For the past 19 years, It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! has gathered actors, designers, directors, and audiences to share in this cheerful holiday story. This production delights and entertains Chicago audiences seasonally and has made its mark on theatregoers as a kind of winter ritual. Our artists feel the same way. It is a holiday tradition that anchors a career of an actor or designer and serves as a warm cozy reminder of the community we’ve created.
So we’ve asked our artists and administrators to explore the meaning of this charming time and invited them to share other holiday traditions that they may enjoy with their close family and friends. You can see their responses below. Happy Holidays!
How has "It's a Wonderful Life" made an impression on you?
Audrey Billings (Mary, 1st year): The production at American Blues has become part of our holiday tradition. Whether watching the movie or this production, I always end up in tears at the end. A beautiful reminder of the value of love, family, and the impact we all have in others’ lives (good or bad), in both tangible and intangible ways; the importance of kindness and community.
Manny Buckley (Joseph, 1st year, Ensemble member): I’m probably more of a pessimist than I would admit in person to anyone, so It’s a Wonderful Life is a great reminder that what you put in your community makes a difference in unseen ways, like when the people of Bedford Falls come together to help George.
Dara Cameron (Violet, 8th year, Ensemble member): I’ve done the production through so many stages of my life– and no matter what else is going on, doing the show every year feels like returning to a warm hug. I love telling the story with my husband, so many close friends, my theatre family, and the patrons who return each year.
Ian Paul Custer (Harry, 8th year, Ensemble member): I had never seen the movie until 2011 while I was in Boston doing a show. I was amazed at how heartbreaking and how relevant the movie was to today. The piece is so dense that as time goes on, different lines ring true or become more meaningful than the first time you heard them.
Brandon Dahlquist (George Bailey, 4th year): It’s a Wonderful Life has been one of my favorite films, regardless of genre since my grandfather made me watch it, Christmas of 1991. It’s just so good. I’ve even put it on in July when I needed to be reminded of the goodness that exists in humanity. I love the story, the message and the feelings it always delivers. All of that aside and respective to my field, I most admire Mr. Stewart’s skillful acting. There are a few films where you can see the change coming, where the old way is met with something so fresh and ahead of its time. That is Stewart’s ‘George Bailey.’ He’s doing things emotionally, physically, and technically that make him shine in the most profound and collaborative ways. His performance is a bridge from a golden age of movies to today. It’s one of the reasons that It’s a Wonderful Life still lands with millions of people 75 years later. He’s one of my favorite actors and his work in It’s a Wonderful Life continues to inspire me to live up to the impossibly high bar he set.
As far as American Blues’ production of It’s a Wonderful Life—it’s something I look forward to every year. Telling this story with some of my favorite people in the Chicago theatre community is a cure for whatever has ailed me during the year. This year has been tough all around—and not being able to greet the incredible audiences after every show is something that I’ll sorely miss—but being able to connect with friends and colleagues in telling this story is its own sort of rewarding.
Michael Mahler (9th year as “Announcer/Pianist,” 10th year as Music Director, Ensemble member): It’s a story that I’ve found means something a little different to me every year, but it always feels completely relevant. A working class community supporting each other against the will of a greedy rich man… an ordinary life that is extraordinary when really considered…a depressed man who rediscovers in his family and friends the will to live and the joy of the season. It’s evergreen.
Wendy Whiteside (12th year with the production [currently Director/Artistic Director], Ensemble member): My first experience with the story was our 2004 production. It was a very difficult time in my life due to my personal battle with cancer, a relocation, and career shift (among other things). The story changed my perspective about my life.
Grant Sabin (Scenic Designer, 12th year, Artistic Affiliate): It’s a story that helps us have a strong moral compassion and generous soul.
Jared Gooding (Lighting Designer, 1st year, Ensemble Member): The show/movie have always been something I’ve known about but never saw. It has been so wonderful being exposed to this story with artists that have such a personal connection to this story.
Rick Sims (Sound Designer, 1st year, Artistic Affiliate): Even though it’s fiction, it annually restores my faith in the basic goodness of humanity.
Elyse Dolan (6th year with the production, [currently Set Dressing & Props Designer/Associate Producer], Ensemble member): I had seen the movie a few times growing up, but it wasn’t until I starting working on this production that the story really became a part of my holiday traditions. I’m always moved to tears when the entire community comes together to help George.
