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The Spirits of Christmas at Forest Lawn

Lydia Baines as Mary Burnett Talbert, the civil rights activist who is buried at Forest Lawn.

A musical celebration of Christmas Past

There’s a reason we haul out the ghosts of Christmases past every December. This is a sentimental time of year.

The folks at Forest Lawn cemetery realized that a venerable city cemetery has a lot in common with holiday celebrations—and I don’t mean deadly time spent with family. At its best, a cemetery brings people together to celebrate life and the limited time we have together. This, you will recall, was the message of the three ghosts who visited Ebenezer Scrooge in 1843. (Dickens would write five Christmas stories during the 1840s, including “The Haunted Man” and “The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In,” which also evoke the supernatural.)

As a way to connect to the Christmas spirits, Forest Lawn has hosted a Christmas show in their chapel for the past few years. It’s been a sort of Christmas revue with four actors and a rather large chorus. For this year’s show, they contacted Joseph Demerly of the Kavinoky Theatre to ask if he’d be willing to stage the annual attraction.

“I was immediately interested,” says Demerly, “but I wanted to re-conceive the show. I was less interested in a Christmas concert and more interested in the characters, the personalities who inhabit Forest Lawn.”

Demerly contacted music director Michael Hake, and began to work on a show that features 10 actors who can sing. The result is a Christmas show called It WAS a Wonderful Life.

Gerry Maher as Frederick A. Cook, M.D., who claimed to be the first to discover the North Pole.
Mary Ryan as Dorothy Goetz Berlin, the Buffalo-born first wife of Irving Berlin.

“It wasn’t difficult to choose which people to feature in our show,” says Demerly. “I immediately liked the idea of having the event hosted and narrated by John Lay, Jr., the first person buried at Forest Lawn in 1850. The idea is that he got there first, and so he knows everybody who arrives after him.”

Demerly plays the role himself.

James Heffron plays Colonel George Selkirk a Civil War veteran who lived to be 90 years old and worked with the Buffalo Parks system until the day he died. The man met Abraham Lincoln twice, and buddied around with Mark Twain.

“He sings a lovely Civil War version of ‘I Heard the Bells,’” says Demerly. “He provides the patriotic part of our show, which a show in a cemetery needs, of course. There is a part where we ask veterans in the audience to stand so we can applaud them. That’s always very moving.”

Margo Davis plays Sara Hinson, the Buffalo school teacher who advocated for school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in schools every day.

“She reads letters from soldiers to their families during Christmastime,” explains Demerly, who adds, “If you’ve been on a cemetery tour, you’ve probably seen Margo portray Sara Hinson before. This is the Christmas version.”

Leanne Troutman plays Martha Williams, who founded Children’s Hospital of Buffalo with her mother.

“She tells a lovely story of a little girl named Florence Bannister who was brought to the hospital on Christmas Eve,” says Demerly. “She, Loraine O’Donnell, and Mary Ryan sing a beautiful version of ‘What Child is This?’ arranged by Michael Hake.”

Not everyone in Forest Lawn celebrated Christmas, of course. Demerly astutely sought prominent Jewish residents of the cemetery.

“Tim Finnegan plays Al Boasberg, who was a comedy writer for George Burns and Gracie Allen, as well as for Bob Hope and Milton Berle,” Demerly says. “He directed films starring the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. The day before he died, he signed an exclusive contract to write for Jack Benny at the tune of $1,500 a week!”

Mary Ryan plays Dorothy Goetz Berlin, the first wife of songwriter Irving Berlin. Berlin, of course, provides the convenient segue to “White Christmas.”

Other personalities in the show include Robert B. Adam, co-founder of the Adam, Meldrum & Anderson department store, who is played by Chris Standart. He talks about Victorian Christmas window displays.

Gerry Maher plays Frederick Albert Cook, M.D., the first man to discover and reach the North Pole. “He was a bit of a pathological liar,” reveals Demerly, “and tells about meeting Santa Claus while at the North Pole, and about singing ‘Jolly Old St. Nicholas’ to the man himself—which he claims to have written!”

Lydia Baines plays African-American rights and anti-lynching activist Mary Burnett Talbert.

Loraine O’Donnell plays drama critic Marion deForest, the founder of Zonta Club, who was influential in the promotion of classical music in Buffalo, including the formation of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. She also wrote the stage version of Little Women that made Katharine Cornell a star.

“There is a lot of history in the show, but it’s not didactic at all,” says Demerly. “The history is used to celebrate the city of Buffalo and Christmas. The show is also not depressing or morose in any way. These people all enjoyed being alive, and we all love Christmas. There is a lot wonderful Christmas music, and a lot of interesting detail about the way we celebrate Christmas—including why we send Christmas cards. Oh, and I should mention that we sing ‘Carol of the Bells’ using handbells, which I think is especially lovely!”

You don’t need to venture into the cemetery at night to see the show, which runs an all-matinee schedule: Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2pm; Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 11am and 2pm, in the Forest Lawn Cemetery Chapel at 1411 Delaware Avenue through January 5. Tickets are $25 and can be reserved at 885-1600.