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

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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.

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December 24, 2008 - 11:00pm
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