First Coast Nutcracker — A Symphony Tradition

For the Jacksonville Symphony, and local residents, it is hard to imagine a time when the First Coast Nutcracker was not part of our holiday tradition. But believe it or not, prior to 1972, only selected vignettes, known as “Nutcracker Suites,” had been presented in Jacksonville. At that time Thelma Johnston Baggs, a prominent supporter of the ballet and well-known teacher, was inspired by George Balanchine’s production of The Nutcracker and wanted to bring a full production of the ballet, complete with a live orchestra, to Jacksonville. Baggs envisioned that this production would showcase the talents of the many non-professional students of ballet in the Jacksonville community.

Given the scope of her dream, she needed a sponsoring organization, so she enlisted the support of The Women’s Guild of the Jacksonville Children’s Museum. Together, the partners secured $10,000 seed money from the museum’s board of trustees, and the First Coast Nutcracker was born. 

Putting together this production for the first time was a lot of work (it still is!). The first four artistic directors – Baggs, Marta Jackson, Betty Balfour Marks and Mervyn Rickard – oversaw the production, approving the principal dancers, Lydia Diaz Cruz of Ballet Spectacular Company and Royes Fernandez of the American Ballet Theater, and the choreographer, Gayle Parmalee of the Louisiana Ballet Company. They also conducted the rehearsals of the local student dancers. Raul Maier of New Orleans designed the costumes and sent the sketches to Jacksonville costume makers for sewing and fitting while Virginia Fox designed the sets, props and lighting, and painted the three drops still in use at the production’s tenth anniversary. The ballet, performed with the Jacksonville Symphony under the direction of Willis Page, opened for two sold-out performances at the Civic Auditorium on December 16, 1972. The inaugural production drew 6,400 people, paying $3 for tickets to the matinée and $4 – $7 for the evening performance. These two premiere performances were so popular that The Women’s Guild ran a newspaper ad apologizing to people who were turned away at the door.

The ballet continued to be presented by The Women’s Guild of the Children’s Museum and then the Jacksonville Museum of Arts and Sciences until 1988. Given the involvement of the Jacksonville Symphony, it was decided that a partnership between the Jacksonville Symphony Guild and the City of Jacksonville, called The First Coast Nutcracker Ballet, Inc., would take over the tradition and that the funds would be directed to programs and services for the children of Jacksonville.

From the beginning, there was a concern that provisions be made to enable children to attend the ballet who might otherwise not have the opportunity. At the suggestion of Fox, tickets were provided for children from the Children’s Home Society and within a few years, one or two special school performances were added to the schedule each year. What was started in 1972 continues to flourish to this day, with four performances this year delighting thousands of schoolchildren. The First Coast Nutcracker also makes complimentary tickets available to youth-serving organizations throughout the First Coast region. 

Over the years the First Coast Nutcracker has spawned a number of additional community and fund-raising events – from the Nutcracker Sweet Cookbook to the sale of Nutcracker ornaments, raffles of a life-sized stuffed Nutcracker doll, Sugar Plum Parties and art contests. For the 15th Anniversary, Mayor Jake Godbold declared a Nutcracker Week and the Jacksonville Museum of Arts & Sciences hosted an exhibit of fourteen years of Nutcracker memorabilia, a celebrity autograph party, a children’s shopping party at the museum store, a Nutcracker poster contest, a cast party and a patron’s party. 

This year’s production is under the direction of choreographer and artistic director Rhonda Stampalia. The First Coast Nutcracker showcases internationally renowned principal dancers, our area’s finest young student dancers and Tchaikovsky’s best-loved melodies performed by the Jacksonville Symphony, at the Jim and Jan Moran Theater at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts. Add Linda Holmes’ beautiful costumes and John Pettegrew’s three-dimensional sets and a magical Christmas tree that grows to thirty-three feet and you have an especially enchanting production. Four performances are scheduled: Friday and Saturday, December 13 and 14 at 8:00 p.m, with matinées Saturday and Sunday, December 14 and 15 at 2:00. Make your reservations early so you don’t miss the magic!

Author: Arbus

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