When Fred Rogers and Francois Clemmons Broke Down Race Barriers on a Historic Episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1969)

Last year’s Fred Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, propelled François Clemmons—better known to generations of Mister Rogers Neighborhood viewers as Officer Clemmons—back into the international spotlight.

One of the most striking anecdotes in the doc concerns a 1969 episode in which Mister Rogers, who was white, invited Officer Clemmons, who is black, to join him in soaking his bare feet in a backyard baby pool on a hot summer’s day.




It was one of those giant leaps for mankind moments that passes itself off as a homey, fairly unremarkable step, though as Clemmons told his friend Karl Lindholm in a StoryCorps interview, Rogers understood the powerful message this gesture would send.

Likewise, his choice of Clemmons to embody a friendly cop for his television neighborhood, a part Clemmons, who played the role for 30 years, was initially hesitant to accept:

Fred came to me and said, “I have this idea, you could be a police officer.” That kind of stopped me in my tracks. I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were sicking police dogs and water hoses on people. And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.

Rogers, who had met Clemmons in a Pittsburgh area church where the trained opera singer was performing, prevailed, stressing the impact such a positive portrayal of a black authority figure could have on the community.

Officer Clemmons, the first recurring black character on a children’s series, paved the way for the multiracial casts of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, also on PBS.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a song can also pack quite a wallop. It’s hard not to get choked up hearing Clemmons sing “There Are Many Ways to Say I Love You,” above, a tune he reprised in 1993, for his final appearance on the show, below.

Such sentiments are a natural fit in programs aimed at the preschool crowd, whose love of their families is reinforced at every turn, but it’s still unusual to see these feelings articulated so purely when the only people in sight are grown men.

Clemmons learned not to doubt Roger’s sincerity when he said, “I like you just the way you are.”

And Rogers grew to accept his friend’s sexual orientation, though this embrace came a bit less naturally. In an interview with Vanity Fair’s Chris Azzopardi, Clemmons was philosophical, recalling his “surrogate father’s” request to steer clear of gay clubs so as not to endanger the show’s wholesome image:

Sacrifice was a part of my destiny. In other words, I did not want to be a shame to my race. I didn’t want to be a scandal to the show. I didn’t want to hurt the man who was giving me so much, and I also knew the value as a black performer of having this show, this platform. Black actors and actresses—SAG and Equity—90 percent of them are not working. If you know that and here you are, on a national platform you’re gonna sabotage yourself?

I weighed this thing, the pros and the cons. And I thought, I not only have a national platform, I’m getting paid. I was also getting a promotion that I simply could not have afforded to pay for. Every time I did the show, and every time Fred took us across the country to do three, four, five personal appearances, my name was being written into somebody’s heart—some little kid who would grow up and say, “Oh, I remember him, I remember that he could sing, I remember that he was on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I didn’t have the money to pay for that, but I was getting it free. There were so many things that I got back for that sacrifice that I kept my big mouth shut, kept my head down, kept my shoulder to the plough.

Students at Middlebury College, where Clemmons was a long time faculty presence, were well acquainted with the self-proclaimed “Divaman’s”’ flamboyant side:

Clemmons has added color and soul to the Middlebury College scene for nearly 25 years. As Alexander Twilight Artist in Residence and director of the Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir, he is known by many names: the divo, the maestro, the reverend, doctor-madam-honey-man, sportin’ life, and even black magic. He has played the role of professor, choirmaster, resident vocal soloist, advisor, confidant, and community cheerleader. Yet his purpose is singular: to share hope through song.

Listen to StoryCorps podcast episode #462 about Mister Rogers’ and Francois Clemmons’ famous foot bath, as well as an incident that took place five years prior where protesters staged a “wade in” at the “Whites Only” pool at St. Augustine, Florida’s Monson Motor Lodge.

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Mr. Rogers Takes Breakdancing Lessons from a 12-Year-Old (1985)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City on March 11 as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Neil Gaiman Reads His Manifesto on Making Art: Features the 10 Things He Wish He Knew As a Young Artist

I think you're absolutely allowed several minutes, possibly even half a day to feel very, very sorry for yourself indeed. And then just start making art. - Neil Gaiman

It’s a bit early in the year for commencement speeches, but fortunately for lifelong learners who rely on a steady drip of inspiration and encouragement, author Neil Gaiman excels at putting old wine in new bottles.

He repurposed his keynote address to Philadelphia's University of the Arts’ Class of 2012 for Art Matters: Because Your Imagination Can Change the World, a slim volume with hand lettering and illustrations by Chris Riddell.




The above video captures the frequent collaborators appearing together last fall at the East London cultural center Evolutionary Arts Hackney in a fundraiser for English PEN, the founding branch of the worldwide literary defense association. While Gaiman reads aloud in his affable, ever-engaging style, Riddell uses a brush pen to bang out 4 3/4 line drawings, riffing on Gaiman’s metaphors.

