Santa’s Magical Kingdom: The Ultimate Light Show

For nearly three decades, Santa’s Magical Kingdom has been a top wintertime attraction in far West County. Located on 35 acres near Six Flags in Eureka, more than four million lights and dozens of animated characters dazzle and delight thousands of visitors each year.

From April to October, the property operates as Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park, a family-friendly and award-winning resort offering a “back-to-nature vacation,” with amenities including a pool, free wifi, train rides, miniature golf and a chance for kids to interact with Yogi himself.

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Scott and Kathy Jones bought Jellystone Park in 1989 and admit they knew absolutely nothing about working in the hospitality industry or running a campground. Their sole intent was to find a space large enough to provide an annual Christmas light show each season.

Scott recalled that when he was young his family would travel to downtown St. Louis each year on Thanksgiving Day to view the Christmas lights and decorated storefronts. His dream was to provide families with a similar experience in the county, but on a much grander scale. Jellystone was just the right size and the campground would produce revenue during the Spring, Summer and Fall months.

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Driving through 2.5 miles of glistening forest, visitors will encounter several light tunnels and fountains, life size cartoon characters, Elf Land, Santa’s workshop and much more. For a more adventurous experience, visitors can board the wagon at Kringle’s Store and take an open-air ride through the shimmering wonderland. Blankets are provided.

Planning for the light show each year begins in February. Kathy points out, “Everything we do is 100% designed for us,” and the design team continually strives to incorporate new ideas and technologies in their presentation. In August the decorating begins and by mid-November the show is in full operation. It takes 8-10 weeks around the clock to get everything assembled, and about the same amount of time to take it all down. Kathy discloses, “We’re lucky to get open by April 1st for campers!”

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The first year that Santa’s Magical Kingdom opened, the region experienced one of the worst ice storms on record. The hilly terrain of the park was impassable for a good chunk of their season, but they were open long enough for the attraction to become a big hit. Now, 28 years later, Kathy reports that these early visitors are now returning each year with their own children and grandchildren in tow.

On their busiest nights there are approximately 50 crew members on-site to help run the show. Kathy advises, “I think it’s honest to God passion with which this is done. This is done because we really care about doing something wholesome for families.”

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That said, the couple puts a lot of effort into serving local charities by providing contributions and offering free admission to underprivileged children and families. This year’s efforts will benefit the BackStoppers, Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis and the St. Louis Area Foodbank. As in past years, visitors who bring a toy for donation, Mondays thru Thursdays, will receive $5 off of their admission.

Santa’s Magical Kingdom is open every night through January 7, including Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Hours of operation are from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. most days, and open until 11:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

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General admission, per carload, is $22, with larger size vehicles like limos and buses costing up to $30. Private wagon rides are also available and require advance booking.

For more information, visit santasmagicalkingdom.com.

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Schlafly Bottleworks Hosts Three Stooges Nights

Why would a hip, bespoke brewery like Schlafly Bottleworks host a Three Stooges Night once a month? Because we love them, that’s why!

I realize that Three Stooges fandom is a much divided enterprise. You either love them or you hate them.  So, there’s a chance that you might already be not reading this. But, if you’ve not already tuned out, you might find there is much more to the story of the three knucklehead, slap stickers than you had thought. I promise intrigue, alcoholism, Nazis, brain damage, beating deaths, acid burns, brotherhood and nice Jewish boys who made a business of poking each other in the eyes.

The four main Three Stooges (I know that’s confusing, but we’ll sort it out) were born nice Jewish boys. Three were brothers: Samuel (Shemp), Moses (Moe) and Jerome (Curly) Horwitz. They were born in Brooklyn, New York in 1895, 1897 and 1903, respectively. The fourth, and with Moe the most consistent Stooge constituent, was born Louis Feinberg (Larry) in south Philadelphia in 1902.

In the later years the group also included Curly Joe DeRita and Joe Besser (born in St. Louis!!), but in general they are thought of as lesser Stooges by fans. Both were added to the group in the ‘50s to replace Curly, who by that time had been damaged by the constant beating he took from the not-as-fake-as-they-look blows to the head that was part of the Stooges’ trademark.