Shandee Vaughan (4th year with the production [currently Stage Manager/Production Manager], Artistic Affiliate) It’s a Wonderful Life has always meant family. For the last four years, I have looked forward to the tradition of spending my holidays with my Wonderful Life family. I am glad we are still able to do that this year, albeit at a distance!
Sarajane Johnson (Director of Development): We never had cable when I was growing up, and there was only one television in the house. My dad would watch It’s a Wonderful Life and every version of A Christmas Carol every time they were on every year. And some years it felt like they were on non-stop! I would mostly roll my eyes and just go do something else. It wasn’t until this production that I actually stopped to pay attention to the meaning of It’s a Wonderful Life, and now I completely understand why my dad watched it every single time. I wish I could watch it with him again.
Francisco Lopez (Director of Marketing & Communications): This production is my first experience with It’s a Wonderful Life and what a time to be introduced! This year has been both chaotic and still, and it has challenged my notions of value and more importantly self-value. It’s very easy to slip into the monotony of the work week, so it’s very important to remember that ultimately, in the end, over everything else, the connections you make with friends and family are what matter most. So that’s my impression with It’s a Wonderful Life: “No one is a failure who has friends.”
Cara Parrish (Human Resources Coordinator, [also was Substitute Stage Manager in last year’s IAWL production], Artistic Affiliate): One thing I have learned over the years is how much this movie has impacted American society and story-telling since its release. The number of movies and TV shows that use this storytelling formula is astounding. I think even Beverly Hills, 90210 even did a holiday episode like this!
Suzy Robertson (Director of Patron Services): It’s amazing to me that this story brings so many generations together. It’s nice to be a part of a holiday tradition that people don’t outgrow.
Dan Thomas (Finance Manager): I’ve always appreciated that it makes me contemplate how my actions can and do have an impact on my community, even if I’m not aware of it. And it was my introduction to Jimmy Stewart!
What were your favorite holiday traditions you had growing up?
Audrey Billings (Mary, 1st year): My dad was Air Force, and some of my favorite Christmases were spent in Germany. The small Christmas markets in the little German towns near our base, the smell of roasting chestnuts and pine in the air as you walk around looking at ornaments and the lights on the Tannenbaum. In my child’s memory, Christmas time is magically lit, filled with music and laughter and snow, a storybook image brought to life. I love Christmas time, and even when we moved away we always tried to re-create some of that magic. A whole day spent in pajamas, eating too much delicious food, surrounded by Christmas decorations and family.
Manny Buckley (Joseph, 1st year, Ensemble member): My neighborhood growing up had its own Santa. There were white Santa Clauses everywhere, at the mall, in movies and in print ads everywhere, but one of the first Santa Clauses I remember had the same skin color as me. I guess I never really thought about the impact of that till answering [this] question!
Dara Cameron (Violet, 8th year, Ensemble member): My family always majorly decorated the interior of our house for Hannukah— we used garlands and strings of lights and fake snow on the windows. And we always had a big Hannukah party for our friends and made a million latkes— something Mike and I have started doing in our house! It smells terrible for days afterward— fried oil and onions— but so worth it!
Ian Paul Custer (Harry, 8th year, Ensemble member): Opening up gifts with my family the night of Christmas Eve. We had this tradition where we would buy an ornament for one of our family members as a symbol of that person or the year that they had. And we would write a nice letter that had to be read to the group about why this particular ornament was chosen, and a happy wish for them in the coming year.
Brandon Dahlquist (George Bailey, 4th year): Favorite holiday traditions in my family all revolve around food. My mother used to let me help her on holiday dinners; be it crown roast, turkey or Swedish meatballs. I was her sous chef in training. There was always a Saturday in December where she would teach me and my sisters how to make the traditional Swedish cookies we enjoyed every year. Even years later I could always call her up for a recipe or a suggestion for making the holidays taste a little better. This is the first year I won’t be able to do that. I will always hold onto the tradition of opening up my table to friends and family as something that we shared and that I’ll continue to carry forward.
Michael Mahler (9th year as “Announcer/Pianist,” 10th year as Music Director, Ensemble member): It’s kinda cheesy, but every year on Christmas Eve my family sits together and tells each other why and how much we love one another. Even if we have to do it over zoom this year, I’m looking forward to our “Circle of Love.”
