I wrote this three years ago, but still love to share my thoughts on the magic of Popejoy Hall during the holiday season. Enjoy!
My 49th birthday was December 8, 2009, and my daughter, Johanna, a brand new freshman at UNM, bought tickets for the two of us to see the Nutcracker ballet performed by the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and New Mexico Ballet Company at Popejoy Hall. I snuck into her dorm room with a sleeping bag and an armload of dress up clothes, we wandered down Central to dinner at Yanni’s, and then we walked across campus to Popejoy for the high point of our evening.
I love Popejoy Hall. I grew up on a farm in rural northeastern New Mexico, and the height of my theatrical experience at that time was the junior play each year in the high school gym. My senior year, with hours of electives to fill, I signed up for a drama class and found myself learning the lines to a play to be performed in a statewide competition. I don’t remember much about the play, except that it was awful, something about one sister betraying another in a highly dysfunctional family. I’m certain our acting was equally obnoxious.
What I remember best is getting to go to Albuquerque in the school station wagon, and walking onto the stage at Popejoy to say my lines. We were all awestruck. We were those basketball boys in the movie “Hoosiers” walking onto the University of Indiana basketball court before the state championship, all open mouths and intimidation. Of course we didn’t do well – our’s wasn’t an underdog-come-from-behind story where we tore up the drama club from Monzano High. We were far too frightened and out of our element. But I loved Popejoy on sight. I loved the huge auditorium with its 2,000 seats, the mezzanine and balcony (it may have been the first time I actually used the word “mezzanine” in my life.) I loved the broad stage and the side curtains from which we made our entrances. And I loved the high ceiling-ed entry hall with its displays of upcoming shows. It was all crazy new to me. It might as well have been Carnegie Hall.
Fast forward eight years. I was a broke single mom living in Albuquerque with a four year old son, working as a legal secretary at the Sutin Law Firm. Having read a thousand books, I knew that one of the performances I wanted, even needed to see, was the Nutcracker. And I had some vague idea that it might be appealing to a child. So I dressed little Zachary up in his finest, which to him meant jeans and cowboy boots (I did get him into a button down, as I recall), took him to Mac’s Steak in the Rough for dinner (his favorite at the time), and off we went to Popejoy on Thanksgiving weekend, purchasing the absolute cheapest tickets available.
I was enraptured the moment we entered the building. Just the clothes on the patrons made my mouth water – all that glitter and holiday finery. Women in furs, little girls in red velvet dresses with their hair up in matching bows. Zachary was immediately suspicious. Nothing this pretty could be fun for a little boy, but we forged on and found our seats in the highest corner of the balcony. And then the orchestra started tuning up and the lights went down and the curtains opened and we were transported to a magical place. There was one interesting moment about ten minutes into the ballet when Zach, in his loudest four year-old boy voice, said to me, “Mom, when are they gonna talk?!!” He fell asleep before the Sugar Fairies appeared. And I never made him go back to the Nutcracker, although we did make other trips to Popejoy in years to come.
Then I had Johanna. While I was pregnant, I think one of the reasons I prayed so hard for a girl was so I could dress her up and take her to Popejoy to the Nutcracker. Luckily, she was all priss and bows when she was little – her favorite outfit at three was the peach dress with the petticoats that had bells sewn into the lining. And red cowboy boots.
She loved an excuse to dress up. As early as it was practical, I purchased tickets, just slightly closer to the stage than when I took Zachary, we went to dinner at the Frontier, and then across the street to Popejoy.
I’m pretty sure my skill as a writer will be severely tested to describe how it was to take Johanna to Popejoy to the Nutcracker all those years when she was little. One year she wore a green velvet dress with a white fur coat my mom bought her at a thrift store. She even held the coat up, in October, and said, “I’ll be wearing this to the Nutcracker.” On occasion we took someone else along, but it was always the two of us who held hands and waited for the opening strains of Tchaikovsky, holding our breath in anticipation.
And at intermission we would go out into the great hall, stand in line for a bottle of water or hot chocolate, and we’d run into friends – Marilyn and Meg, Patti and Jim Beasley, the Grisham girls and their parents. It was such an event – going to Popejoy! One year we opted for Nutcracker on the Rocks in Keller Hall with the Keshet Dance Company (www.keshetdance.org) and watched children with disabilities and in wheelchairs magically perform a newer, hipper and really quite magical version of the Nutcracker. But Keller Hall, also contained in the UNM Center for the Arts, just isn’t Popejoy.
We’ve seen many other performances there – “The Music Man” to satisfy a junior high drama class requirement for Zachary when he was at the Academy, “Cats” with my great pal Stephanie, the symphony a number of times (Popejoy is the home of the NMSO). Every time I could afford tickets, or trick a date into thinking it was a great venue, I’ve landed somewhere in the Popejoy audience.
The info sheet says Johnny Cash performed there. I remember that Garrison Keillor was scheduled to do “A Prairie Home Companion” there when Johanna was in junior high, and we scrambled around trying to get tickets, but missed it (Someday!).
You can buy tickets and see the entire calendar at www.popejoypresents.com.
Popejoy is over forty years old, and sitting right in the southern end of the UNM campus. It’s beautiful but accessible. Its’ breathtaking and yet very comfortable to spend an evening there. Going through those doors always fills me with excitement and anticipation. I know that in just a moment, I’m going to get to sit down in that amazing hall next to someone I care about and our breath is going to be taken away. And this past December with Johanna was no exception. We sat down, held hands and when the curtain went up, we both had tears in our eyes.