Christmas pantomime plays, or “pantos” are cultural institutions here in the UK, but have been relatively unknown in the USA, until very recently.
As every British person knows, a panto is a musical comedy stage event, performed around Christmas time – featuring outrageous characters in bright, garish costumes. Usually based on a fairy tale or children’s story, they feature vaudeville-style jokes and lots of interaction between the performers and the audience. Pantos always have variations of the same stock characters, including an outlandish villain (booed at every appearance), a damsel in distress, a hero, a buffoon, a talking animal such as a horse or cow (portrayed by two actors, one for the front and one for the back) and most importantly, a Dame. The Dame is played by a man in drag, and is always the most outrageously dressed actor in the performance, and they usually get the biggest laughs – delivering double entendres throughout,
Despite adhering to a formula, pantos can be unpredictable, even rowdy affairs. You never know what is going to be shouted at the performers, if a member of the cast is going to start throwing toilet paper rolls over the crowd, or if there is going to be a water pistol fight, with everyone getting soaked – audience included. They’re great fun.
It was inevitable that Americans, with their love of spectacle, would eventually embrace the panto, but perhaps unsurprisingly, there have been some changes introduced to them, as part of their journey across the Atlantic.
The most noticeable differences can be seen in Christian pantos, which are now being performed throughout much of America’s southwest. The very first Christian panto was organised only three years ago in Schulenberg, Texas by Merle Holiston, music director of the Schulenberg First Baptist Church of Judgemental Redemption. Mr Holiston explained how it came about in an interview with the local paper, the Schulenberg Weekly Picayune:
“I first saw one of them there big gay English musical spectaculars when I was flipping around on my Di-rect TV dish. I was looking for the bass fishing channel, and I must of accidentally landed on some English television, cause they had Snow White on there. At first I thought it were Disney, but they weren’t on ice skates. I was about to change it over, but they had this big ole woman on there making jokes, and I thought she was awful pretty. And that talking horse just cracked me up. I know horses can count real good, but who ever heard of one that can talk? Got to thinking, we should do something like that over here in Schulenberg. Try something new. Course, we had to take out all them sexy jokes, especially the homosexual agenda they put in there and instead get in some good clean Christian humour. And that’s how we come to make ‘Robin Hood: redistribution of wealth is contrary to the Lord’s Word: A Christmas Pantomime,” which I wrote myself.
Holiston’s ‘Robin Hood’ resembles traditional British pantomime, but with some significant alternations to the story and the format. In his version, the tyranny Robin Hood encounters comes not from the King or the Sheriff of Nottingham, but rather from the destitute residents of Sherwood Forest, who are portrayed as lazy and ‘looking for a handout.’ Throughout, Robin steals from the poor and gives to the rich, which he justifies by saying that he’s contributing to “the job creators.” It was a huge local hit, and the “Texas panto” soon spread to other town: Halletsville, Eagle Lake, and even the great metropolis of Amarillo. After that, pantos spread like wildfire, and are now a regular part of American Christmas celebrations throughout much of the country.
In Missoula, you can catch a version of “Charles Dockens’ A Christmas Carol” (the original name of the Victorian author was deemed inappropriate for children). In this version, the ghosts take Ebenezer Scrooge on a Christmas Eve tour showing him how the government has wasted the tax money he has paid in the past, how they are wasting his tax money now, and how they will waste it again in the future. Scrooge winds up setting himself up as a sovereign citizen – barricading himself behind the doors of his money counting office, singing “Gimme Back My Bullets” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, while the ATF gathers outside for a siege.
Speaking of guns, pantos have had to adapt to local circumstances regarding firearms and their ubiquity in the USA. The stock routine in British panto where a character asks the crowd to help him find the villain and everyone shouts “He’s right behind you,” has been cut from U.S. versions. This came after an unfortunate incident in Flagstaff, where a member of the audience – thinking he was being helpful – shot and killed the actor portraying the villain Jafar right in the middle of a performance. The shooter, an avid gun collector with a concealed-carry permit was later acquitted, after successfully invoking the ‘stand your ground’ defense. “There was some crazy looking Moslem with a big curved sword, and he was sneaking up on that boy,” he testified. While anti-Muslim sentiment may have played a part in the verdict, the judge in the case was also criticised for allowing the trial to descend into chaos and farce, when the hard of hearing jurist asked if anyone in the courtroom knew exactly where Jafar was physically positioned, in relation to Aladdin when the shooting took place.
Water pistols are also not part of the repertoire in American pantos, for similar reasons – in the USA, water pistols often escalate into to real gunfire. In a Tulsa production of “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” the panto cast came up with a clever replacement gag, where, dressed as union officers, they threw disease-infected blankets into the crowd. Sadly, this also indirectly led to tragedy, when a production tried the same thing in Fresno California, and the children of several anti-vaxxer parents succumbed to smallpox soon after attending a show.
Despite these setbacks, pantos continue to spread throughout the country. You can catch a version of Snow White in several municipalities right now, including Natchez, Mississippi, which features a villain portrayed by a Hilary Clinton look-a-like, standing in for the Evil Queen, with spectators breaking out into chants of “Lock her up!” every time she appears on stage. Other popular panto villains in recent productions include Charles Darwin, climate change scientists, gay marriage advocates trying to force bakers to create homosexual wedding cakes and of course, CNN’s Anderson Cooper. These variations on British classics make for a great night of theatre for the entire family.