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SPECIAL EVENTS : A Ten-Year Production to Move Heaven and Earth

November 29, 1990|KENNETH WILLIAMS | Kenneth Williams is a staff writer for The Times Orange County Edition

One of the truly delightful things about "The Glory of Christmas" is that it shares a kinship with one of the most endearing Christian holiday traditions: the Sunday school Christmas pageant. For many, the annual event brings back warm memories of the times they acted in church Nativity scenes as angels or wise men.

Beginning its tenth season Friday at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, "Glory" will once again tap those memories with a $2-million production complete with live animals, high-tech special effects, flying angels and original music and choreography.

"It's a beautiful, overwhelming production and there's nothing like it," Jeanne Dunn, "Glory" public relations director, said recently. "It gives Christians and non-Christians alike a chance to see a beautiful reminder of what Christmas is about, in a way that no one else can do it."

Dunn has participated in "The Glory of Christmas" since 1981 and has seen the show evolve from its original concept as a West Coast counterpart to Radio City Music Hall's annual "Christmas Spectacular" to a fully scripted, original musical re-creation of the Nativity story.

According to Dunn, the original "Glory" (produced by Robert Jani) did not deal primarily with the Nativity, but placed greater emphasis on the history behind the holiday, using live action, narration and multimedia.

The show offered a narrative look at Christmas through the centuries, with colorful processions of costumed volunteers and live animals and images of the Madonna and child projected across a giant medieval backdrop. There was no live dialogue or singing.

In 1982 Dunn's husband, Paul, joined the "Glory" staff to help in revising the show's script. Paul Dunn had been working on the debut script of "The Glory of Easter," and the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral, was so impressed with the writer's attention to historical and geographical detail that he invited him to join the Christmas production.

Dunn completely rewrote the "Glory" script in 1985 drawing heavily from his experience as a graduate student of geography and archeology in the Holy Land. The new script gave the show a larger sense of authenticity as bits and pieces of geographic and historic fact were incorporated into dialogue and sets.

By 1986, Dunn was appointed director of production and through his guidance and the help of more than 400 volunteers and performers, "Glory" has evolved into its present form.

One of the more noticeable changes Paul Dunn brought to the "The Glory of Christmas" was the addition of up to 13 flying angels who flutter in and out of scenes on an ingenious harness and cable apparatus.

The special effect has been successfully performed thousands of times over the last nine years, but Dorrie Lee Mattson, the first person ever to don the angels wings and "Glory's" resident choreographer, has seen more than her share of embarrassing moments and surprises during those in-house flights.

"Several times the angels have floated so low over the audience that their skirts have brushed the tops of people's heads and it's given them quite a start," Mattson explained recently. "I remember one time my skirt knocked this guy in the head and he really came out of his seat . . . as if he'd been touched by an angel or something!"

In another instance, an angel lost her balance and did a complete somersault in midair. "In those circumstances we just tell the angels to continue with their choreographed movements and just hope for the best," she said.

Bigger dangers, however, await the performers who work the stage. With a mini-zoo consisting of three camels, four horses, 20 sheep and goats, a donkey, a cow and an ox, the stage gets slippery at times.

"One time one of our male dancers was supposed to catch his partner after doing a move called a helicopter lift. But right as he made his move to catch her, he slipped in some manure and went skidding out of control. He did manage to catch her and, as it turned out, it really looked quite spectacular," Mattson said, laughing.

Singer Debby Smith, who has played Mary nine times and will again this year, can tell similar horror stories.

"One year our donkey happened to be pregnant throughout the season and she was really temperamental and moody. At times she would just freeze and refuse to move. I was doing a scene riding with her, and as we were walking along she froze up and totally pooped all over the ramp," Smith recalls. "In a later scene we were supposed to cross back over the same spot and as hard as I tried to steer him away from the spot, Joseph (Robin Buck) still managed to step right in it. He was wearing sandals and he had this stuff going between his toes and every place. It was awful."

An attempt in 1988 to use a real baby in the manger scenes yielded a less messy, but no less funny, result. According to Smith, the baby was in no mood to play the role of the Messiah--or anyone else for that matter--and as the evening wore on he got more and more fussy.

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