Spirit of the Season
The Bird Cage Theatre’s annual productions at Knott’s Berry Farm get to the heart of what the holidays are supposed to be about
Though it predates Disneyland by nearly a decade, hosts America’s longest-running Halloween attraction and will welcome some 5 million visitors this year, Knott’s Berry Farm has a hard time shaking the label of Orange County’s “other” theme park.
Knott’s can’t match Disneyland’s scale, hype and corporate polish. But what it lacks in pomp, dazzle and assembly-line-manufactured mythology, it more than makes up for in good old-fashioned heart.
Its Toys for Tots program is the largest in Southern California. It offers a variety of discounted tickets for educational school tours. Groups ranging from firefighters to social-service employees get free admission at certain times of the year.
But there is also a physical, spatial heart to Knott’s. It’s found in the 9 acres of its Old West Ghost Town, the park’s oldest section and the one closest to the heart of founder Walter Knott. He may have been a farmer who wound up an incredibly successful businessman (as well as a rabid anti-Communist, union-hater and pioneer of Orange County conservatism), but his amateur passion was the Wild West, particularly ghost towns.
So when lines for his wife Cordelia’s fried-chicken dinners started growing along bustling State Highway 39 (now known as Beach Boulevard) around 1940, he decided to indulge that passion by re-creating just such a town near the restaurant in order to keep waiting guests entertained.
And if the Ghost Town—with its lovingly replicated exteriors of dusty jails, hotels, saloons, undertakers and blacksmith shops—is indeed the heart of Knott’s Berry Farm, then its pulse is regulated in large part by the intrepid group of performers who call the Bird Cage Theatre home each holiday season.
For 55 years, tens of thousands of shows have been staged at the Bird Cage and hundreds of actors have performed there (including a guy named Steve Martin, who devoted a lengthy chapter in his 2007 book, Born Standing Up,to his experiences at the venue).
Though it once offered melodramas year-round, since 1997, the Bird Cage has been dark but for the stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, when, five times a day, stripped-down versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi appear onstage.
Each running less than 30 minutes, they’re simple, straightforward and rely more on imagination than theatrical smoke and mirrors. But both effectively hit the notes of generosity and compassion sounded in their source material.
But the holiday season at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Bird Cage Theatre isn’t just a chance to see a venerable part of Orange County performance history dusted off and re-animated. It’s also an extended family reunion. Many of the 18 actors and musicians who are involved in this year’s productions have worked alongside one another for decades. Women have met their future husbands onstage. Children have grown up watching up their parents and eventually joined them in shows. Cast members have met patrons after the shows outside the theater, gotten to know them, and wound up attending their children’s graduations and weddings.
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The sense of community, along with the simply rendered productions that tug on the heartstrings rather than the wallet, feel wildly incongruous next to stomach-wrenching roller coasters and chain restaurants such as Johnny Rockets and Panda Express. The Bird Cage Theatre and its denizens just shouldn’t fit in a modern theme park.
Which makes the fact it fits in at all truly remarkable.
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