Books, Ballet, and Booze: 11 Nutcracker Tales for the Holiday Season

Since the 1950s, many Americans can't really call it Christmas until they pack up the car, head to the theater, and cheer on their little ballerina in her first production of The Nutcracker Ballet. In honor of all those devoted siblings, parents, and other relations, here's some trivia to keep you awake until the snowflakes dance onstage.

1. Tools of the trade

The first nutcrackers were little more than pitted stones "“ more "nutsmashers" than "nutcrackers" "“ dating back 4,000 to 8,000 years ago. Metal nutcrackers date back to the third or fourth century B.C.E., with iron versions popping up in 13th century France. The soldier-style most commonly seen today emerged in Germany around 1830, earning a mention from the Brothers Grimm in their dictionary. Making these little guys is no easy task; most nutcrackers contain more than 40 distinct parts. The wood for the dolls has to come from certain altitudes, as a low-growing tree will have wider rings and soft wood, and a tree from higher elevations will be too hard to shape. Once selected, the wood is aged outdoors for several years, than indoors for several more. Then the wood is rounded, lathed, drilled, sanded, painted and pieced together. While most nutcrackers stand about 17" high, the world's largest working nutcracker stands an incredible 19'3". It's so massive, it can crack coconuts!

2. Of course, there's an easier way to make a "Nutcracker"

This sweet, chilly drink makes a great alternative to eggnog. Take ½ cup of ice, 1 oz. of vodka, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and ½ oz. each of Bailey's, Amaretto, and Frangelico. Dump everything into a blender and mix until creamy.

3. E.T.A. Hoffmann: one unlikely children's story author

ETA-Hoffmann.jpgErnst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann preferred music to literature, penning a symphony, nine operas, and two masses before turning to short stories late in life. He even changed his third name from Wilhelm to Amadeus as a tribute to Mozart. Music tended to get him into trouble, though, especially when combined with his heavy drinking. A competent civil servant, Hoffmann was nevertheless transferred four times due to his scandalous hobbies, among them an affair with an older woman whom he taught piano (he was in his teens), his fondness for caricaturizing local political figures, and his obsession with a second music student, this time a thirteen-year-old girl. He moved to Berlin after Napoleon's invasion of Warsaw, and it was there he first published "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." His Gothic stories are said to have inspired Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe. He might have become a literary giant, but he died of paralysis at the age of 46. Odds are he welcomed death: at the time, standard treatment for spinal marrow degeneration was to apply red hot pokers at the base of the spine.

4. Nutcrackers have a lot in common with swashbucklers

About thirty years after its initial publication, Hoffmann's story was retooled by Alexander Dumas (yes, Three Musketeers Dumas), whose version was the decidedly cheerier, but not nearly as well-titled, "The Tale of the Hazelnut-cracker." Dumas's story removed much of the complexity of Hoffmann's version, perhaps as a by-product of poor translation. Though Dumas admired Hoffmann, the Frenchman was not adept at the German language. It is unclear if he ordered a translation of Hoffmann's story to work from, or plodded through on his own. Dumas also added several religious references to the tale, recast Marie's sister as a comical governess, and softened Godfather Drosselmayer into an adoring guardian, rather than an ambivalent tutor. Still, it was this watered-down version that prompted Ivan Alexandrovitch Vsevolojsky to call on Marius Petipa and Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky "“ the dynamic duo behind the ballet Sleeping Beauty "“ to create The Nutcracker of Nuremberg.

5. If you believe in fairies, clap your hands

Neither author can take the credit for creating the Sugarplum Fairy, now considered one of the stars of the story. That accolade goes to Petipa. The famed choreographer originally refused to be involved with the Nutcracker project. The lead role was a seven-year-old child, hardly fitting for a prima ballerina, and there were no major female characters to accompany the Nutcracker in a pas de deux, a segment essential to classical ballet. In desperation, Vsevolojsky told his choreographer to write a new section entirely. Petipa set to work and returned with the Sugarplum Fairy, ruler of the Land of Sweets (itself an addition to the story), and a million pink-tutued dreams were born.

6. I'd like a sugarplum, hold the plum

The term sugarplum can mean either a sugary candy resembling a plum (made by layering syrup repeatedly over flavored seeds like aniseed or caraway) or a piece of candied fruit, most often raisins or currants. Even after sugar refineries opened in London in the 1540s, the sweet stuff was too pricey for all but the wealthiest families. Out-of-season fruits were also beyond the means of most households. Thus, sugar-preserved fruits became a holiday splurge. The Christmas connection was solidified in 1823 with the publication of "A Visit from St. Nick," more commonly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." The poem, attributed to Clement Clark Moore, contains the famous line "The children were nestled all snug in their beds while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads." While there is little evidence to support the theory, some believe the classic Christmas tale was the inspiration for Petipa's own dancing sugarplum nearly 70 years later.

