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A Christmas story? Not really

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

Is this about the supply-chain issues hindering the search for Christmas presents this year?

No.  It’s not.

What is it about?  Well, some of you may recognize the “Christmas presents” quote as the famous first sentence in a famous book.  “Christmas won’t be Christmas…” is the memorable first sentence in the enduring classic, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

The sentence is spoken by Jo, the most prominent of the book’s “little women” and Alcott’s alter ego, a strong young woman who’s determined to create a meaningful life for herself.  Jo, her three sisters, and their mother make up a New England family confronting the Civil War and its impact on their lives, while the girls’ father is a doctor treating Union soldiers somewhere far from home.  Short of funds, the family faces a Christmas with no presents.

This extraordinary book has long been the favorite of generations of readers.  In my case, it was one of only two books that, as a young girl, I read more than once.  I was a voracious reader and usually moved on quickly from one book to another.  Little Women was an exception.  (The other was Black Beauty.)  I reread Little Women because it was so beautifully written and so relatable to me as a young girl who, like Jo, wanted to create a meaningful life for myself.

Little Women has influenced a number of filmmakers, most recently Greta Gerwig, whose 2019 version offered a new take on it.  The “Christmas presents” line is buried nearly halfway through Gerwig’s film.  In every other film and dramatization I’ve seen, Jo speaks that line at the very beginning of the story, just as Alcott wrote it. 

Now I’ll explain how the “Christmas presents” line in Little Women relates to my own life.  Not as a reader or filmgoer, but as a preteen taking classes at the long-gone and now legendary Harand Studios in downtown Chicago.

I’m not sure how I first learned about the Harand Studios (officially called the Harand Studios of the Theatre Arts), but once I did, I promptly asked my parents to let me enroll there. 

I was eleven that fall, turning twelve the following spring, and my father had undergone surgery for colon cancer during the summer.  Happily, he’d recovered and returned to work as a pharmacist at a drug store at Sheridan Road and Lawrence Avenue, about three miles from our apartment on the Far North Side.  He didn’t love this job, but it was a source of needed income for our family of four.  My mother helped, working part-time elsewhere, and her earnings added to our coffers.

I knew it would be something of an extravagance for me to enroll at the Harand Studios (hereafter “Harand”).  Although my mother loved and cared for me, I don’t think she was terribly eager to pay for my lessons at Harand.  But Daddy was a softie, enamored with his two red-haired daughters, and he often indulged me when Mom didn’t.

And so I turned up at Harand one Saturday morning, excited to begin this new chapter in my young life.  Daddy drove me the twelve miles from our apartment to the studio, located on the second floor of a corner building on North Michigan Avenue, not far from the Allerton Hotel.  Michigan Avenue was still a quiet boulevard filled with low-rise, often charming and unique buildings, like the Michigan Square Building encompassing the exquisite Diana Court with its sculpture by the noted Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. 

Riding downtown with Daddy was a special treat.  During that ride, I had him all to myself, and I didn’t have to share him with my older sister.  After he dropped me off, he drove back north about nine miles to the drugstore where he worked, dispensing medicine and advice to customers for the rest of the day.

That first morning, I climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor, arriving at the studio not sure what to expect.  It turned out to be a magical place, filled with rooms that focused on three areas:  drama, music, and dance. 

The studio was the brainchild of two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand, who came up with the idea of a children’s arts studio in Chicago.  Sulie had studied opera, at one point coached by Kurt Herbert Adler, who later became the artistic director of the San Francisco Opera.  She won contests in Chicago and played clubs across the Midwest, performing tributes to Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and others.  Turning to musical theatre, she created one-woman shows, traveling throughout the country to perform in them.  And while she continued performing, she and her sister Pearl opened the Harand Studios.  

Pearl, a former member of the Chicago Repertory Theatre, primarily taught drama while Sulie primarily taught voice.

For me, the drama lessons at Harand were the most memorable.  Maybe because my love for drama had begun early.  As a small child, I took the part of Jerry, the animated mouse who’d appeared in a 1945 MGM musical, “Anchors Aweigh,” starring Gene Kelly.  Kelly danced and sang with the animated mouse in “The King Who Wouldn’t Sing or Dance,” inserted in the film as a charming story Kelly tells a group of kids. 

