Thursday, December 15, 2011

Backstage at the Thanksgiving Show

Husband and Guest doing a frogstand

      I’m not quite sure how it started.  How the first germ of an idea came to be or how it developed into the extravaganza it is today.  Perhaps it was the Adirondack family fitness challenge, which could do the most sit-ups, push-ups and pull –ups that provided the spring board.  Maybe it was the constant climbing/ dance lifts my niece Cara did onto my now husband then boyfriend’s back that clearly needed a performance opportunity that spurred us on.  Or maybe the fact that Grandpa Dave, mom and I would sometimes casually sing together provided an inspiration.
        Whatever it was led us down the path of the annual post dinner Thanksgiving show. No sitting around after dinner regretting our gluttonous intake with our belts loosened; we were ready for action. It started small with my niece Cara singing the repetitive song Mr. Pumpkin, followed by one of my brother’s twin sons Jeremy executing his hand stands.  Next, Grandpa Dave would take out his harmonica and play something down home like the “Swanee River.”  To bring back the vaudevillian flavor of our program, my brother and I would then perform the family frog stands on the rug.  Those who could like my husband’s nephew Tommy, the twins Jeremy and Greg as well as my husband Johnny joined us.  Cara and Johnny would perform a few ballet lifts and we would finish off the show with an uplifting rendition of “Amazing Grace.”  Grandpa Dave, my mom and I would sing the first verse and then everyone would join us on the remaining verses.
      I think you see where we are going with the show; nothing too typical, nothing professional, the unusual was favored.   We used our lesser talents and brought forth are parlour tricks, if you will.   My husband and I are professional dancers and performers but have never used that as an act; we prefer to do frog stands or acts of flexibility.  An Argentine Tango just wouldn’t fit in.  In addition, I produced the show yearly and Johnny was our unflappable MC.  I seem to have the talent of creating something out of nothing, putting a spin on it and justifying it.  He, on the other hand, had the talent of communicating this to the audience with conviction, comedy and drama.
       What kind of family puts on these yearly events?  Well, “the show” never occurred until I met my husband and his family and we started having our annual Thanksgiving celebration up at our camp in the Adirondacks.  We all slept there for two to three nights so perhaps our personalities coupled with cabin fever provided the right atmosphere for our theatrics.  My husband’s family is artists of varying talents, and my brother’s family is divided between sports for the three guys and dance for my niece and her mom Bonnie.  On top of this each family possesses some circus like abilities; my husband’s family is extremely flexible through the hips and my brother’s family has unusual balance.  As the producer, I have exploited both characteristics to provide comedy and oddness for our annual shows.
       Over time new family members arrived and with the new additions, the show altered. As the creator and producer, I was thankful for the additions, as putting a new and interesting spin on Mr. Pumpkin and a frog stand every year had become challenging.  Tommy’s girlfriend Melissa (now wife) joined us in 2000, and my family expanded to include two boys Joey and Lucas in 2002.  Thanksgiving 2002 included the mystery of the stolen prince that involved my 10 week child and somehow tied the whole thing together.  Tommy was always fun by himself but now with the addition of Melissa they would add an act that entailed art.  No slouch in the athletic category, Tommy also participated in the flexibility category while last year Melissa somehow sustained her yoga headstand next to my flailing headstand that lasted all of 2 seconds before falling three times.  Persistence is one of my strengths and downfalls, as I continued to say “I got it, just one more try.”
       Sadly, the theater was black in 2008 when Thanksgiving was in New York City without my brother’s family and we were uninspired with half the cast missing.  However, in 2009 we were back together in Vermont and the New Yorkers made the six hour trip up to Stowe, Vermont for the Holiday.  I’m going to say that this was one of our better shows.  Grandpa Dave had written his own introduction for his musical performance and had a costume, Tommy and Melissa had planned some camera flashing in the dark outlining the body act, the flexibility acts with the Martinez hips and my head to toe touching flexible back were impressive and the dog obedience act outdid itself.  We were back.
Son executing the frogstand
