By Connie and Lynn Baer
One of the most beloved traditions in Grossmont’s history is the highly acclaimed Christmas Pageant, which was presented by Grossmont High School staff and students as an annual gift to the community from 1926-1989. The professionalism of the production made it an annual event for the community to circle on their calendars. From its beginnings, the performances were given to packed houses.
Free tickets for each night were issued beforehand to guarantee seats. Due to the pageant’s popularity, the number of performances grew from two in the 1930s to three in the 1950s and then four in the 1960s and 1970s. Performances began at 8 p.m. except during WWII when they started at 6:30 p.m. to allow everyone time to return home before nighttime blackout rules took effect.
The Christmas Pageant was the result of the vision of three women: long-time Red Robe Choir Director Merle Donahue; dedicated drama teacher Eva McCarthy Quicksall; and English teacher Dorothy Smith. Under their leadership these early productions inspired students, staff, and the community. Over its 63-year history, the pageant maintained its excellence due to the dedication of hundreds of GHS staff and community members.
The 1968 pageant rehearsal schedule reveals that for two weeks, students and staff rehearsed scenes during and after school, with a final nighttime dress rehearsal. Competition for parts for the various scenes was intense and tryouts took place weeks before rehearsals began. Students looked forward each year to being a member of the cast. No matter how large or small the part, each student knew that he or she was a part of a memorable experience –– a gift to the community.
The 1968 Christmas Pageant program lists 184 students in the three scenes plus the 87 members of the Red Robe Choir and the 42 members of the GHS Orchestra. Also, essential to the performances were the more than 40 members of the crew as well as the California Cadet Corps and the ASB class. That year, there were a total of more than 353 student participants guided by 30 committed members of the faculty.
While the pageant evolved over the years, by the 1940s it consisted of three main scenes. Alumnus Jim Warren, Class of 1973, remembers the evening beginning with Jim Nichols, orchestra director, “coming out in his black tuxedo, tapping on the music stand” before beginning to direct. Barbara Smith McCluskey, Class of 1953, shares that the choir entering from the rear of the Old Gym in their red robes, “singing ‘Oh, Come All Ye Faithful’, always sent delicious chills” through her.
The first scene was an Old English Christmas complete with lords, ladies, ballerinas, jesters, and merrymakers. Due to his small size, Woodie Thomas, Class of 1959, as a freshman was selected to stand on the yule log and say: “Kindle the Christmas log and then ‘til sunset let it burn.” After Woodie grew taller, as a senior, he was the log man who swung the “little kid” off the Yule log after the toast.
The second scene was what many regard as the most moving. It begins with candle-bearers walking toward the stage with closed curtains while “Oh, Holy Night” is being sung. As they reach the stage, the curtains fly open to reveal the Madonna, standing motionless for three minutes, and the candle-bearers kneel. Retired teacher Carol Lockwood recalls that the “curtain opened with a clash of the cymbals and the words, ‘Fall on your knees.’” Julia Yale Salinas, who was one of the Madonnas in 1969, recalls hearing “a little girl in the front row asking her parents, ‘Is that lady real?’”
The final scenes were the Nativity scenes, showing the shepherds and the wisemen following the star to the stables and Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. During the scene, a student reads scripture from the King James Bible. Suzanne Geba Hawes, retired teacher, remembers stressing “the solemnity of these scenes and directing the students to create magical slow motion silhouettes of the familiar religious scenes to move and inspire the audience.” The “Hallelujah Chorus”, sung by the choir, accompanied by an organist and the orchestra, provided a dramatic finish.
Visit the Museum to see our collection of memorabilia that documents the dedication and love of students, staff, and community to a wonderfully memorable 63-year Foothiller tradition.
––Connie and Lynn Baer write on behalf of the GHS Museum. Call 619-668-6140, email email@example.com, or visit foothillermuseum.com for more information.