From the movies to TV and now community theater, “It’s A Wonderful Life” is back for the holidays.

Theatre Winter Haven's holiday play this year will be a stage version of the classic 1946 movie "It's A Wonderful Life." (Photo by Michael Freeman).

WINTER HAVEN – The odd thing is, except for the opening and final scene, most of “It’s A Wonderful Life” doesn’t really have much to do with Christmas.
And yet for decades, the classic 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed has been a favorite around Christmas time, with repeat showing on television in the weeks leading up to the holiday.
“I think when you look at it, whoever wrote the original story was brilliant to do it that way,” said Norman Small. “It places a level there that wouldn’t be there if it was placed at Easter or the 16th of March. There’s something about the Christmas season that makes people love this movie.”
“It’s A Wonderful Life,” of course, is the story of George Bailey, who operates a small savings and loan bank in the town of Bedford Falls. George had much greater ambitions for his life, and as the movie opens, he’s deep in debt and, on Christmas Eve, wants to end his life by jumping off a bridge into the icy waters below.
It takes the angel Clarence to show George how much worse off the town would have been without him being there all those years. It’s the kind of tearjerker that leaves audiences crying at the end – crying for joy.
Small said he fully understands and appreciates the movie’s enduring appeal.
“It’s the story of Every Man, who gets a second chance — and every man wants to get a second chance,” Small said. “And if we get that second chance, we take it. That’s very gut level, that’s really from the heart.”
Not surprisingly, local television stations and some revival movie theaters are not alone in bringing “It’s A Wonderful Life” back to audiences every holiday season. Community theaters have also discovered that audiences enjoy seeing a live stage version of the story – which is where Small comes in. The executive director of Theatre Winter Haven, Small said “It’s A Wonderful Life” was chosen to be their holiday production next month. The show begins on Thursday, Dec. 1 and runs for 14 performances, through Dec. 18.
“It’s not uncommon for theaters to look for a Christmas-themed show around Christmas time,” Small said. “You want audiences to come see a show and you want to do a good production, and you want one that’s relevant to the time, so you choose things that work for you at that season.”
The first task, as it turns out, wasn’t selecting the play, but figuring out which play to settle on. After becoming a movie, the George Bailey story was later turned into a radio play and then a stage play – multiple times, as it turns out. There are so many different stage versions that Small said he read several scripts before recommending one to the show’s director, Mark Hartfield.
“I gave him three or four scripts and he made the choice of which one to put on stage here,” Small said. “We chose not to do the radio play because there were too many children involved.”
Why so many different versions? That can be blamed on the film’s legendary director, Frank Capra, who committed a classic error in this legal age we’re in.
“The reason why there were so many different versions of this is Frank Capra never applied for a copyright, and everyone grabbed it,” Small said. “It went out into the public domain, and there are several versions of it — even musical versions of the play, two of them. The version we chose is closer to the movie.”
“I read several versions, and it ended up being not all that difficult to pick one,” said the play’s director, Mark Hartfield. “A musical wasn’t really on the table. There’s a radio version, but I’m not very excited about that one.”
Although Theatre Winter Haven selected a version of the play with fewer children in it, the script still includes 27 different scenes – including the classic one at the Bedford Falls High School where George Bailey and his childhood sweetheart Mary fall into the gymnasium pool.
“Putting a swimming pool on stage – how do we do that?” Small laughed. “We just hope that the version we’re doing translates to audiences because the story is so cinematic.”
That can be a challenge for community theaters that perform “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Small acknowledged, because audiences who cherish the story naturally love seeing actors like Stewart, Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers in it – something Theatre Winter Haven obviously can’t deliver.
“You try to meet and then exceed the audiences’ expectations, and you have to meet them first,” he said. “It is a challenge, but I think we’ve met it very well in this case.”
Theatre Winter Haven cast young actor Derek Wyatt in the role of George Bailey, and Small said he’s confident that Wyatt will be a wonderfully sympathetic Every Man in the lead role.
“A couple of years ago, we did ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ at Theatre Winter Haven, and we had the same discussion at that time,” Hartfield said. “The way I approach it is in a live performance, there’s always something a little extra that adds a little more pizzazz to the story.”
The story of “It’s A Wonderful Life” actually dates back to the 1930s. Author Philip Van Doren Stern had a dream that served as the inspiration for a short story he drafted called “The Greatest Gift.” When he couldn’t find a publisher for it, Stern printed 200 copies of the tale as a 21-page booklet – and sent it to friends as Christmas presents in December 1943.
RKO Pictures discovered the story, purchased the rights to it in April 1944, then sold it a year later to Capra, who adapted it as “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, although it lost to “The Best Years of Our Lives.” In the decades that followed, the movie became a staple on television around the holidays.

