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I only wanted to interview Spanky at his 1987 Texas home. But the famous Little Rascal was not “O-TAY” with that.
HEART OF CHRISTMAS: The Secret History Of The Littlest Wiseman”
By Michael H. Price
Lloyd Shaw’s “The Littlest Wiseman,” a Christmas-pageant perennial dating from 1917, owes its greater longevity to Fort Worth as much as to its city of origin, Colorado Springs. Brought to Fort Worth around 1960 by Mary D. & F. Howard Walsh as a gesture of charitable benevolence, long based at the landmark W.E. Scott Theatre, the production has grown to signify Christmastime in Cowtown as emphatically as any number of bombastic stagings of Mr. Tchaikowsky’s “The Nutcracker.” And on a more personalized level, yet.
Memories abound. Many individual family histories around Fort Worth draw much of their consistency from generations of involvement with “The Littlest Wiseman.” Preschoolers start out as cherubs and grow into more substantial roles aligned with the Nativity; then, the kids grow into larger dramatized or musical roles or become directors and production hands — with offspring of their own starting out as cherubs and shepherds. Real life-cycle stuff, here. The generational saga is compounded by modest political intrigues, as well, including a 1965 move from a schoolhouse auditorium to the Scott Theatre, lest the show run afoul of a federal ban on sacred-themed productions in public schools. The larger story is a matter of Tribal Memory.
Scarcely any risk of extinction, then, but always a risk of Tribal Amnesia — the fragmentation of personal impressions without unified documentation of the larger history. Hence Ben Tinsley’s “Heart of Christmas,” a touching but not at all treacly history of “The Littlest Wiseman” and its larger meaning to Fort Worth. It helps that Tinsley, whose family-tradition journalistic roots run deep in Fort Worth, is not only an alumnus of “The Littlest Wiseman” but also a recent rejoiner of the production as a member of the Texas State Men’s & Boys’ Choir. Struck by the realization that many mainstays of the production were fading from the scene, Tinsley determined that he must crystallize the history into a coherent and efficient job of documentary filmmaking.
The finished result is a pageant in itself, a spoken-word scrapbook of reminiscences and observations from such tenured participants as Quentin McGown, Scott Meneely, Nick Abdo, and Joy Hatcher. A wealth of well-preserved photographs — collected in a larger context for the first time — provides cinematic momentum and illustrates impressively the subjects’ observations. Clocking in an just under an hour, the film serves as an appetite-whetter for the annual stage production, and as a self-contained time capsule that, by looking backward, can only gaze forward.
“HEART OF CHRISTMAS: The Secret History Of The Littlest Wiseman”
Writer-Director: Ben Tinsley
Director of Cinematography: Alicia Pascual
EDITOR: Christine Copeland
PREMIERES: September 2016 on http://www.facebook.com/heartofchristmas/
• Former members of the Texas Boys Choir celebrate the memory of Howard and Mary D. Walsh as they unite as a new singing group.
• In honor of the Walshes, the newly-formed Texas State Men and Boys Choir join the Dorothy Shaw Bell Choir to perform at The Littlest Wiseman, Dec. 5-13 at Fort Worth’s William Edrington Scott Theatre, 3505 West Lancaster.
FORT WORTH, Texas – Nov. 30 – For many alumni of the Texas Boys Choir, it’s hard to imagine anyone performing the Christmas play “The Littlest Wiseman” without Mary D. and F. Howard Walsh – two of Tarrant County’s most generous benefactors.
In addition to their warm support of the TBC and local arts over many, many years, the Walshes donated millions of dollars to schools, churches and hospitals. They were two of the warmest, most supportive people many TBC alums had ever known.
“They were such wonderful people,” said former choirboy Gary McGrath. “Mary D. Walsh in particular never forgot any of us. She was well known for recognizing former choirboys at public events and encouraging them to keep singing, keep using their voices.”
Their love of the arts showed in their support of the annual production of The Littlest Wiseman, an annual nativity play performed free of charge to the public at Fort Worth’s William Edrington Scott Theatre. The long-running Christmas play was a magnificent mix of bells and vocals and Christmas pageantry and the Walsh’s loving gift to posterity.
There was much heartbreak when both Walshes passed away – first, Howard in 1998 at age 85 and then the beloved Mary D. in 2005 at age 91.
These former choirboys will celebrate the memory of the benefactors as they unite as the brand new Texas State Men and Boys Choir. In honor of the Walshes, they will join the Dorothy Shaw Bell Choir to perform at The Littlest Wiseman, Dec. 5-13 at Fort Worth’s William Edrington Scott Theatre, 3505 West Lancaster.
This new choir, which gathered under the leadership of Gary McGrath in January, intends to enforce the high standard set forth by George Bragg, founder of the Texas Boys Choir, The Arkansas Boys Choir, and adviser to the California Boys Choir and Harlem Boys Choir. The group consists of alumni from the Texas Boys Choir, The Austin Boys Choir, The Lubbock Boys Choir and the Fort Bend Boys Choir.
The TSMBC will perform at The Littlest Wiseman this year, giving its Texas Boys Choir alums the chance to both honor the Walshes and relive some of their fondest memories with the TBC.
“Many of us never thought we’d have the chance to get on stage at the Scott Theatre again,” McGrath said. “We’re going to be recapturing an important piece of our respective pasts.”
With Artistic director Alan Buratto conducting the TSMBC, you can find them performing all over the state of Texas for Church Services, Weddings and with various symphonies and chamber ensembles.
McGrath, Artistic Director Douglas Neslund, Touring Conductor Steve Stevens and Buratto bring their considerable experience and talent to the TSMBC, and are quickly forging the group into a top notch ensemble.
“Bringing that magic to audiences throughout Texas is something that’s building a loyal and engaging following,” McGrath explained. “We have fans, and the response has been amazing.”
Others agree wholeheartedly.
“As we gel as a choir, it is exciting it is to once again perform in such a dynamic organization,” said Dustin Meyer, member. “The same spirit and sense of mission we enjoyed as boys is here and thriving.”
Artistic Director Douglas Neslund said each of the men who lead this choir are recognized around the world, they have developed generations of talented performers.
“When you have performed for Presidents, the Pope and Royals you have some perspective on what it takes,” Neslund said. “It is easy to see the seeds of greatness are being sown here.”
In February of 2016, the Mens Choir will be releasing their debut record under 4818 Records, distributed through Universal Music Group. In the summer of 2016 the Men and Boys Choir will be doing its first international tour of Spain.
“Some will perceive this as something quite new to Texas, when actually the state has a proud vocal tradition in both mens and boys organizations,” Buratto said. “Our informed efforts here will merely open the door to a new audience and create a bold statement in choir performance and development.”
“It is exciting to see this coming together and realize that both choirs will embrace the opportunity for national and international performances as a professional-level touring organization,” he said. “Our men and boys will be fine ambassadors for their communities abroad.”
For more information or to schedule an interview with the choir, call Gary McGrath at (818) 312-8546.