7. Sure, the music is great, but you can't dance to it

Just as Petipa had misgivings about choreographing the ballet, Tchiakovsky wasn't thrilled about scoring it. He felt Petipa's rewrite didn't leave him much to work with. Still, there was pay involved, so Tchiakovsky quickly hammered out a score and settled back into the more important task of creating his opera Iolanthe. Even with the addition of the celesta—the instrument that gave the Sugarplum Fairy her signature sound—Tchiakovsky wrote that The Nutcracker Suite was "infinitely poorer" than Sleeping Beauty. Audiences thought otherwise. When the music premiered in March 1892 (eight months before the finished ballet), the crowd demanded immediate encores for at least six of the selections. Curiously, the ballet did not fare as well. One early review states "For dancers there is rather little in it, for art absolutely nothing, and for the artistic fate of our ballet, one more step downward." Needless to say, the reviews improved.

8. Fine, you can dance to it, but it'd make a terrible movie

When Walt Disney and his team began work on the concert film Fantasia, they selected mostly program music—instrumental music that suggests a story. But rather than animate the composers' intended visions, the Disney group came up with their own. For The Nutcracker, the animators turned to nature for inspiration, incorporating goldfish, leaves, flowers, mushrooms, and, uh, fairies into the segment (hey, this is Disney we're talking about). In this way, The Nutcracker Suite became an illustration for the changing seasons. Like the ballet, the 1940 film was not an immediate success. The lackluster audience reception, combined with World War II and rising overseas costs, prevented Disney from achieving his vision of releasing a redesigned version every year. Instead, more than half a century passed before a new installment saw the light of day. The film has seen validation in recent years, however; it ranked at #58 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Greatest Movies, and #5 on AFI's Top 10 Animated Films.

9. Nutcrackers make useful plot devices

In Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, a prince meets a poor boy with whom he shares a striking resemblance. The prince persuades his doppelganger to trade places for a few days. The switch proves ill-timed, however, as the king succumbs to illness and dies, leaving the prince to inherit the crown. On coronation day, the boys try to convince the court of their trick, but the deception is so complete, no one believes them. Where does a nutcracker come into play? It's actually a deus ex machina: the courtiers claim that the true prince will know the location of the royal seal, missing from its customary hiding place. Just when it seems that the true heir will live out his days in a dungeon, the pauper urges the prince to remember the last thing he did before leaving the castle. An advisor is sent out and returns with the seal, recovered from a suit of armor in the prince's chamber. So why didn't the pauper just say where the seal was the first time? He didn't know what it was. The poor kid had assumed it was a device for "“ you guessed it "“ cracking nuts.

10. Nutcrackers = tourist trap

nutcracker.jpgIn the 1930s, the mountain town of Leavenworth, Washington, was in a sorry state of affairs. Once a prosperous timber and rail town, the village was teetering on the brink of extinction. In the early 1960s, community leaders banded together to save their home. They proposed changing the town's appearance to that of a Bavarian village, capitalizing on the Alpine backdrop by selling German collectibles and, hopefully, spurring tourism. Think of it like Extreme Makeover: Entire Town Edition. Amazingly, the plan worked. Today, the charming hamlet welcomes over a million visitors a year, and is considered a pillar of tourism for the Pacific Northwest. And if nutcrackers just happen to be your thing, you're in luck. In addition to the dozens of Christmas shops selling them year-round, the town is home to the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum. Housing more than 5,000 nutcrackers, the museum boasts one of the largest collections in the world.

11. The 24 tie-in, a.k.a. Jack Bauer looks good in tights

Before Keifer Sutherland landed the role of TV's most butt-kicking government agent, he voiced the title character in the animated film The Nutcracker Prince. The 1990 movie is notable for its adherence to Hoffmann's original work, and earns bonus points for adding a kitten "“ Pavlova "“ named for one of the great ballerinas of the early twentieth century. Granted, the mouse king in this version doesn't have seven heads, the names of lead character Marie and her doll Clara are switched, and Clara does make an impassioned feminist speech about her desire to travel the world before marrying the Nutcracker, but all-in-all, it's not a bad effort. The film also features the voice talents of Phyllis Diller and Meghan Follows, of Anne of Green Gables fame. Strange coincidence? Sutherland was also in Disney's The Three Musketeers, tying it all back to Alexander Dumas.

Chelsea Collier is an actor/writer/trivia junkie currently living in Illinois. She studied Shakespeare in grad school and uses the word "gormandizing" whenever possible.

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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