I must have been the very young student of a drama and music teacher who enlisted me to perform Jerry’s role in a recital.  I have only dim memories of this event, but I distinctly remember my own musical number and reveling in the applause as my older partner (playing Kelly’s role) and I took a bow.

My next dramatic role came along when I graduated from kindergarten.  My teacher chose me to play the starring role in our class’s performance of “Sleeping Beauty.”  (Prince Charming was played by my classmate Richard Just.  I wonder where he is now.)  Once again, I loved the audience reaction to my Sleeping Beauty, garbed in a wedding-party dress my cousin Anna hand-sewed for me. (Anna, my mother, and I had chosen the pale blue organza fabric at the long-departed fabric department at Marshall Field’s on State Street.)  But I had to pretend to fall asleep on the hard wooden floor of the auditorium stage, and I recall being mad that I couldn’t lie on a soft sofa instead.  A prima donna at age 6!

I later appeared on that same stage in other productions (we called them “assemblies”).  The most unforgettable took place one February around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I remember reading a poignant poem about Lincoln as well as portraying someone in his southern Illinois town.

Now, here I was, at age 11, immersed in dramatic pursuits at Harand.  And here was where the “Christmas presents” quote became a lifelong memory.   An abiding memory because Pearl Harand chose me to play Jo in the opening scene from Little Women, and I recited that line in many, many repetitions of that scene. 

At Harand, I also participated with enthusiasm in our music and dancing classes.  Music was usually supervised by Sulie Harand, along with Elaine F, a young and immensely talented pianist and singer.  Elaine was only 15 when she was hired to play at Harand on Saturday mornings and after school.  I vividly remember her piano artistry and how she taught our class some of the original songs she’d written.  (I can still sing much of “My First Big Dance.”)  I was lucky to forge lifelong friendships with both Elaine and her younger sister Natalie, another student at Harand.  To this day, Natalie, a steadfast friend, remembers that she “loved our Saturday mornings there!”

I enjoyed dance lessons as well.  Although my dance memories are pretty foggy, I do remember that we danced in a room with a mirrored wall and a ballet barre.

My best friend, Helene, who lived next door (and remains a friend), got wind of Harand and wanted to get in on the action.  She also recalls attending classes, taking buses to get there, but dropped out after a short time because she was “not talented!”  She and another friend, Renee, were “probably the worst ones” there.

But I was ecstatic about my Saturday mornings at Harand and kept going as long as I could.  When classes ended each week, I would emerge onto Michigan Avenue, sometimes stopping for a warm cookie at the small bakery on the first floor.  I’d catch a bus that would take me to my father’s drugstore, and my Saturday afternoons thus became memorable, too.

The drugstore had an old-fashioned marble-topped lunch counter, where Daddy would make sure I ate a good lunch, sometimes accompanied by a sugary beverage like a cherry “phosphate.”  I’d eat my lunch seated on a stool I could spin to my heart’s content.  Some of you may remember lunch counters like that one. 

They became famous a few years later when civil rights activists in the South protested segregationist policies, beginning in 1960 with a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The sit-in movement spread throughout the South, and places like Woolworth’s were ultimately forced to change their policies.

While I waited to go home with Daddy, I would carefully look over the drugstore’s merchandise.  I especially relished spinning the racks of paperback books and deciding which ones to show to Daddy.  Together we chose plays by Shakespeare and other classics, usually priced at the exorbitant sum of 25 cents.  I treasured our choices and saved them for years, until their cheap construction finally led to their literally falling apart.

At the end of Daddy’s workday, we’d climb back into our car, a 1948 Chevy, formerly a boring postwar gray and now a bright emerald green. (Daddy had hired someone to do the paint job.)  Together we’d drive home for dinner with my mother and sister. 

I never went much further with my dramatic pursuits.  That’s a story for another day.  But the “Christmas presents” line from Little Women has stayed with me, decade after decade.

Daddy died about a year after I began those classes at Harand.  The enormity of his loss changed my life and left a huge hole that remains today.

Those glorious Saturdays we spent together during the year before he died? They are enduring and powerful memories in my memory-bank, and they will remain there forever.