The holiday season brings with it feelings of nostalgia. This nostalgia of Christmas past led me on a hunt for examples of how the people of Wheeling spent their days leading up to the holidays. And I am thrilled to report the ads I found lead me to believe that these folks would definitelyconsider Die Hard a Christmas movie.
The scope of my search focused on what has arguably been the cultural touchpoint in downtown Wheeling since 1928: the Capitol Theatre. The historic theatre has always been able to boast an incredibly diverse entertainment lineup: from symphony performances to country music concerts, Broadway shows to stand-up specials, choir performances to school extravaganzas.
For nearly a century, the Capitol has proven that regardless of where your preferences fall on the entertainment spectrum, it is a theatre with a little something for everyone.
Join me as we journey back to holiday performances past, complete with daring and spectacular instances of the Capitol breaking the traditional mold of ‘holiday entertainment’, providing the people with a break from reality, and transporting them to weird and wonderful places.
Sin Takes A Holiday (Throwback Rom-Com, 1930)
Is this a holiday rom-com to challenge the new classic favorites, such as Love, Actually? No. No, it is not. But it is one of the first rom-coms to break through onto the silver screen. And it was released and shown in the Capitol during the holiday season. So we’ll go ahead and count it!
The plot: The plot is a delightful mash-up of wild and predictable. A ‘dowdy’ woman is the secretary for a throwback playboy (he’s a lawyer, shocking). Said lawyer exclusively dates married women so that he can maintain his bachelor status with no strings attached. This goes wonderfully for years until one woman decides to leave her husband and marry the playboy instead. The lawyer, horrified at the idea of commitment, decides to marry his dowdy secretary. After the nuptials, the secretary goes to Paris (because why wouldn’t she?), gets a glamorous makeover, another man falls in love with her, she flies back to America, the lawyer sees her, and then guess what? IT TURNS OUT THEY WERE IN LOVE ALL ALONG!
The plot twist: There is none. This establishes the trope for most romantic comedies to follow. There IS a fun fact: this movie was made in the midst of ‘Pre-Code Hollywood’, a time when movies were transitioning from silent films to talkies and censorship guidelines were nowhere to be found (they did find them in 1934, which really is a shame as the pre-code era allowed for strong female leads and ‘taboo’ subject matter, spicy innuendos, and profanity). So, while the film lost $40,000 the first year it was released, the odds are high that there is throwback filth to revel in.
Hellzapoppin’ (Broadway Musical, 1941)
Declared ‘The Craziest Show on Earth’ in 1941, Hellz A Poppin’ is a Broadway musical unlike any other. Made famous for “rowdy humor… boisterous high spirits, nonsensical antics and mad monkeyshines” the play includes actors running off stage to do conga lines down the aisle, attempts to sell items to audience members, and even gifting harsh critics items such as a live chicken. This was a show that used unorthodox antics to get people in high spirits just in time for the holidays.
The plot: The two main characters, reverently referred to as ‘admirable chief madmen’, decide to host a musical at a lavish estate. Calamity emerges in the form of a love triangle, vaudevillian mishaps, the romantic pursuit of a Russian count, and a foiled double-homicide attempt.
The plot twist: The original release of Hellzapoppin’ was met with absolutely dreadful reviews from critics and audiences alike. But like the phoenix, they rose from the ashes of degradation and despair, reborn as the longest-running Broadway musical in history (at the time). It was one of three Broadway musicals to have more than 500 performances (they hit 1,404) and it ran for three years: 1938-1941. that’s right! The Wheeling performance was one of the last ones they would ever do!
The trailer: As Hollywood loves to do, they snatched this gem up and made it into a movie; called ‘a wonderfully surreal comedy from Hollywood’s Golden Age’ (according to one critic on Rotten Tomatoes), and getting an 86% audience rating on the site, you definitely have the chance to recreate the holiday entertainment of yesteryear. Check it out here!
Subscribe to Weelunk
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Cinematic Masterpiece, 1964)
In 1964, the people of Wheeling were presented with the opportunity to take in a truly unique piece of sci-fi cinema (in color!), with matinee special pricing. With an IMDB rating low enough to rival that of VelociPastor, we can assume thatSanta Claus Conquers the Martianswas yet another example of a brave piece of misunderstood cinema.
The plot: Martian kids find out about Santa Claus (via Martian television that apparently has access to Earth television), and they have one of their own. An 800-year-old Martian sage tells them that the kids are right – if they don’t get a Santa, Martian society is doomed. So the Martians do the logical thing: kidnap two Earth children, use them to suss out the real Santa (the amount of mall Santas was overwhelming), and then take all of them back to Mars. One disgruntled Martian decides Santa and the kids need to die; there is conflict, there is resolution, and there is absolutely no evidence of any plot holes.
The plot twist: While it does regularly appear on the ‘Bottom 100’ movie list on IMDB, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has a respectable cult following, appearing on Comedy Central during the holiday season, as well as the subject of derisive delight on Cinematic Titanic and Riff Trax.
Viva La Vaudeville
Vaudeville shows were once the premier form of entertainment in America during the 1890s through the First World War1. These shows can best be described as an organized presentation of various acts that would typically run from two to four hours.
At best, vaudeville performances would include popular and classical musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, ventriloquists, strongmen, female and male impersonators, acrobats, clowns, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, and movies. These shows also, at times, reinforced negative stereotypes of African Americans and other minority groups through minstrel performances2. Nonetheless, vaudeville was one of the most popular types of entertainment in North America for several decades and was once “the heart of American show business.”
The Capitol, and other local theaters, regularly boasted vaudeville acts. While vaudeville and the holidays seem to be at opposing ends of the societal spectrum (Santa and literary burlesque seem diametrically opposed), the feelings experienced by both of these events are decidedly parallel; after all, don’t the holidays also arouse enjoyment, gaiety, and childlike wonderment?
Putting the ‘Class’ in Classical: Wheeling Symphony Orchestra
Throughout the last 94 years, the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra has played a key role in establishing the Capitol Theatre as a place of sophistication. The decadence of the Capitol’s interior is perfectly complemented by the outstanding musical talent of the WSO; the drama of the structural framework is perfectly suited for the drama of the players. It is a divine collaboration: when listening to compositions in the Capitol, you can’t help but feel you are in the exact right place at the exact right time.
This is perhaps one of the more beautiful, moving holiday traditions that occurs at the Capitol, and I strongly suggest partaking in it (or continuing to do so).
Through entertainment offerings, the Capitol has reinforced what we’ve always known about the holiday season: it is weird and wonderful and moving. It is a shared experience but also a deeply personal one.
Find the experience that best suits you, whether it be to watch sci-fi Santa thwart Martians, laughing your pants off at the truly absurd, or ensconcing yourself in music so beautiful you shed a holiday tear (don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone you’re a big ol’ softy). If you’re ready to get swept up in the holidays, we know a place you can go.
2 Minstrels in vaudeville. Birth of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://scalar.usc.edu/works/birthofanindustry/minstrels-on-the-vaudeville-stage
• Haley Steed has lived in Wheeling for the past 9 years. Before moving to Wheeling, she lived in Columbus, OH where she graduated with a BA in Comparative Cultural Studies from Ohio State University. Haley also earned an MS in Marketing and Communications from Franklin University. She has held multiple marketing positions for 10+ years, with experience in PR/media relations, internal communications, marketing campaign strategy + execution, SEO, branding, content creation, digital analytics, and graphic design. Haley currently serves as an AmeriCorp member at Wheeling Heritage. Haley has one human named Vida, two cats named Hank and Squigs McAllister, and is currently manifesting that her one-day husband’s name will be Jeffrey Goldblum.