The First Nutcracker in America

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    The program cover for the first American production of Nutcracker that premiered on December 24, 1944 in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.
    Photo courtesy of Museum of Performance & Design
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    Characters from San Francisco Ballet’s 1944 production of Nutcracker.
    Photo courtesy of Museum of Performance & Design.
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    Celena Cummings as the lead rose in Willam Christensen’s 1944 Nutcracker.
    Photo by Joaquin Felsch. Courtesy of Museum of Performance & Design.

A ballet synonymous with Christmas, the first complete production of Nutcracker in America was performed in 1944 by San Francisco Ballet.         

In 1944, San Francisco Ballet Director Willam Christensen wrote to the Library of Congress for a copy of the complete Tchaikovsky score for this ballet. For details of the original production, Christensen talked to two former members of the Maryinsky Ballet in St. Petersberg, Russia, Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine. 

“Ballet Russe passed through San Francisco and one evening, I got Alexandra Danilova and Balanchine, then ballerina of Ballet Russe and ballet master respectively, to come to my apartment,” recalls Christensen. “We had something to eat and drink, and then we got down to work with the conductor. Balanchine described the Maryinsky production: how the big doors opened on the tree, the mime of Drosselmeyer, all the details.  At one point, Danilova started dancing Clara’s variation, in her stocking feet and street dress.  Balanchine put an end to that with his admonishment, ‘No, no, Alexandra, don't try to show him the actual steps.  Let him create his own choreography.’ We worked all night, and that is how I got my first Nutcracker...I never intended it to become an annual production, but there you are, it is a tradition now!”

With a $1,000 budget, Company members helped out by standing in long lines to purchase fabric for costumes in 10-yard lengths, as allocated by wartime rationing.  Five dollars was enough to buy all the artificial flowers, feathers and rhinestone necklaces from the Goodwill. Since it was wartime and materials were scarce, red velvet stage curtains from what had been The Cort Theater in San Francisco (where Anna Pavlova had danced her last San Francisco seasons) were purchased by Hartley from Goodwill and fashioned into soldiers’ uniforms for Act I. The material was so abundant that it provided the Company a source of velvet that lasted for the next ten years.

Vintage photo of dancing snowflakes from 1944.
The dancing snowflakes from Willam Christensen’s 1944 Nutcracker.
Photo courtesy of Museum of Performance & Design.

Gisella Caccialanza Christensen, the first American Sugar Plum Fairy, danced with San Francisco Ballet while her husband, Lew Christensen, served in the army. “Onna White helped me make my costume, which was really awful. We made our own tights then too. They weren’t like tights worn today.  We had to sew our stockings onto little pants to make tights and, like old-style tights, they’d bag out and wouldn't bounce back and cling to your legs.  We sewed pennies or nickels to the waistbands so we'd have something to grab onto to yank up the tights.  You couldn’t practice plies or anything before a performance or else you’d be standing there with baggy knees when the curtain came up.  The zipper on my costume split while I was dancing in the dress rehearsal of Nutcracker. I remember Willam saying to me, ‘Good luck, sis, and don't breathe!’”

On December 24, Nutcracker premiered at a matinee and the dancers were in a state of excitement. “All the dancers carried loads of costumes across the streets, and the morning rehearsals with the orchestra pushed us all to fever pitch,” read Russell Hartley’s notes from the time (courtesy of the Performing Arts Library and Museum of San Francisco). “Finally it was time, and the strains of the overture filtered backstage, and what followed seems like a dream.  When you weren’t dancing, you were glued to the wings, observing what was happening on stage.”

Nutcracker survived and flourished, playing to delighted audiences and enthusiastic critics. In 1944, Merrill Osenbaugh of the Sacramento Union wrote prophetically: “We can’t understand why a vehicle of such fantastic beauty and originality could be produced in Europe in 1892 with signal success and never be produced in its entirety in this country until 1944. Perhaps choreographers will make up for lost time from now on.”

They did. In less than 50 years, the number of Nutcracker productions staged annually jumped from one to one hundred and fifty in the United States alone.