Shemp and Moe, having no love or money for college, entered trade school, Shemp for plumbing (no wonder there were so many plumbing skits!) and Moe to be an electrician. Neither found the trades very exciting because they had their eyes on performing and vaudeville.

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In 1916, at the ages of 21 and 19, Shemp and Moe first put together a stage act and changed their last name to Howard. They kept at it until 1922 when they met a former schoolmate and successful vaudevillian, Ted Healy. Owing to Healy’s bossy nature (and severe alcoholism, we’ll get to that later), the trio was not yet known as The Three Stooges, but was billed as Ted Healy and His Stooges.

Cut to Louis Feinberg, or as we know him, Larry. Larry was son of a jeweler and, at the age of four, he was bringing a bottle of acid, used to test gold content, to his lips, thinking it was a beverage. His father noticed it and knocked the bottle away, but the acid fell on the boy’s arm, burning through his muscles all the way to the bone. The arm was skin grafted but was left weakened. Doctors suggested he take up boxing and he did, but his parents weren’t keen on it and also got him to take up violin. He excelled at both. Larry made money as a lightweight boxer and did well for himself but his violin led to him play with the Philadelphia Philharmonic at age 9. There was talk of sending the young man to a European music conservatory, but those plans were preempted by World War I.

Larry, who had changed his last name to Fine, took to vaudeville and was the master of ceremonies at Chicago’s Rainbo Gardens when he met Ted Healy and Shemp Fine, touring in the Shubert Brothers’ “Night in Spain,” in March 1928. Shemp was set to leave the production for a while and Larry was asked to take his place until Shemp’s return in September. Healy liked what he saw and when he signed a contract to perform in the Shubert’s new revue, “A Night in Venice,” in early 1929, he brought Shemp, Moe and Larry together for the first time, billed as the Three Stooges. The revue ran through the spring of 1930 and then the quartet toured as Ted Healy and his Racketeers for a while, culminating that summer with a trip to Hollywood to film “Soup to Nuts” for Fox Studios.

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The movie was not a hit. Healy, who might have looked okay under stage lighting and from a distance, was not a prime candidate for the movies. Plus, his comedy relied largely on ad libs and improvisation and he wasn’t seen as “Hollywood material.” On the other hand, studio executives saw something in the other three and only they were offered contracts.

Healy exploded. He told the executives that Howard, Howard and Fine were his employees and that he already had them under contract. The offer was rescinded. The trio broke away from Healy after hearing of his actions and he forbade them from using any of the material, considering it copyrighted. Healy even threatened to bomb theaters that the Stooges might dare to play.

I did mention that Healy was a volatile drunk, didn’t I?

Amazingly, a couple of years later, in 1932, Healy managed to patch things up with the boys and they began working together once more. But it didn’t last. Shemp was a nervous sort and Healy’s penchant for violence and his turn-on-a-dime personality, both fueled by prodigious quantities of alcohol, sent Shemp off on a solo career. The oldest Howard brother was gone, but went on to have a solid career in movies and shorts.

Moe suggested that his baby brother Jerome be considered as Shemp’s replacement. Jerome showed up for his meeting with Healy with long, curly hair and a handlebar mustache and Healy immediately pronounced him “not funny,” probably having something to do with a weapons-grade hangover. It has been reported that neither Moe nor Larry really felt that Jerry had any comic talent either but, you know, he was family. Shemp, however, either felt differently or just really, really wanted out of the group so, at his suggestion, a freshly-shaved Jerry stuffed himself into a too-small bathing suit and, carrying a tiny pail of water, burst in on a Stooges act on stage. The result was hilarious and Curly was born.

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The Stooges with Ted Healy in 1934, three years before his murder.

Healy put together a one year contract with MGM and the group shot some shorts and a couple of full-length movies but, in 1934, the contract was not renewed and the men went their separate ways.

Let’s talk a minute about Ted Healy. Look, the guy was very successful. He influenced Bob Hope, Red Skelton and Milton Berle, by their admission. But he was the definition of his own worst enemy. Not only was he drunk most of the time (and violent and explosive and mean), he was also stupid. He insulted Lucky Luciano’s heritage. He tried to rob Al Capone’s safe as a gag. He had an affair with Pasquale DiCicco’s wife, Thelma Todd, and DiCicco was Luciano’s eyes-and-ears man in Hollywood.