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Tsk, tsk, tsk …. what is Nana up to with those naughty knickers?

"Nana's Naughty Knickers" is a farce by Katherine DiSalvino. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

LAKE WALES – Are you ever too old to fall in love?
If you’ve ever seen a play like “On Golden Pond,” you know that the desire to love and be loved is eternal, and doesn’t end when you hit retirement age.
A better question might be …. are you ever too old to want to look, and feel, positively sexy?
Katherine DiSalvino’s comedic play “Nana’s Naughty Knickers” aims to answer that question, in a style that’s been happily employed in the past by sitcom writers, starting with “I Love Lucy” and going all the way up to the likes of “Three’s Company”: what happens if you really, truly need to hide something from the authorities but you’re just not that good at it?
Let the screwball comedy begin.
Beneath all the zany gags, though, is an interesting premise that holds some relevance in our current slow-paced economy: the need to find your economic niche. For Nana, that’s easy. The elderly New Yorker has discovered that friends her age don’t want to stop looking sexy and acting sexy just because they use a walker or employ lots of wrinkle cream. Some of them can remember how they once were, as Nana’s friend Vera says, “the cat’s meow.” Why should they give up that feeling of genuine sex appeal when there are elderly men who still find them beautiful and alluring?
That’s the funniest aspect of DiSalvino’s play, which is now being produced at the Lake Wales Little Theatre, Inc. – entrepreneurs may be missing a golden moment by failing to recognize the wealth of opportunity that exists in targeting the sexy senior market.
Nana gets it, which is why she loads her closets with slinky lingerie, the kind that would make your average Victoria’s Secret shopper blush. That’s certainly the reaction from Nana’s granddaughter, Brigitte – who, in another clever twist, is far more conservative than her grandmother. Brigitte can’t believe at first that Nana would be involved in selling sexy clothing – and she’s even more aghast when she learns that to make it really profitable, Nana has been avoiding pay taxes on her sales for years, keeping it all quiet and under the radar of the government and law enforcement.
Nana’s business gets even more problematic when Officer Tom, a handsome young rookie police officer, takes a liking to Brigitte and decides to start dropping by Nana’s apartment more often just to see her. Naturally, the ladies have their hands full making sure Tom doesn’t accidentally stumble across any of those frisky nightgowns and start asking nosy questions. But it doesn’t help when the landlord, suspicious of all the packages being delivered to his apartment complex, enlists Tom to start investigating what’s going on.
“Nana’s Naughty Knickers” has the feel of an “I Love Lucy” episode – you can see Nana and Vera as stand-ins for Lucy and Ethel once they reached their golden years, trying so hard to hide this and that from Ricky and Fred – except the episode comes with a far more adult-oriented subject matter than Lucy’s writers ever tackled in the 1950s. In classic farce tradition, our elderly heroines are forced to devote more and more time and energy to covering something up – and it all becomes fun figuring out how they’re going to put out the next fire, so to speak.

The Lake Wales Little Theatre is at 411 N. 3rd St. in downtown Lake Wales. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

One of the play’s funniest scenes occurs when Nana returns from a photo shoot, highly disappointed that her two elderly models had to take a pass because their assisted living facility served sauerkraut for dinner the night before, and they were incapacitated by a severe case of gas. So, in the grand tradition of insisting that the show must go on, Nana enlists Vera and, even better, Brigitte to model her knickers. Would it surprise anyone to learn that Vera is on cloud 9 doing so, while Brigitte – well, see for yourself.
Part of the pleasure of watching “Nana’s Naughty Knickers” is the happy reminder of something else: there is no age limit on the ability to perform well on stage. Both Jean Hughes as Nana and Janet Davis McCarthy as Vera have a ball playing seniors who throw themselves into the naughty nightgown industry with the kind of enthusiasm that some recent college grads could use. Whether it’s planning their latest catalog of sexy outfits or figuring out a way to lure Tom away from the closet with some milk and cookies, Hughes and McCarthy are a real joy to watch.
And yes, you can see how a lot of elderly gentlemen would find them to truly be the “cat’s meow” in those naughty knickers.
The production runs through Nov. 20, at the theater in downtown Lake Wales at 411 N. 3rd St. The play is performed at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sundays. Tickets cost $14 for adults and $10 for those 18 and younger. To learn more or to order tickets, log on to www.LTLT.org or call 863-679-8587.

