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Sketch of Austin Lewis from the San Francisco News
The Christmas Pageant

by Austin Lewis

Lawyer, author, ardent socialist and political activist Austin Lewis (1865?-1944) was actively involved in the efforts to free Tom Mooney and Warren Billings who were convicted and imprisoned for the July 22, 1916, Preparedness Day bombing in San Francisco. Lewis also worked to overturn California’s criminal syndicalism law that was successfully used against socialist organizations and labor groups.

His works included “Proletarian and Petit-Bourgeois,” published by the Industrial Workers of the World; “The militant Proletariat” (1911); “The Rise of the American Proletarian” (1907) and “The Church and Socialism” (1906).

In 1923 he wrote a story for the “San Francisco News Letter” with an entirely different subject – a Christmas pageant in Oakland – and practiced the time-honored San Francisco pastime of putting down Oakland.

The Oakland Children’s Holiday Pageant was produced for almost 70 years, from 1919 until it ended in 1987.

If I were asked to name the most esthetically significant social event in the State of California during the year past, I should most unhesitatingly award the palm to the Christmas Pageant which the People of Oakland gave at the Auditorium on December 17th and 18th, 1922.

Of course to say that the People of Oakland gave the pageant is more or less a fiction, for the people did not give it, being, as a mass, incapable of anything so charming and free from vulgarity, but it was given by the Recreation Department of the City of Oakland which, thereby, vindicated itself as a body possessed of judgment and of fineness of feeling, to say nothing of a capacity for unlimited work and toil.

As a matter of fact, I do not know a single member of that Recreation Department and have never seen one of them, but I take this opportunity of saluting them as a body capable of sweet thought in a murky atmosphere and one which can keep a clear light of faith and beauty glowing amid all the murkiness of the inherent and incurable Babbitry with which Oakland, as a city, has been so completely cursed.

But if the dear people cannot originate, they can at least appreciate, and it must be said to their credit that they came to the pageant in such numbers that even the capacious auditorium could not begin to accommodate them and they stood in hungry thousands outside, unable to participate in the spectacle which many of their sons and daughters were providing inside.

That was a rather deplorable state of affairs, for, of course everybody in Oakland was entitled to see a performance which was so decidedly municipal, and that anyone should be so deprived was, to say the least, rather saddening. That brings us to another matter. Considering our climate and the fact that outdoors is practically available all the year round, may it not be the fact that the stadium or some such form of structure is better suited to our nees than a four-wall building, which, however large it may be, is bound to grow too small in time. As for pageants, the fact is that they depend for the most part upon the extent of space which can be better furnished in the stadium, and upon masses of color which can be better managed in the open air than in a covered place where free passage of light is interfered with by walls, which throw shadows and complicate effects.

However that may be, the pageant in question was held in the Auditorium on two occasions before at least eight thousand people at each of all conditions of life, from the colored people of West Oakland to the Portuguese of East Oakland, with all the intermediate grades. The fact that the program was found so universally acceptable was due to the skill, one might almost say the genius, for large scale production shown by Mrs. Emelie A. Hollington, who has evidently a store of those gifts which made Kiralfy famous [Bolossy Kiralfy, Hungarian-born creator of great musical spectacles during the early part of the twentieth century] and who, given a chance, would be able to prove that there is a new and splendid field in modern social life for the development of a new form of public art based on the massing of great numbers, which are in themselves so significant by mere virtue of their bulk, as to be completely impressive and indeed rather intoxicating.

The modern Russians, since the Revolution have found that truth too, and have invented a new form of mass declamation which we are assured competes, if it does not vanquish in effectiveness, the massed choirs of the Crystal Palace competition in the Hallelujah Chorus. Here again, it is a question of numbers. The Germans have tried to produce the effect by massing the audience, so as to take part with the performers in great plays, which require huge numbers of performers, as in “Robespierre,” and we are informed that the results are staggeringly striking. Of course we do not claim any such significance, in the way of effect for our Oakland pageant, but there was behind it the same appreciation of the value of mass- work as a spectacle, and the same realization of color-values as have placed the dramatic events referred to, in the forefront of human achievement in that particular direction.

For example, just imagine the effect of teams of reindeer made up of young girls twelve to sixteen, full of life and spirit, driven by bigger girls in white, careening around the floor of the Auditorium at full speed! Such an exhibit of youth and beauty and vigor not even the finest ballet in the world could give, for such ballet lacks the spontaneity and love of pure fun, the actual play quality, which these girls showed. It was one of the most lively spectacles which the writer, a hardened watcher of spectacles, has seen, and in its very simplicity was a touch of that genius to which we have already referred and which, by a hundred minor and almost unnoticed refinements, made the spectacle not only memorable as a public ceremony, but quite notable as an esthetic achievement.

Another quite beautiful spectacle was that of some hundreds of little girls of three to five or six years of age who represented snow girls and, dressed in white, running in large masses, gave the most striking and touching effect. There was a pathetic loveliness about this which actually brought tears. And this result also was obtained by numbers. A dozen or so little girls, so dressed, would have produced a beautiful but meager and over-spiritualized result, whereas the large numbers brought an added softness and increased delicacy to the spectacle. It is just in this matter of numbers that municipal shows have the advantage, for, with the great amount of material, which they have so inexpensively at hand, no private effort can ever hope to compete.

Space would not permit a detailed description of this quiet epoch- making performance, and it is not the intention to here relate the story of a year ago which will, in all probability, be quite eclipsed by what is to b given this year. We simply wish to point out that Oakland, owing to the possession of a group of people of marked ability in its Recreation Department, has been able to act as a pioneer in a form of entertainment which has so marked former times and in which we have been so lamentably deficient. Of course the condition precedent to any real accomplishment is the social spirit in a much more developed form that we enjoy at this time in San Francisco. Oakland has shown that such a spirit is possible and it should be the work of our people to bring the same spirit into being here.

San Francisco News Letter
1923 Christmas Number.

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