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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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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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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
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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