Todd ended up very dead in 1935, ruled a suicide but always thought to be the work of hubby DiCicco. Healy thought maybe he ought to lay off the actresses and he married a UCLA student, surely many years his junior (it’s been going on forever, hasn’t it?). But he did not lay off the booze. Nor did he stop acting like an ass. A couple of years after Todd’s death Healy was out celebrating the birth of his first child, already knee-walking drunk, when he ran into Mr. DiCicco, along with a young Wallace Beery.

Did Healy behave himself?

No.

He started a fight with Beery and then suggested they “take it outside.” They did. Beery and DiCicco beat and kicked Healy with savagery. Healy fell into a coma and died the next day. An autopsy, no doubt supported by Mr. DiCicco, reported that Healy had died of acute alcoholism. While his organs surely would have been ravaged by his drinking, the report left out a lot about the trauma associated with being pummeled to a pulp in an alley. Healy’s wife, and a new mother, complained about the lack of investigation. She was fired from the MGM contract player job she had landed and never worked in Hollywood again. Wallace Beery took a three month vacation in Europe.

By this time, the Three Stooges had been under contract for three years with another Hollywood sociopath, Harry Cohn, of Columbia Studios. They had made a couple of dozen shorts and five features for Columbia and their shtick of pie fights and violence had formed and taken root. In a town as insular and gossipy as Hollywood, it’s possible, maybe even probable, that the trio knew what had really happened to their former partner but it would have been bad juju indeed to have let on or demand further inquiry.

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The Stooges made 190 shorts for Columbia in their 23 years there. Their two-reel shorts became so popular that Cohn used them as leverage against movie theaters. He would not send the Stooges shorts they desired unless they agreed to play them before a great number of their not-so-great B movie features. But Cohn successfully held this information from the boys, granting them only one year contracts throughout their time there, telling them the market was dying for their humor and only renegotiating at the last minute. Moe, the group’s business manager, didn’t learn of Cohn’s con until they stopped making the shorts in 1957, learning only then of the millions of dollars that had been left on the table.

The Stooges were required by Columbia to make up to eight shorts per year in a 40 week period. The remaining time could be spent on their own or, often, touring to promote their act. The years from 1934 to 1941 were considered their prime and the shorts left few premises unturned. “Hoi Polloi,” in 1935, had a Pygmalion theme (with the boys attempting education).  Also in 1935, “Three Little Beers” depicted the boys doing their worst to a golf course. In “Disorder in the Court” the trio was cast as witnesses to a murder trial. In one of their most famous works, in 1940, the group became plumbers and nearly demolished a socialite’s mansion in “A Plumbing We Will Go.”

Then, in 1940 and 1941, respectively, the Stooges starred in two shorts that are among the favorites of aficionados and the Stooges themselves: “You Natzy Spy!” and “I’ll Never Heil Again.” Mind you, these productions were made while America was still neutral in the conflict already going on in Europe.

In “I’ll Never Heil Again” Moe played Moe Hailstone, patterned on Adolf Hitler, Larry played an ambassador ala Joachim von Ribbentrop and Curly played a character very similar to Hermann Göring. Hitler was not impressed and he put them on his personal death list. So that’s fun.

All of this started months before Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.”  (Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!)

The group produced a great many works during the war years, including one poking fun at Japan, “The Yoke’s On Me,” in 1944. But it seemed that, with a limited formula, the boys and their directors were trying to outdo themselves. Production costs rose, more scenes were shot on location and more violence was worked in. The productions became viewed as lesser works, especially after 1942, but the increased violence brought about a more ominous result.

Curly, the hulking man child, had an inherent innocence stuffed, like his body, into a too-tight suit. Audiences ate him up like theater candy. The formula for the Stooges’ comedy became heavily reliant on Curly, and on physical abuse directed at him. Curly was very conscious about his head being shaved, now an absolute requirement for his character, and he felt it kept women from liking him. He began to drink and eat heavily and his weight ballooned, starting in the ‘40s. The constant violence the act required, in addition to his hard living, took a toll.

