Visiting the Dallas Aboretum during the winter months may not seem all that appealing – you’re strolling through a cold garden. Which is why, over the years, the Arboretum has developed different holiday attractions to draw people in. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, this year, they’ve got a partridge in a pear tree.
The warehouse-sized tent is in the maintenance area of the Dallas Arboretum – where visitors generally don’t visit. We have to squeeze past rows of eight-foot-tall wooden crates full of spangly-colored columns. And then there are piles of what look like sections of copper roofs. Workers are sanding down and touching up the different pieces.
Greg Blackburn is president of Dallas Stage Scenery, which has built sets for the Dallas Opera. He explains over the whine and howl of the electric sanders that everything had been crated. “And what we’re doing now is uncrating and just doing some fine-tuning work as we’re putting them together.”
They’ve got more than two weeks to go before the opening on November 16th, and what they’re putting together are twelve Victorian gazebos, encased in glass. Each gazebo illustrates one of the days from the traditional carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” – all those geese-a-laying and swans-a-swimming.
Almost all of the work has been done by North Texas designers and artisans. Some ‘feathering’ was jobbed out to California while Broadway hair-and-make-up master Cookie Jordan was brought to do the wigs, but even she’s worked at the Dallas Theater Center. Blackburn says because of the Theater Center, the Dallas Opera and the film and TV work in the area, he was able to draw on local talent to design, costume and build all of these animals and life-size mannequins.
The Arboretum has offered holiday attractions before this. But “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a much bigger bet on the drawing power of Victorian glitter. It’s a $2 million exhibition that took two years to design and build. And the plan is that it’ll be the Arboretum’s holiday attraction for five years.
Which is why they called in stage experts. All this stuff has to be brought in and set up. Then, in seven weeks (January 4th), it has to be knocked down and stowed away safely. Then it all goes back up again in a year.
Blackburn outlines the basic requirements: “We want a 21-foot by 21-foot by 21-foot tall gazebo,” he says. “It needs to have this Victorian roof and all these ornate columns, and oh, by the way, we gotta put it inside a 24-foot truck.”
So these gazebos with the chandeliers and automated figures inside – they’re like theater sets. In fact, those copper roofs and fancy columns? They’re all cleverly painted plywood and foam.
“Everyone should have one of these in their yard, right?” Tommy Bourgeois asks with a laugh. “I would!”
Bourgeois is standing in front of Day 5 — Five Golden Rings. A master’s graduate of SMU, he’s designed props and costumes for the Dallas Opera for twenty-six years. He explains that’s precisely how he thought of the “Twelve Days” when he designed them: He was putting on a show.
“This is kinda like designing a really big musical,” Bourgeois says, “because there’s like fifty people you have to dress, a bunch of animals, twelve scenes. They’re each their own little show, so to speak.”
Many of the song lyrics in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” carol pretty much set the scenes. Eight maids-a-milking? You’re going to need some cows. But some days are different. The ten lords-a-leaping, for instance, are top-hatted London businessmen twirling and skating (they couldn’t rig a mechanism to make the ‘lords’ leap, so the lords look like they’re dashing about on a breezy, winter’s day). With the Five Golden Rings, the gazebo houses an old-fashioned, one-ring circus act with a dancing bear and balancing seals.
“So I was trying to think up something Victorian,” Bourgeois explains, “something interesting, something not just, y’know, rings. And I thought that this was more something the kids would really get a bang out of it. I hope,” he adds with a laugh.
Arboretum patrons Tom and Phyllis McCasland were the ones who suggested the Arboretum create a major holiday exhibition but not another shopping-mall Santa’s Village. Bourgeois was told it should be a Victorian “Twelve Days.”
“And I said, great! because it’s like my favorite stuff to do.”
Consistent with the musical theater inspiration, the gazebos are certainly show-bizzy, Victorian fantasies. Some are as ornate and gilded as Chinese pagodas or carnival carousels. They’re probably very impressive at night. But seeing all these over-bright worlds behind glass with their slow-moving automatons, the cumulative effect is to feel oneself wandering, dreaming, past aquariums or zoo exhibits or even in a giant toyland — like something out of The Twilight Zone. That’s probably not the desired response, but it is a testament to how elaborately detailed the scenes are (spot the sleepy little cat amid the cows).
The shock that breaks the spell is the canned music. To see all twelve gazebos you’ll walk about three-fourths a mile. Greg Blackburn explains that, in covering that distance, it’d be too long to hear the carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” played over and over on the speaker systems set up around each gazebo.
“They thought it’d be overkill doing ‘Twelve Days,’ ” he says. “So they tried to find music that was kind of apropos to each gazebo.”
And that means “Jingle Bell Rock,” Burl Ives’ “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “We Need a Little Christmas.”
But perhaps a case might be made — after all these years and years of mall music — that they’re … ‘traditional.’