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Christmas Dinner On A Grand Scale

Ahwahnee Hotel Presents 86th Yuletide Extravagance – Bracebridge Dinner Is Served

YOSEMITE – The annual transformation is set to begin, as adventurous guests from around the world gather to attend the Bracebridge Dinner, celebrated annually at the Ahwahnee hotel since 1927.

Beginning Dec. 13, trumpets will blare, voices lift in song and taste buds will tingle as the Bracebridge pageant puts forth a feast for all the senses – and it’s all centered on a lavish seven-course banquet inspired by 17th century England.Bracebridge Entire Cast Photo by Alana SpicerThe Wall Street Journal has called Bracebridge Dinner “the country’s premiere Christmas dinner.”

“It is an evening of magical wonderment,” says Andrea Fulton, the show’s director. “It’s three-and-a-half hours of sumptuous food and wonderful musical entertainment and laughter. It has a sense of joy and spirituality, and a combination of music and nature that makes it simply a one-of-a-kind thing.”

More than 60 players act out the roles of Squire Bracebridge and his family, along with their servants, minstrels and other performers. The dining room of the Ahwahnee is elaborately adorned with Yuletide decorations, including glorious wreaths, festive banners and a magnificent squire’s table.

Bracebridge Choir Photo by Alana Spicer“We have a 40-voice chorus. It’s a very resoundingly beautiful, warm, rich sound that comes out of them. The actors are from the Bay Area and we start rehearsing in September and we take it up to Yosemite at the last minute,” explains Fulton. “We have our only rehearsal day there on December 12th and it’s a huge show to do in just one rehearsal combined with the wait staff, and their choreography is very integral to the show.”

The original script was based on a story by Washington Irving (author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) which described a gentleman Squire named Bracebridge and the English Christmas traditions of his time. The Ahwahnee was a new hotel when the first Bracebridge Dinner took place.

“In 1927 the Ahwahnee Hotel was opened and the president of the company became enamored of the fact that he’d like to do some sort of Christmas presentation and basically bring people to Yosemite. Back in those days it was not the most well traveled place in the world,” Fulton reminds.

The most masterful pageant director of the time was Garnet Holme, known for creating the Ramona Pageant in 1923, the official play of California that continues today. He was hired to write the very first script for the Bracebridge Dinner, but two years after its premiere the artistic director was killed in an accident. The job went next to the photographer Ansel Adams, who doubled as author and even played the infamous jester of Bracebridge Manor.

“Ansel Adams was extremely funny and he took over the direction of it from 1929 to 1973,” Fulton recalls. “During that time the show gained notoriety around the country and throughout the world.”

Andrea Fulton Photo by Alana SpicerFulton’s own personal history is intricately tied to that of the Bracebridge Dinner.

“I have been in the show itself since 1950,” says the director, who is also an actress and scribe. “I was 5 years old when I started. Ansel had hired my parents to be musical directors and when Ansel retired in 1973, they took over the direction of it, and then I took it over in 1979.”

With a foot in the past and an eye toward to future, Fulton decided the year 2000 would be a good time for the Bracebridge script to change.

“I rewrote the script and kept most of Ansel’s original lines, added lots of characters to it and all sorts of different humor around it,” says Fulton, who removes her writer/director hat to act the part of Housekeeper in the play.

Bracebridge Candlelight Procession Photo by Alana Spicer“I created a character as a foil for my character the housekeeper, in the chef, and so I’m having this fling with the chef of Bracebridge Hall. I run the house the way I want to,” Fulton recounts, referring to the role, “and I make sure there’s plenty of wonderful music and we have this chef that I have an eye for and so a lot of the humor is created around the chef and me having our fun.”

In fact, music and food are a big part of Fulton’s life both in and outside of Bracebridge Manor.

“I love to cook, my father was a cook, and when he was very busy the only thing he wanted to do was to relax and cook and he made the most marvelous soups.

“When I find myself too busy to do anything I start cooking soup. It just kind of seems to stay in the family and stay in the show.”

Bracebridge Dinner Service Photo by Alana SpicerMasterful dishes remain the foodie’s focus on the historic panoply that is Bracebridge. From a “relish” of white bean-pine nut hummus, right through the roasted tenderloin of beef, the Ahwahnee hotel gets to show off its talented and creative culinary staff.

“We have a marvelous chef, Percy Whatley. He has quite a wonderful reputation and has quite a few awards to his name. He creates a new dinner each year which follows the basic format of the boar’s head and the baron of beef and the fish and the peacock pie and the plum pudding and the wassail, and creates really lavishly beautiful dishes around those themes.”

To be clear: there is no peacock pie, that’s where the Sonoma Duck Confit Strudel comes, instead.

Bracebridge Jester 86d Photo by Alana SpicerFulton says the Bracebridge Dinner, which continues through December 25, is an ideal anecdote to the consumer-driven bustle of the modern holiday season.

“It’s all the feelings of riding through the snow in a sleigh to grandmother’s house,” she teases, “looking out the window and seeing the beautiful mountains and it just makes people’s hearts very happy seeing something away from the commercialism of Christmas. The people that we have are simply phenomenal and it’s a joy to work with each one of them. It is a very full, well-rounded experience.”

Visit the website for dinner prices and accommodations at hotels inside the park and other related events, including ancillary concerts.

Photo Credits, Alana Spicer, Andrea Fulton Productions

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