Curly’s performances began to suffer. His hands shook; he had trouble delivering and remembering lines; his blood pressure soared and he suffered a series of cerebral hemorrhages. The 1945 short, “If a Body Meet a Body,” shows Curly visibly debilitated. Curly continued to make shorts through 1947 but he suffered a stroke during “Half-Wit’s Holiday” that ended his career. He did manage a part in 1949’s “Malice in the Palace” as a chef, the only short to feature all four Stooges.

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A much thinner, mustachioed Curly as a chef in “Malice in the Palace,” from 1949.

With Curly unable to continue, Moe turned to his older brother, Shemp, and asked him to rejoin the group. Shemp was hesitant, having built a nice career of his own, but he knew that refusal would probably mean the end for his brother’s act. At the time, they believed that Curly’s ailments were temporary and that Shemp’s reunion would only be until Curly could return.

Curly, however, did not improve and comedian Buddy Hackett was approached to join. Hackett refused and Shemp signed on for a longer term. In 1952, Curly passed away of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Shemp made 76 shorts and one feature with the Stooges after his return. Larry, often a background character during Curly’s heyday, became more featured, even becoming the focus on “Fuelin’ Around” and “He Cooked His Goose.”  I liked those a great deal.

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The “Shemp years” also held another distinction: the Stooges invaded television, appearing on shows by Milton Berle, Morey Amsterdam, Ed Wynn, Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra and Eddie Cantor. But, three years after Curly’s death, in 1955, Shemp passed away, at age 60, from a heart attack.

Moe was devastated and wanted to disband the group but, ever the supportive boss, Cohn reminded him that the studio was owed four more Shemp shorts. Using recycled footage and a Shemp “look-alike,” Joe Palma (filmed only from behind), the group completed the final four owed under that contract, all released in 1956.

BesserA third Stooge was once again needed and Columbia insisted on someone they already had under contract. Joe Besser (our St. Louis boy!) made 16 shorts with the group from 1956 through 1958, the group’s final work under contract with Columbia.

In 1958, Columbia refused to renew the contract and things ended with a whimper. Moe went to the studio at one point to say some goodbyes, but since he didn’t have a current pass, was not allowed entry.  Without a contract, the Stooges thought they would try to make a go of personal appearances but Joe Besser’s wife became ill and he declined the notion of travel.

Moe and Larry were again searching for a third Stooge. Former burlesque performer Joe DeRita was chosen.

But a bit of a windfall was coming. The burgeoning television market was ripe for time-filling shorts and the Stooges work seemed perfect to fit the bill. In January 1958, Screen Gems, the Columbia television subsidiary, offered stations 78 Stooges shorts, most from the Curly era. They were a hit, so 40 more were released. By 1959, all 190 Columbia-produced Three Stooges shorts were available for broadcast.

Suddenly the boys were back in demand. It was suggested that DeRita shave his head in order to look more like Curly from their prime era and he became Curly-Joe. The lineup, billed as  Larry, Moe and Curly-Joe enjoyed a bit of a Renaissance, appearing in six full-feature films from ’59 to ’65 and they became one of the most popular and highest-paid live acts in the country. In addition to appearing on numerous television shows in the ‘60s, they filmed 41 short comedy pieces for “The New Stooges,” an animated series with 156 cartoons, in 1965.

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In 1969-70, the group was working on a series that would depict the Stooges as retired and traveling the world. During production of the pilot episode, Larry Fine suffered a stroke and was paralyzed, ending plans for the series. DeRita made an attempt at forming “The New Three Stooges” but the results were not good and he quietly retired.

Larry suffered more strokes and passed away in January 1975. Moe was diagnosed with lung cancer and also passed away that year.

Seventy years after their prime season, the Three Stooges are still popular. It seems they are still constantly delighting older fans and always managing to draw new ones. They have been a presence on television consistently since 1958. Theaters hold festivals of their work. While they may not have had the sophistication of Charlie Chaplin, or the subtlety of Buster Keaton, they did, as Steve Allen once said, “succeed in accomplishing what they always intended to do: they made people laugh.”