While the art-making “rules” Gaiman enumerates herein have been extrapolated and widely disseminated (including, never fear, below), it’s worth having a look at why this event called for a live illustrator.

Leaving aside the fact that each ticket purchaser got a copy of Art Matters, autographed by both men, and a large signed print was auctioned off on behalf of English PEN, Gaiman holds illustrations in high regard.

His work includes picture books, graphic novels, and lightly illustrated novels for teens and young adults, and as a mature reader, he, too, delights in visuals, singling out Frank C. Papé's drawings for the decidedly “adult” 1920s fantasy novels of James Branch Cabell. (1929’s Something about Eve featured a buxom female character angrily frying up her husband's manhood for dinner and an erotic entryway that would have thrilled Dr. Seuss.)

In an interview with Waterstones booksellers upon the publication of Neverwhere another collaboration with Riddell, Gaiman mused:

…a good illustrator, for me, is like going to see a play. You are going to get something brought to life for you by a specific cast in a specific place. That way of illustrating will never happen again. You know, somebody else could illustrate it—there are hundreds of different Alice in Wonderlands.

Which we could certainly take to mean that if Riddell’s style doesn’t grab you the way it grabs Gaiman (and the juries for several prestigious awards) perhaps you should tear your eyes away from the screen and illustrate what you hear in the speech.

Do you need to know how to draw as well as he does? The rules, below, suggest not. We’d love to take a peek inside your sketchbook after.

  1. Embrace the fact that you're young. Accept that you don't know what you're doing. And don't listen to anyone who says there are rules and limits.

  2. If you know your calling, go there. Stay on track. Keep moving towards it, even if the process takes time and requires sacrifice.

  3. Learn to accept failure. Know that things will go wrong. Then, when things go right, you'll probably feel like a fraud. It's normal.

  4. Make mistakes, glorious and fantastic ones. It means that you're out there doing and trying things.

  5. When life gets hard, as it inevitably will, make good art. Just make good art.

  6. Make your own art, meaning the art that reflects your individuality and personal vision.

  7. You get freelance work if your work is good, if you're easy to get along with, and if you're on deadline. Actually you don't need all three. Just two.

  8. Enjoy the ride. Don’t fret it all away. (That one comes compliments of Stephen King.)

  9. Be wise and accomplish things in your career. If you have problems getting started, pretend you're someone who is wise, who can get things done. It will help you along.

  10. Leave the world more interesting than it was before.

Read a complete transcript of the speech here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City tonight as host of Theater of the Apes’ monthly  book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear Neil Gaiman Read a Beautiful, Profound Poem by Ursula K. Le Guin to His Cousin on Her 100th Birthday

It’s quite profound, isn’t it? - Helen Fagin, aged 100

Every time I open my laptop to discover a friend posting a vintage photo of their parent as a beaming bride or saucy sailor boy in lush black and white or gold-tinged Kodachrome, I know the deal.

Another elder has left the building.

With luck, I’ll have at least two or three decades before my kids start sniffing around in my shoe boxes of old snapshots.




In the meantime, I’ll wonder how much of the emotion that’s packed into those memorial postings gets expressed to the subject in the days leading up to their final exit.

Seems like most of us pussyfoot around the obvious until it’s too late.

There are, of course, medical situations that force us to acknowledge in a loved one's presence the abyss in their immediate future, but otherwise, Western tradition has positioned us to shy away from those sorts of discussions.

Perhaps our loved ones prefer it that way.

Perhaps we do too.

It’s clear that author Neil Gaiman enjoys a special relationship with his 100-year-old cousin, Helen Fagin, a Holocaust survivor and professor of literature.

He has shared memories of her with those attending his public appearances and in honor of World Refugee Day.

His wife, musician Amanda Palmer, included a verse about Helen’s 98th birthday in her song "A Mother’s Confession," below, fleshing out the lyrics with footnotes on her blog.

In celebration of Helen’s centenary, Palmer asked Brain Picking’s Maria Popova to recommend a poem that Gaiman could read aloud during another in-person birthday visit.

Popova settled on "How It Seems To Me," a late-in-life poem by science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, a close friend of Gaiman’s who died in January of 2018, 12 years shy of her own centenary:

HOW IT SEEMS TO ME

In the vast abyss before time, self

is not, and soul commingles

with mist, and rock, and light. In time,

soul brings the misty self to be.

Then slow time hardens self to stone

while ever lightening the soul,

till soul can loose its hold of self

and both are free and can return

to vastness and dissolve in light,

the long light after time.

It’s a hell of a hundredth birthday gift, though far from a one-size-fits all proposition.

Perhaps when you are a nonagenarian, you’d rather the young people err on the side of tradition with a comfy new robe.

There are octogenarian birthday boys and girls who’d pick an African violet over the misty self, tricky to keep alive though they may be.