Wendy Whiteside (12th year with the production [currently Director/Artistic Director], Ensemble member): My grandparents lived in California before moving to Kansas. Every Christmas Eve, they hosted the large family celebration. It was a feast of tacos, enchiladas, beans, burritos, nachos, and their favorites foods from their local California neighborhood. (Grandma did her best to recreate the dishes with ingredients from their rural Kansas grocery story.) Until I went to college, I thought everyone had Mexican food on Christmas Eve.
Grant Sabin (Scenic Designer, 12th year, Artistic Affiliate): We would go to a Christmas tree farm where we would take a sled ride out to cut down the tree. We would always pick a tree that was a good 2ft to 3ft taller than the living room and would have to trim it down to make it fit.
Jared Gooding (Lighting Designer, 1st year, Ensemble Member): Getting to stay up past my bedtime while having cookies and treats before going to midnight mass with my family.
Rick Sims (Sound Designer, 1st year, Artistic Affiliate): Baking cookies and seeing my cousins.
Elyse Dolan (6th year with the production, [currently Set Dressing & Props Designer/Associate Producer], Ensemble member): Growing up, my dad & I always went to the candlelit Christmas Eve service at church, which would start at 11pm. It always felt magical when the clock would strike midnight as we were holding candles & singing “Silent Night.” (Plus I loved being allowed to stay up so late!)
Shandee Vaughan (4th year with the production [currently Stage Manager/Production Manager], Artistic Affiliate) My favorite holiday tradition was driving with my mother from Arizona to Utah each year to spend Christmas in the mountains. My family and I enjoy skiing and snowboarding together on Christmas morning!
Sarajane Johnson (Director of Development): On Christmas day, we would always go see a matinee of whatever was playing at the Davis, our local neighborhood discount theater. The only movie we saw on Christmas that I can still name with any certainty is Escape From New York, a movie I was MUCH too young to be seeing at all, and especially not on Christmas.
Francisco Lopez (Director of Marketing & Communications): So many! For my family Christmas essentially started the day after Thanksgiving. I come from a huge family – mi abuela had 13 children, which means I had more cousins than I could remember (don’t worry Mom, I remember all of them)! So every other day a different tía or tío would host a dinner and the whole family would come over and eat and the kids would wrestle or play video games. I especially liked going to my tía’s (Aunt Hope) house ’cause she had a huge plot of land where we could run around and play tag.
On Christmas Eve, we would be at the house all day making tamales, rice, and beans (we still do!), and just wait around until midnight to open presents. We never had a Santa. I mean we knew what he was about, and we’d take pictures with Santa in the mall, but we never believed that Santa gave us presents. We KNEW the presents were from our parents and family. We knew because we would see Mom put the gifts under the tree herself right after Thanksgiving. I didn’t mind one bit. Looking back I think that’s my favorite memory/tradition. We didn’t have much growing up, but I knew that my parents worked really really hard to get me whatever it was that they could.
Cara Parrish (Human Resources Coordinator, [also was Substitute Stage Manager in last year’s IAWL production], Artistic Affiliate): I don’t know if this was an actual tradition, but, as kids, my brothers and I used to wake up super early on Christmas morning to open our presents. A new holiday tradition that my dad and I are starting is making lasagna together for our dinner before the holiday.
Suzy Robertson (Director of Patron Services): When I was a kid, every year we saw the Guthrie Theater’s Christmas Carol and someone’s production of The Nutcracker Ballet. We recreated that for our kids, but decided to pick a different show every year. Of course, Scandinavian food has always been part of our holiday tradition as well.
Dan Thomas (Finance Manager): Most of my distinct memories revolve around food: making zwieback bread with my dad (which I honestly never really liked!); Christmas Eve appetizers of clam dip and lots of cheeses; and a big Christmas Day brunch.
Do you and your family share another favorite holiday movie, tv show, or event?
Audrey Billings (Mary, 1st year): Now that we live in Chicago, Nick and I try to visit Chris Kindlemart every year. Of course, this year we will have to skip it, but next year we will go again! I also buy a Christmas ornament there every year, and we try to buy a Christmas ornament in every place we vacation or visit that feels meaningful, so that our tree is a visual album of our adventures together.
