Peggy Dvorznak of Allegheny Township, who plays the widowed Lil, calls “Hope is Just Around the Corner” “one of the most, if not the most, touching shows that I have been a part of in all my 11 years with Hometown Christmas.”
She was 2 1⁄2 years old when World War II was over and her dad came home.
“He was a stranger to me, and I got to love him again. I remember sitting on the floor listening by the radio to the ‘Lone Ranger' and ‘The Shadow.' You used your imagination back then to picture everything that was happening,” Dvorznak says.
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.