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Creating little town is big production

Dozens of volunteers take part in a Manhattan Beach church's Bethlehem extravaganza. But there's still room for another baby Jesus.

December 06, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

The walls of Bethlehem were taking shape, the rented camel was on order and the 170 volunteer actors were ready to portray shepherds, dancers, angels and wise men.

But for worshipers at Journey of Faith church, one problem remained: They were still one baby Jesus short.

It takes four Marys, four Josephs and 12 babies no more than 5 months old to pull off the complicated nativity extravaganza that the Manhattan Beach church stages in its parking lot on five consecutive evenings. Infants are rotated in the interactive nighttime show, which repeats about every 15 minutes, and with six hours to go before opening night Wednesday, the organizers were still looking for another Jesus.

"As of right now, 11 mothers have stepped up to the plate with their babies," said church volunteer Judy Wegnes, a marriage and family therapist. "We could use another baby."

Congregations across the nation stage "living creches" each Christmas season. But at Journey of Faith, the effort requires hundreds of volunteers such as Wegnes (the "baby wrangler") and lots of patience. The homegrown cast includes electrical engineers, students, police officers, lawyers, janitors and a borrowed horse. The two donkeys, six sheep and chickens, like the camel, are rented.

The building of Bethlehem began after Sunday's final service and volunteers spent much of Wednesday making finishing touches, spreading 70 bales of bedding straw over the 40,000-square-foot parking lot, stringing up flickering lights that would lend a "pre-electricity look" to the sets, and twice hosing down the entire area with fire retardant.

Last year's staging attracted 7,000 people over three nights. The free show will unfold each night at 6 p.m. through Sunday at the church, at 1243 Artesia Blvd. -- if the $45,000 event isn't rained out by a storm forecast to hit Friday.

"We know who is in control of the weather. After all, this is his show," said church media director Jon Crowe. "It's not worth fighting the rain. If it comes, we'll have to close Bethlehem down."

If the show goes on, designated "villagers" will discreetly spray the grounds with Downey fabric softener every few hours to tamp down dust and prevent the place from smelling like ancient Bethlehem.

At about 2 p.m. Wednesday, two of six street dancers had called in sick. And there was still the matter of the missing Jesus. As a precaution, organizers collected a few lifelike dolls as backups -- a good thing since one of the 11 babies on hand had come down with a mild flu.

When it comes to portraying Jesus, a placid infant is ideal, said Emily Brantley, 22, who played Mary two years ago.

"My Jesus was really wailing in the manger," she said. "I was up and bouncing him in my arms to keep him happy. But a couple in the audience seemed pretty upset by it all. I just smiled and said, 'Baby Jesus had a long day.' "

The camel, an enormous single-humped beast named Humphrey, was delivered on time at 2:30 p.m. and led into a makeshift corral built around the church's sand-filled playground.

"Humphrey's job is simply to stand near the entrance to Bethlehem," said the animal's owner and handler, Chris Edrington. "He loves smelling people's breath by leaning toward their faces like he's about to give them a big wet kiss. If visitors are into it, I'll let him do it."

By 5 p.m., the Roman guards were lacing up their massive leather chest plates and sandals. Vendors in long green robes were arranging bowls of hummus and trays of baklava on shop tables. Shepherds were learning to led their flocks. Technicians were testing smoke machines, spotlights and speakers. The four Marys were preparing to ride their donkeys into town. The three babies needed opening night were being bundled up in swaddling clothes.

Moments before showtime, the actors gathered in an auditorium and prayed for the safety of their guests and the cast. Then it was showtime.

The first things visitors saw were "travelers" who had arrived to be counted by the Roman census. They passed vendors, blacksmiths and potters. Occasionally, they were hassled by grouchy tax collectors and the menacing guards, none of them shorter than 6-foot-2, clutching swords and spears and barking, "Move on!" or "Pay your taxes!"

Last stop was a stable draped in tattered burlap and divided into three mangers, so that the Nativity could be played out multiple times at once.

"To accommodate the crowds, just as a baby Jesus is born in one of the mangers, another Mary and Joseph set out in search of a place to spend the night," Crowe said. "Eventually, the Mary and Joseph find their way to an inn, where the innkeepers' wife tells her husband that 'It's fine to put them in the stable.' That dialogue is the cue for our stable managers to hustle a Mary, Joseph and newborn out of a manger to make room for another carpenter and his pregnant wife to move in."

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