Four Hundred Tubas
My husband pointed his camera at a plaster mermaid on the proscenium over stage right, poised above thirty tons of red velvet curtain and gold tassels. "You want me to take a picture?" he asked. "For your blog?"
"I'm not going to write about this for my blog," I said, with a bit more arch than necessary. "I'm going to write about how the FBI is turning cell phones into remote listening devices."
Then, a huge sepia-tinted Wurlitzer rose from the floor in front of the stage and a man, already seated there, began to play Christmas carols. All the people sitting in the theater rose to applaud-- the couples in matching sweat suits, the families in felt reindeer horns and those in Santa hats, the young parents with babies and grandparents and great-grandparents in tow, the students whose friends were cradling their tubas on the crowded stage, the people in holiday glitter and the glitterless, who might have come in just to get out of the cold. It was the 27th free Tuba Christmas in Akron, Ohio, at the amazing Akron Civic Theater.
I'm sorry for all of you who missed it. Sorry, especially, for those of you who will always miss it, who live in fabulous coastal cities and have to pay a fortune for a night out. A night out that will never be like one in Akron, after all. Soon, the mighty Wurlitzer sank into the floor again. Four hundred musicians lifted their tubas--some decorated with silver garlands, some with holly, some with twinkle lights hooked up to battery packs--and the conductor explained that they would play each song all the way through, then again for the audience to sing along. They began with "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful," which sounded at first like the murmuring of melodious bullfrogs. The people sitting in back of us pulled bells out of their pockets and shook them at the word "joyful." It was hard to match my singing voice to the tuba register, but I reached into the depths of my chest and managed.
A few nights before, my husband and I had watched "It's A Wonderful Life" on television. I was passing through the living room and he told me it was coming on, so I sat down--thinking to stay just a second--and said, "I don't think I can watch this yet again." But I did, of course. And became immediately weepy, even before the story started. I guess this movie is one of those cultural artifacts that crank up the rusty parts of my emotional machinery, just as Christmas itself does. Because they're wired to the memories about the people and configurations of my past, to the possibilities and certainties I've left behind? It seems too reductive to say even that, vague as it is. The movie was intended to be a happy tearjerker, with its themes of loyalty and hard work and kindness and self-sacrifice. It was also a paean to ordinary, flawed people doing their best in small places. It wins my tears for that alone.
I got a little weepy at Tuba Christmas, too, for most of the same reasons-- after all, it was Bedford Falls all over again. And maybe for one reason more. I've wanted to drive down to Akron for this annual event for the last fifteen years, and it turned out that four hundred tubas playing together was even more wonderful than I'd imagined.