Schlafly Bottleworks, 7260 Southwest Avenue, in Maplewood, hosts “Three Stooges Night” the second Monday of each month from 7-9 pm.  The series is set to continue well into 2018.

Long live the Stooges!

The Nutcracker: Holiday Classic Keeps Dancers On Their Toes

Nothing quite captures the imagination of a child at Christmas-time like a live performance of “The Nutcracker.” This timeless masterpiece is by far the most often performed and most beloved ballet of all time. In addition, the musical orchestrations by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky are arguably some of the most famous symphonic compositions known to the world.

Each December the Dance Center of Kirkwood performs the complete production of “The Nutcracker,” featuring a large cast of 55 incredibly talented dancers who also happen to be teenagers.

At the helm of this annual production is Kathy Massot, director and choreographer, and the owner of the Dance Center of Kirkwood. As a youngster she enrolled in dance classes and became fascinated with ballet, which soon led to her dancing with the St. Louis Civic Ballet.

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Kathy Massot

After high school, Kathy went on to study at the National Academy of Arts in Champaign, Illinois, and performed in their company, the National Ballet of Illinois. A few years later, she made the big leap to New York City where she danced for 11 years with the Leon Faulder Dance Company and the Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians. During her time as a professional dancer, Kathy performed in countless productions all over the United States and Europe.

Like professional athletes, the physical demands on a dancer take their toll and most are forced to retire at an early age due to injuries. Kathy decided she wanted to stop dancing professionally before an injury caused her to miss a performance, and recalls “I felt like I had accomplished everything that I had wanted to accomplish and I felt satisfied. So I thought, it’s a good time to come back home. I always knew when I was done dancing that I was going to come back home. I was home-sick all of the time!”

Upon return to St. Louis, Kathy began teaching at the Dance Center of Kirkwood, and in 1999 bought the studio from the previous owner. It was at that point that she decided to produce her own version of “The Nutcracker” each year with her own students. She relays, “when I was a kid and a dancer, doing ‘The Nutcracker’ gave me such great memories, so I wanted that for my students. They work really hard, but we also have fun.”

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The two hour production is filled with fantastic costumes, colorful props, brilliant scenery, snow and, most importantly, a very large troupe of accomplished ballet dancers. The principal dancers in the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier are Miss Chiao Shih, a teacher at the Dance Center, and Dustin Crumbaugh from the Big Muddy Dance Company. Jonathan White will play the role of Herr Drosselmeyer. The role of Clara will be played by Juliette Schulte and Emma Sandidge, with each girl dancing the lead in two of the four shows.

Kathy discloses, “it’s really cool because (the students) graduate from part to part. As they get better, get more advanced, they get into those tougher roles so they have goals for themselves. They start out probably in one of the younger parts and every year just work their way up the ladder. By the time you’re done, you’ve pretty much done the whole show and every part in it.”

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Conjointly, Kathy is the director of the Dance Concert Society of Kirkwood, a non-profit group that takes short performances of “The Nutcracker” into nursing homes and other facilities for the elderly and disadvantaged. Kathy advises, “We like to provide the community with good quality dance. We like to reach out to Assisted Living and Nursing Homes to get out and tell a story of dance.” She adds, “It’s wonderful to talk to people that live there afterwards. Many of them danced as children and it’s a great way to help brighten their day.”

The Dance Center teaches year-round classes in ballet, tap, modern and jazz. “We teach dancing, but we try to teach other things too,” asserts Kathy. “We try to teach comradery and anti-bullying. We only dress our students appropriately, we only let them dance to music that is appropriate for a child. The movement, the costume … everything. It’s just for kids, not kids trying to look like adults. That’s important to us. (Our studio) is a safe place for kids.”

SugarPlumFairyShe continues, “It’s a great place for them to build confidence, even if they don’t turn out to be a professional dancer, they build confidence, and develop friendships. They learn how to work and be responsible, show up for class, learn their dance and pull their own weight.”

