"The Nutcracker" wasn't always a holiday tradition. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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How “The Nutcracker” became a holiday classic

Tony Wagner Dec 13, 2019
"The Nutcracker" wasn't always a holiday tradition. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Every week on “Make Me Smart,” we ask an expert, celebrity, author or other prominent person: “What’s something you thought you knew that you later found out you were wrong about?” It’s called the Make Me Smart Question. This week, author Nathalia Holt brings us a surprising origin story from her book “The Queens of Animation.”

What Black Friday is to big-box stores, “The Nutcracker” is to ballet companies.

Annual productions of the Tchaikovsky ballet — following a young girl, the titular prince and their encounters with a mouse king and sugar plum fairies — are a holiday staple all around the country. They bring in 48% of a company’s average overall season revenue, according to a survey from Dance/USA. Companies pour millions into their productions, the nonprofit arts organization reported, and they’re sometimes the only shows in a season that make money.

And it’s not just the theater. One hundred twenty-seven years after its debut, “The Nutcracker” is so ubiquitous as to be invisible, whether it’s in highly specific novelty home decor or big-budget box office flops. But it wasn’t always this way.

“I thought I knew that ‘The Nutcracker’ was this annual holiday tradition that had been going back many, many generations,” Holt said. “What I learned was actually in the 1930s and in the 1940s, nobody knew about ‘The Nutcracker.’ It wasn’t something that was well known by American audiences at all.”

Holt traces it all back to Disney’s first female storyboard artist, Bianca Majolie, who picked up a recording from the ballet at an LA record store.

“She brings it back to Disney, and Walt immediately loves it. He assigns the first female story director to work on the piece — her name was Sylvia Holland,” Holt said. “She assembles a team of women, and they are almost all women, because men at that time did not want to draw fairies for the film.”

That team began work on what would eventually be “Fantasia.”

The year before the movie came out, legendary choreographer George Balanchine, who played the prince as a boy, visited the studio.

“He sees these images of ‘The Nutcracker’ … and how they are adapting this work to appeal to children, and he is really entranced by it,” Holt said. “And so when the film does come out in 1940, it immediately introduces American audiences to the nutcracker, but it also lights the spark that ends up with [Balanchine’s] production.”

The New York Ballet has performed Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” every year since its debut in 1954. A film version starring Macaulay Culkin came out in 1993, and the production has been restaged and imitated by companies all over the country, to the chagrin of some critics. This year, the New York Ballet cast 11-year-old Charlotte Nebres as its first black Marie.

“Today, you can’t go anywhere in the United States during December without hearing or seeing some piece of ‘The Nutcracker,'” Holt said.

To hear more from Holt and “Make Me Smart,” listen to the episode in the player below.

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