REVIEW: “Heart of Christmas” is a pageant in itself: ‘A touching but not at all treacly history of ‘The Littlest Wiseman’ and its larger meaning to Fort Worth.’

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/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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