Other public performances for the students throughout the year include recitals, competitions and participation in National Dance Week. In January the group has been invited to perform with a few other companies at the Grandel Theatre in a fundraiser to collect food for people in need.

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The Dance Center of Kirkwood is currently enrolling and is eager to get more kids and adults interested and involved in dancing. “We have summer camps now,” says Kathy, “from the ages of three and through every age group, as well as the older kids who have a week of dance intensives for tap, jazz and modern.”

Continuing, she points out, “Little kids will do camps that may encompass several disciplines like tap, ballet and jazz all in one. For the little people we do a lot of fun camps that do crafts, a “Frozen” camp, and I do a Nutcracker camp every summer for kindergarteners through 2nd grade, it’s a week-long camp. They make their own sets, learn the dances, work with props and make lots of Nutcracker crafts. It’s really fun. They are the choreographer, set designer, they do all of that. I try to teach them everything involved and help them think it through.”

Performances of “The Nutcracker” will be held at the Robert Reim Theatre on Saturday & Sunday, December 16-17, with shows at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. The group will also perform a preview of the second act at the Saint Louis Art Museum on December 9th, at 1:15 pm in the Main Hall.

For more information, visit www.dancecenterkirkwood.com.

Nothing Says Happy Holidays Like 125 Tubas Playing Christmas Carols

tubachristmas-16_23095141963_o.jpgImagine dozens and dozens of tubas playing Christmas tunes in unison. It sounds a little weird and maybe a hoax, but Tuba Christmas is most definitely real. The free concert begins at 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 9 at the south end of the St. Louis Galleria near the entrance to Macy’s.

This year marks the 44th annual celebration of Christmas with tubas. The international event originated in 1974 when Harvey Phillips created it as a tribute to his tuba teacher, William Bell. The first Tuba Christmas was held in Rockafeller Plaza Ice Rink in New York City.

tubachristmas-24_23639578611_o.jpgNowadays, you’ll find Tuba Christmas concerts in nearly every big city and even some small ones.

Tuba players are a different breed. The instrument requires a bit of strength to hold upright, and it takes quite a bit of wind power to generate the notes. It’s not a dainty instrument like a piccolo. Nevertheless, many St. Louisans play the tuba, as is evident at Tuba Christmas, where you’ll see nearly 125 tubaists honking out “Silent Night,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and other favorites.

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Hiram Martin at Tuba Christmas.

One local tuba player who participates in the event began playing the instrument at a young age. Hiram Martin is a retired area high school bandleader who loves golf, fishing and his tuba.

“I love playing the bass notes!” Martin said. He started out on a much smaller instrument in grade school, the violin. He also plays a bit of piano.

“My band instructor encouraged me to take up the tuba,” Martin said. “One reason was there weren’t many kids interested in it, so there wouldn’t be much competition!”

That’s when he hoisted the 30-lb. beast of an instrument for the first time. He was hooked, and has played it ever since. When Tuba Christmas comes around each year, Martin and thousands of other tuba players around the world will join together for their annual holiday extravaganza.

For more information, visit: www.tubachristmas.com.

A Jewish Joke: New Jewish Theatre presents a drama about a comedy

New Jewish Theatre presents the one man play, “A Jewish Joke” written and performed by Phil Johnson. Set in 1950’s Hollywood at the height of McCarthyism, the play focuses on a very dark time in U.S. history when many careers were ruined by friends and colleagues with just a whisper.

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Bernie Lutz is a hot-tempered comedy screenwriter and a partner in the writing team of Lutz and Frumsky. The duo write scrips for the Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye and for NBC. The play takes place at a time when Lutz and Frumsky’s new movie, “The Big Casbah,” is about to premiere and potentially give their careers a huge boost.

Bernie finds out that he and his partner, Morris Frumsky, have been placed on a “blacklist” for their ties to Communists in the movie industry. Asked to rat out Morris, his friend of 30 years, Bernie must choose between saving his career or his self-respect.

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“A Jewish Joke” runs November 29 – December 10. The New Jewish Theatre is located in the Wool Studio Theater in the Arts & Education Building of the J’s Staenberg Family Complex at 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur.

For information, visit newjewishtheatre.org.