       Of course no show is complete without an audience and we were lucky to every year have Uncle Freddie, Johnny’s mom Carmen and Cream Puff (Uncle Freddie’s dog) as our consistent fan club.  My brother was also in the audience but annually made his walk to the stage with dignity to perform his requisite frog stand and his wife Bonnie (also in the audience) was frequently involved in a dog act.  My mom, sitting in the audience, rose every year to sing the finale “Amazing Grace” with solid harmony. The rest of us were running around backstage in the dining room and kitchen readying ourselves for our barely rehearsed acts.
       Thanksgiving 2010 was filled with joy to be together but tinged with sadness as the Adirondack house was for sale and we were quite sure it would be our last Thanksgiving there. Nonetheless, the show must go on and we received new inspiration that year in the form of the neighbors.  We had just found out that new friends (the Maxwells) in Saratoga had a home down the road from us in Speculator and they were joining us for dinner.  They took their food and theater seriously, bringing all sorts of goodies to eat and arriving for the show with a violin and a reading from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”  I’m not sure anyone quite knew how to take the first thirty seconds of Otis’s reading of “The Canterbury Tales” in Middle English wearing a unique hat, but within minutes, we realized that it fit the 19th century salon theater style we craved and embraced it.  Hence, we had ushered in a new era of “the dramatic reading.”
       The Maxwells were not the only new performers that year.  Logan Blaise Martinez (heir to Tommy and Melissa) had entered the world and was debuting at the age of eight and one/half months.  Actually, he was in two acts; the first being a series of unusual baby sounds assisted by Tommy and he opened up the lift act.  I am practically proud of this further development of Johnny and Cara’s lift act which had grown a little predictable and needed a new spin.  I called this act – the unaware, the bizarre and the classical.  Tommy and Logan did some interesting poses in which Logan unaware of his participation was highly cooperative.  Lucas and I on the other hand worked our butts off.  Lucas and I frequently do lifts at home and it was time to bring it to the public combining my strength and sense of drama with Lucas’s flexibility and passion for the bizarre.  We concluded the lift segment with some classical ballet lifts with Johnny and Cara who has now grown to 5 foot 7 inches.  As always, the frog stand is done as both a nod to the tradition of our show and a nod to vaudeville.  Amazingly, it never gets old.
       To bring you up to date with our most recent show, I’m going to say that it was one of our most casual shows.  With our beloved Adirondack home now sold, we hosted Thanksgiving this year in Saratoga. Additionally, it was my birthday, so my energy was high but I started to slow down after dinner and had not given the show as much forethought.  Unfortunately, we were missing my brother’s family but I did have many people from which to cast the show from.  Providence prevailed and the arrival of some new guests and presence of the Maxwell’s violin and dramatic reading script pushed me into action.  Within fifteen minutes, I had auditioned a hoola hoop participant, secured some audience participation on the frog stand and put together a show order.  I notified the sound man (Joey), the MC (Johnny), cleared the living room floor of the Greco/Roman pre-show act going on by the four young boys and organized the audience.
       Somehow the show always comes together and this year was no different featuring a wonderful harmonica act, a hoola hoop act, a poem, a violin and piano duet, a Thanksgiving reading, a gymnastic feat of cart wheeling into the chair, a piano solo, a reading of the menu from the Thanksgiving dinner at the NYC Delmonico Hotel in 1888 and of course our closing song “Amazing Grace.”  New audience members appeared simply stunned after some of the acts before clapping. We aim to please.
        Perhaps not our best show, but entertaining nonetheless and after the music, the solemn readings and the comedic physical acts, we bring it all together with the singing of the song ‘Amazing Grace.”  As we face each other and sing our thanks with moist eyes, I am touched by our ability to do our show in any location.  In past years our strains of Amazing Grace drifted across the quiet Adirondack lake and the solemn November landscape. Now our voices carry out into the Saratoga Thanksgiving evening and a passerby can look in and see a group facing each other with meaning and grace.  No television, cell phone or computer required.  Just us and our many “talents.” It is a time worth revisiting.  It is a time worth preserving.

Diane Lachtrupp Martinez

Author performing the frogstand