Manny Buckley (Joseph, 1st year, Ensemble member): Die Hard, and Home Alone are holiday staples in our family, but my mom will watch any Hallmark Holiday that airs.
Dara Cameron (Violet, 8th year, Ensemble member): My dad taped the Saturday Night Live sketch of “Hanukkah Harry” from TV and we would rewatch it on VHS every year like it was an actual holiday special! We also watch the Rankin and Bass special, “The Mouse on the Mayflower,” on Thanksgiving. It’s definitely the worst Rankin/Bass cartoon, but it’s tradition!
Ian Paul Custer (Harry, 8th year, Ensemble member): My siblings and I always loved watching A Christmas Story together – I think it always reminded my older siblings of their early years growing up in the South Side of Chicago.
Brandon Dahlquist (George Bailey, 4th year): Growing up our family favorite was White Christmas. I can still quote 99% of that film. My personal favorite–It’s a Wonderful Life excepted–is The Muppets Christmas Carol. It’s one of the most joyful and hilarious holiday movies—and the score is incredible. I look forward to it every year, it’s just one more sleep ‘til Christmas!
Michael Mahler (9th year as “Announcer/Pianist,” 10th year as Music Director, Ensemble member):
Favorite Xmas Carol version: Muppets
Favorite Xmas Special: Peewee’s Playhouse Xmas
Favorite non-traditional Xmas Movie: 2-way tie: Die Hard and Gremlins
Favorite Xmas Albums: Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Manhattan Transfer, The Beach Boys, John Denver & The Muppets
Favorite Xmas Breakfast: Mom’s Egg Strada
Favorite Chanukah jam: Happy Hanukkah by Matisyahu
Favorite “Scrooge” moment: Dad being too cheap to shell out the $5 iTunes rental fee so his grandkids could watch Frosty the Snowman
Wendy Whiteside (12th year with the production [currently Director/Artistic Director], Ensemble member): Right before first rehearsal of “Wonderful Life”, I always decorate for the holidays. It puts me in the spirit of the show.
Grant Sabin (Scenic Designer, 12th year, Artistic Affiliate): In addition to watching It’s a Wonderful Life, we frequently watched the 1983 film A Christmas Story.
Jared Gooding (Lighting Designer, 1st year, Ensemble Member): Growing up it was almost a tradition of its own for my sister and me to wake up entirely too early Christmas morning and watching the absolute worst 4am television shows while waiting for 8am to hit. Because we were not allowed to wake our parents up before then to open presents.
Rick Sims (Sound Designer, 1st year, Artistic Affiliate): It’s A Wonderful Life at the Music Box and the Chriskindlmarkt in downtown Chicago.
Elyse Dolan (6th year with the production, [currently Set Dressing & Props Designer/Associate Producer], Ensemble member): In my adulthood, my dad & I have made a new tradition of drinking holiday beers while we watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Shandee Vaughan (4th year with the production [currently Stage Manager/Production Manager], Artistic Affiliate): My family and I never miss watching The Muppet Christmas Carol. Quoting the movie live is always encouraged!
Sarajane Johnson (Director of Development): When my family gathers, we usually end up playing board or card games. My brother loves games and has an endless supply. We always end up watching The Year Without a Santa Claus and we all HAVE to sing along to the Heat Miser and Snow Miser songs! It wouldn’t be Christmas without the Heat Miser.
Francisco Lopez (Director of Marketing & Communications): Ya know, not really. Nothing comes to mind. I think for a while we would watch Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town until How the Grinch Stole Christmas came out, the we would watch that. Mostly on Christmas Day we would just hang out together and play lotería, or the kids would play video games.
Cara Parrish (Human Resources Coordinator, [also was Substitute Stage Manager in last year’s IAWL production], Artistic Affiliate): A favorite holiday movie in our house is Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas – the cartoon version. But my personal favorites are Die Hard and Krampus. We also listen to (are forced to) Handel’s Messiah, which is played on vinyl.
Suzy Robertson (Director of Patron Services): The Christmas Story movie marathon is on in the background for much of our gatherings. It’s funny and a little odd for that to be a tradition, but it works for everyone who is not in another room watching football.
Dan Thomas (Finance Manager): Every Christmas Eve growing up my family and I would watch the film adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. It’s a great vignette of Christmas in a totally different time and place.