The History of a Christmas Tradition
Historic Photos Courtesy of The National Parks Service
Yosemite National Park's magnificent Ahwahnee Hotel was completed in 1927. Yosemite Park and Curry Company President Donald Tresidder envisioned a Yuletide celebration in the new hotel’s grand dining room. He hired Garnet Holme, a California pageant director, to create a holiday event, and The Bracebridge Dinner took its initial form, a performance loosely based on Washington Irving’s sketchbook “A Christmas at Bracebridge Hall.” Tresidder and his wife, Mary Curry Tresidder, played the parts of Squire and Lady Bracebridge.
Holmes untimely death in 1929 left a void in the direction of this new festivity. A cast member of the first two seasons, a part-time Valley resident who had played the part of The Lord of Misrule, was asked by Tresidder to take on the task of reworking the event. This cast member was Ansel Adams, who was well on his way at that time to becoming one of the world’s finest photographers.
Adams did a brilliant job of creating the basic form of the pageant as we know it today. His original script of the “new” Bracebridge Dinner has remained largely intact since that initial performance in 1929. In time, Adams took on the role of Major Domo while his wife, Virginia Best Adams, took on the role of The Housekeeper, both ruling over Squire Bracebridge’s household and leading the presentation of larger-than-life replicas of each course of food down the aisle for The Squire’s approval as the then all-male chorus sang.
In 1934, Adams asked well-known San Francisco choral conductor Eugene Fulton to take the position of Musical Director of the eight-member male chorus. Presentation of The Dinner was suspended during World War II; at the war’s end in 1945, the increasingly popular holiday production resumed, with Fulton's wife, Anna-Marie, becoming the accompanist for The Dinners and the Christmas choral concerts. She also took on the tasks of scheduling the choral rehearsals, which were held in San Francisco, as well as handling the myriad details inherent in moving cast, costumes and technical equipment to Yosemite each Christmas. Anna-Marie passed away in 2005, shortly after celebrating 60 years of participating in The Bracebridge Dinner.
With the advent of the Fultons’ participation, the musical aspect of the production took on a new luster. A chorus of outstanding voices was assembled, and The Bracebridge Dinner’s reputation for fine music was born. As demand for attendance at The Dinner grew, a second performance was added in 1956. Word of this spectacular event continued to spread throughout the country and abroad, which resulted in a third Dinner being added in 1978 and two additional Dinners in 1985. By 2002 the 8th performance was instituted to fill the ever-growing demand as word of this magnificent yuletide tradition continued to spread throughout the world.
In 1973, Ansel Adams retired from The Bracebridge Dinner and Eugene and Anna-Marie Fulton assumed the Directorship of the pageant. Martha Miller became liaison between the hotel and performers, scheduling all aspects of The Ahwahnee’s holiday activities and coordinating the kitchen and dining room to keep the impeccably-timed performances running smoothly.
In 1978, after completing the dress rehearsal for The Dinner, Eugene Fulton died unexpectedly of heart failure. His family stayed in The Valley to complete the performances and the following year his daughter, Andrea, joined her mother, Anna-Marie, as the Director of The Dinner.
Bracebridge Dinner Photos By: Glitch Films
A New Beginning
Since 1978, Andrea has expanded Adams’ and her parents’ vision of The Dinner. She augmented the existing role of Housekeeper to take the place of the part of Major Domo, which both Adams and her father had played. She composed The Dinner’s opening poetry to embrace the majesty of Yosemite Valley, created the awe-inspiring candlelight procession, implemented the women’s chorus and wrote additional text to fine-tune the production she had inherited.
In the spring of 2000, Fulton called upon George Baker, who played the role of The Parson, to collaborate in developing The Bracebridge Dinner even further. Baker, a fine musician and writer, brought his considerable skills to the newly formed artistic team. The two created additional roles, wrote text to enhance the existing players’ characters, increased the scope of the production’s many musical selections and greatly expanded the humorous aspect of The Dinner. Melissa Wortman was hired to design new costumes for The Dinner and her vibrant colors abound, bringing the production’s festivities into an even more fantastical realm of beauty.
As she has watched the production develop and flourish, Fulton feels the joy in presenting The Bracebridge Dinner throughout these many decades has given her the ability to look upon the production as a living theatre piece. She recognized the need for a connection from a vastly simpler time to a world that has seen profound development through the ensuing centuries. This need for a thread to join past to present brought about the creation of the character Nathaniel, The Woodsman, who tells The Squire there are treasures far vaster than those inside Bracebridge Hall, and urges The Squire to visit the forest to reconnect with nature. In Nathaniel’s poetry can be found the warning that without cautious stewardship of the land, all that The Squire holds dear may well vanish from the earth. Many years before conservation and sustainability became ‘buzzwords’, Bracebridge’s John Muir-esque Woodsman begs that we heed the biddings of nature to care well for our earth, lest our treasured resources become a thing of the past.
Into the Future
Andrea Fulton is celebrating her 69th anniversary performing in The Bracebridge Dinner. During these many Christmases, she has played numerous roles, starting at the age of five as a Villager. Ansel Adams created the role of Ward of the Squire for her, which she played for many years. She then took on the role of The Bracebridge Minstrel for 18 years. She has been the Producer and Director of The Bracebridge Dinner since 1979. The longevity of The Dinner’s cast has created a remarkable sense of tradition and continuity; Sarah Coykendall, a veteran of fifteen years, has moved from the position of Stage Manager to Stage Director. For thirty-two years, Gregory Parker has brought his considerable musical skills to the proceedings and he now serves as Musical Director. His compositions are a featured part of the hotel's Christmas concert series presented by The Andrea Fulton Chorale.
As the production has grown in scope, Fulton has created a team to assist with the producing of the show. She now shares the administrative and artistic duties of Andrea Fulton Productions with Jonathan Spencer, Gregory Parker, Sarah Coykendall and Patrick Caley, who heads up the technical team, working behind the scenes to fulfill every element of Fulton’s vision for the production. The longevity of The Dinner’s cast has created a remarkable sense of tradition and continuity. Many of the singers have been with The Chorale and The Dinner for two and even three decades, and still counting.