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A Halloween treat: the scary tricks inside the Enzian Theater’s Haunted Swamp.

The skeletons outside the Enzian Theater's Haunted Swamp try to entertain the crowd before you head inside, but the bad one-liners are a bit scary. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

MAITLAND – From the view in the parking lot, the Enzian Theater doesn’t look like it’s going to be a particularly scary place.
Granted, the large outdoor screen in the open field near the theater’s Eden Bar was showing “Night of the Living Dead” on Saturday evening, director George Romero’s classic zombie thriller, with Barbara and Johnny walking through the graveyard at the very start, not quite aware of the terrifying zombie apocalypse they had stumbled into.
And there were a few people that night decked out in ghoulish costumes, enjoying a drink at the bar.
Overall, though, the crowd of party revelers hanging out at the bar, relaxing and enjoying time with their friends, is a good advertisement for why this popular spot in Maitland draws such a healthy number of visitors every weekend. But scary?
Except that this evening, the theater is selling tickets not just for movies, but also for the Haunted Swamp, which I nervously toured on Saturday.
And you might ask, is it a good place to go to tonight, on Halloween, when you’re craving some scream-out-loud scares?
My recommendation: oh, yes.
From the theater’s ticket booth, you follow the tiki lights around the corner to the spot where the line begins. To keep you entertained, the theater provides a little Jazz from the Grateful Dead …. only it’s not that Grateful Dead. There are two skeletons who play music and crack jokes for your waiting pleasure, and while the music was good, I think these two need to bone up on their one-liners.
The swamp is completely sealed off by a fence – so you can’t quite see what it is you’re walking into. When it’s your turn, you walk over to the entrance, where the gatekeeper allows parties of four to proceed together through the swamp. There are, of course, some rules to follow, including no taking photos in there – which makes sense, since, after all, it’s all supposed to be hush hush – and if you have any trash, toss it into a nearby trash can before you begin your journey into the swamp, not afterwards.
And then …. you’re told to proceed.
At your own risk, of course.
Without giving away any of the details of this horrific attraction, I can point out that haunted swamps/houses/graveyards, etc., rely on three things to be genuinely effective.
First, there’s the element of surprise. Everyone knows you go into a haunted whatever to scream as the expected unexpectedly appears. The Enzian’s Haunted Swamp has this one down pat.

What's inside the Haunted Swamp: Here's a hint: darkness and shadows .... (Photo by Michael Freeman).

Second, they rely on ambiance. It has to look, and feel, positively eerie, so that everything around you gives you that feeling of anxiety, even discomfort, because it all seems so …. ominous.
Again, the Haunted Swamp, which was more than six months in the making, fits the bill.
Finally, haunted whatevers should tap into our cultural understanding of the clichés that the horror genre has been promoting for decades – things that have made up scream on the big screen, or in novels, or on television. There’s that instant recognition of what it is – and why it scares me.
Again, that’s a clear “bingo” for the Haunted Swamp.
The real test, though, is when you’re done. Is your heart pounding? Do you feel a little bit dizzy? Are you suddenly relieved to be back among the folks at the Eden Bar?
For me, the answers were yes, yes, yes.
The Halloween eve Swamp Tours run tonight from 8-10 p.m., and tickets cost $15. That includes unlimited swamp tours — you can go back in as many times as you want — drink discounts and food specials at the theater at 1300 S. Orlando Ave. in Maitland.
Pay $25 for a VIP ticket, and you get the added bonus of front of the line access.
The Haunted Swamp is a fiendishly effective way to go trick or treating tonight, a scary tour through the macabre swamps behind a theater that has a bar filled with strong liquor awaiting you once you’ve survived the tour. I recommend you enter …
…. if you dare
Call 407-629-0054 for more details.

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