Yosemite National Park’s Bracebridge Dinner has become a true American tradition since its inception in 1927 in the magnificent Yosemite Valley. This spectacular Christmas pageant takes place in the grand Dining Room of the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee), which is transformed into the luxuriant Hall of American author Washington Irving’s legendary “Squire Bracebridge." Each December, the world-famous Hotel takes on the air of eighteenth-century England. The Dining Room of The Majestic, its tables aglow with candlelight, is filled with the warmth and spirit of this special time of year. The evening abounds with a profusion of food and the ringing sound of voices. The cathedral windows look out onto the beauty of Yosemite Valley, and the spirit of all things beautiful cannot help but be felt, as one is enveloped in the joy of the season.
The original Ahwahnee Hotel was completed in 1927. Yosemite Park and Curry Company President Donald Tresidder envisioned a Yuletide celebration in the new Hotel’s Dining Room. He hired Garnet Holme, a California pageant director, to create an “event,” and The Bracebridge Dinner took its initial form, a performance loosely based on Washington Irving’s sketchbook “A Christmas at Bracebridge Hall.” Tresidder and his wife, Mary Curry Tresidder, played the parts of Squire and Lady Bracebridge.
Holmes' untimely death in 1929 left a void in the direction of this new festivity. A cast member of the first two seasons – a part-time Valley resident who had played the part of The Lord of Misrule – was asked by Tresidder to take on the task of reworking the event. This cast member was Ansel Adams, who was well on his way at that time to becoming one of the world’s finest photographers. Adams did a brilliant job of creating the basic form of the pageant as we know it today. His original script of the “new” Bracebridge Dinner has remained largely intact since the initial performance in 1929. A fine pianist as well as a photographer, Adams’ knowledge of music evidenced itself in the meter of the script, which was written with a feeling of four beats per line to reflect the music chosen for the male chorus processions.
In time, Adams took on the role of Major Domo, his unique personality bringing dignity and stature to this role, ruling over Squire Bracebridge’s household and leading the presentation of larger-than-life replicas of each course of food down the aisle for The Squire’s approval as the chorus sang. The rich voice of Adams' wife, Virginia, who played the part of The Housekeeper for many years, brought authority to the role.
Adams brought Yosemite architect Theodore Spencer and The Hotel’s interior decorator, Jeanette Dyer Spencer, on to the creative team to build the set for The Dinner. Mrs. Spencer, who designed the stained glass windows in The Great Lounge of The Hotel, created the magnificent window behind The Squire’s head table and the roundels that hang in the cathedral windows of The Dining Room. The Squire’s guests would little guess the “stained glass” is finely-painted parchment paper, carefully preserved through the years. Mrs. Spencer designed the original costumes and decorated the stage and head table that fill the alcove of The Dining Room. Her husband, Ted, designed and built the entire set. In 2000, Gregory Parker became the set decorator and began a new era of visual opulence for The Bracebridge Dinner.
In 1934, Adams asked well-known San Francisco choral conductor Eugene Fulton to lead the eight-member male chorus. Presentation of The Dinner was suspended during World War II and Fulton became Musical Director when The Bracebridge Dinner resumed in 1945. The musical aspect of the production took on a new luster. A chorus of outstanding voices was assembled, and The Bracebridge Dinner’s reputation for fine music was born. Fulton’s wife, Anna-Marie, became the organist for The Dinner and accompanied the choral concerts that filled out the festivities of the holiday week. Mrs. Fulton also handled the ever-growing administrative details of The Dinner.
As demand for attendance at The Dinner grew, a second performance was added in 1956. Word of this spectacular event continued to spread throughout the country as well as abroad. A third Dinner was instituted on December 24 in 1978 and in 1985 two additional Dinners were presented for the first time on December 22, which allowed those who were unable to attend on Christmas Eve or Day the experience of this great tradition. Yet two more Dinners were added to the 2001 season, and to fill the ever-growing demand for tickets, 2002 marked the beginning of eight performances as word of this magnificent pageant continues to spread throughout the world.
In 1973, Ansel Adams retired from The Bracebridge Dinner and Eugene and Anna-Marie Fulton assumed the directorship of the pageant. Martha Miller became liaison between The Hotel and performers, scheduling all aspects of Hotel activity and coordinating The Kitchen and Dining Room to keep the impeccably-timed performances running smoothly.
In 1978, after completing the dress rehearsal for The Dinner, Eugene Fulton died unexpectedly of heart failure. His family stayed in The Valley to complete the performances and the following year his daughter, Andrea, joined her mother, Anna-Marie, in the direction of The Dinner. Since that time, Andrea has expanded Adams’ and her parents’ vision of The Dinner. She augmented the existing role of Housekeeper to take the place of the part of Major Domo, which Adams and her father had played. She composed The Dinner’s opening poetry to embrace the majesty of Yosemite Valley, created the awe-inspiring candlelight procession, implemented the women’s chorus and wrote additional text to fine-tune the production she inherited.
In the spring of 2000, Fulton called upon George Baker, who played the role of The Parson, to collaborate in developing The Bracebridge Dinner even further. Baker, a fine musician and writer, brought his considerable skills to the newly formed artistic team. The two created additional roles, wrote text to enhance the existing players’ characters, reworked many musical selections and expanded the humorous aspect of the production. Melissa Wortman was hired to design new costumes for The Dinner and her vibrant colors abound, bringing the production’s festivities into an even more fantastical realm of beauty.
Fulton has always felt that the joy of presenting the Bracebridge Dinner throughout these many decades has been in the ability to look upon the production as a living theatre piece, and to watch it develop and flourish. She has recognized the need for a connection from a vastly simpler time to how our world has developed through the ensuing centuries. This need for a thread to join past to present brought about the creation of the character Nathaniel, The Woodsman, who tells the Squire there are treasures vaster than those inside Bracebridge Hall, and urges him to visit the forest to reconnect with nature. In Nathaniel’s poetry can be found the warning that without cautious stewardship of the land, all that the Squire holds dear may well vanish from the earth. Many years before conservation and sustainability became buzzwords in the English language, Bracebridge’s John Muir-esque Woodsman begs that we heed the biddings of nature and care well for our earth, lest our treasured resources become a thing of the past.
Andrea Fulton is celebrating her 68th anniversary performing in The Bracebridge Dinner. During these many Christmases, she has played numerous roles, starting at the age of five as a Villager. Ansel Adams created the role of Ward of the Squire for her, which she played for many years, then portrayed The Minstrel for 18 years. She has been the Producer and Director of The Bracebridge Dinner since 1979. The longevity of the Dinner’s cast has created a remarkable sense of tradition and continuity; Sarah Coykendall, a veteran of fifteen years, has moved from the position of Stage Manager to Stage Director. For thirty-two years, Gregory Parker has brought his considerable musical skills to the proceedings and he now serves as Musical Director. His compositions are a featured part of the Chorale’s Holiday Pops Concerts. William Pickersgill, who plays Nathaniel The Woodsman, is celebrating his thirty-first anniversary with the Bracebridge Dinner.
As the production has grown in scope, Fulton has created a team to assist with the producing of the show. She now shares the administrative and artistic duties of Andrea Fulton Productions with Jonathan Spencer, Gregory Parker, Sarah Coykendall, Victoria Jensen and Patrick Caley. Caley heads up the technical team, working behind the scenes to fulfill every element of Fulton’s vision for the production. The longevity of The Dinner’s cast has created a remarkable sense of tradition and continuity. Many of the singers have been with The Andrea Fulton Chorale and The Dinner for two, three and even four decades. Barton Thomte has taken part in the Dinner for forty-five years.