As filmed by Palmer, Helen seemed to receive the gift in the spirit it was intended. Life equipped her for it.

via Brain Pickings

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in February as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How the Inventor of Dynamite, Alfred Nobel, Read an Obituary That Called Him “The Merchant of Death” and Made Amends by Creating the Nobel Prize

No one can ever fully predict the consequences of their actions. Still, some warning bells should be hard to ignore. Take Alfred Nobel, for instance, the founder of the Nobel Prize. For most of his life, he had a different reputation—as the inventor of dynamite, one of the most destructive technologies of the age. Though he maintained his motives were pure, Nobel had no shortage of signs telling him his creation might do at least as much harm as good. He persevered and lived to regret it, it's said.

Born in Sweden in 1833, Nobel became obsessed with explosives at a young age after meeting the inventor of nitro-glycerin. He spent some formative years trying to harness its power, even after a botched nitro-glycerin experiment at a factory killed his younger brother and five other workers. Nobel patented dynamite in 1867, a “new, transportable explosive,” notes the Sydney Morning Herald video above, that “was an instant hit in the mining and construction industries.” Originally called “Nobel’s Blasting Powder,” the chemist and engineer soon choose a new name, from the ancient Greek work for “power.”




It wouldn’t take long before dynamite became a conveniently devastating weapon of war, especially in the Spanish American War, which began two years after Alfred’s death. But ten years earlier, in 1888, when the bottle was already well uncorked, Alfred received a shock when a French newspaper misidentified him for his brother, Ludwig, who had just died. His erroneous pre-mortem obituary appeared with the headline “The Merchant of Death is Dead!” The unsparing bio went on to say that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”

This may have not been his intention, so he believed, but when he saw the image reflected back at him, he immediately sought to atone for his wayward invention. “Legend has it, Nobel was mortified… and spent the rest of his life trying to establish a positive legacy.” He sought to connect people around the world, pioneering an early version of Google Earth “with balloons and rockets instead of satellites.” And when he died in 1896, he left half of his wealth, “over half a billion dollars today, to establish the Nobel Prizes.”

It is a fascinating case, if we credit the mistaken obituary for turning Nobel’s life around. Adam Grant—whom Preet Bharara introduces on his podcast Stay Tuned as “an organizational psychologist and star professor at the Wharton School”—mentions Nobel as a “pretty radical example of people changing in pretty radical ways.” There are several problems with this interpretation. Nobel may have seen the light, but he did not radically change as a person. He was already an idealistic inventor, as a Vanderbilt University biography has it, a supporter of “the peace movement” and a “truly international figure.”

Called by Victor Hugo the “wealthiest vagabond in Europe,” Nobel wrote novels, poetry, drama, and letters in five languages. He had a broad humanist outlook but for some reason could or would not see the worst uses of his product, even as his company sold weapons—to Italy for example, an act for which his adopted nation of France deemed him a traitor in 1891.

Nobel’s first Swedish patent was for “ways to prepare gunpowder” and his father, also an inventor, managed the family factory before him and made arms for the Crimean War. Like many a gilded age industrialist, Nobel turned away from the suffering he caused, endowing the arts and sciences after death to ease his conscience in life, many think, but not to truly ameliorate the damage done.

Nobel’s companies have survived him, making rocket launchers and the like as well as undeniably useful mining and construction tools. His prizes, whatever his intentions, have also done the world much good, not least in creating a global platform for deserving luminaries. (Those who have rejected Nobels have vigorously argued otherwise.) Nobel was a sensitive and complicated individual whose life was filled with grief and loss and who left a lasting legacy as a patron of intellectual culture. He was also a manufacturer of deadly weapons of mass destruction. Both of these things were true.

But even if he did not radically change—either his character or his business model—he did shift his perspective enough to have a tremendous impact on his legacy, which is the lesson Grant draws from his story. “Too often,” he tells Bharara, “we’re looking at our lives through a microscope,” oblivious to the larger scale. “What we actually need is a wide-angle lens where we can zoom out and ask, what is my legacy? What is the impact of this behavior on my reputation?” Sometimes, says Grant, “people do not like the person that's staring them in the mirror, and they decide they want to change.”

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Hear Toni Morrison’s Poetic Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech on the Radical Power of Language (1993)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions Read by Bob Dylan

From 2006 to 2009, Bob Dylan hosted the Theme Time Radio Hour on Sirius Satellite Radio. Each show featured "an eclectic mix of songs, from a wide variety of musical genres, ... along with Dylan’s on-air thoughts and commentary interspersed with phone calls, email readings, contributions from special guests and an array of classic radio IDs, jingles and promos from the past." That eclectic mix also gave us this: Dylan reading, in his distinctive, quirky way, a list of the most oft-cited New Year's Resolutions, ones that we annually make and sometimes break. Sound familiar?

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Listen to a Heartfelt Musical Retelling of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” with Hanky in Hand

It’s that time of year when certain songs conspire with certain moods to hit you right in the ol’ brisket.

The feeling is voluptuous, and not necessarily unpleasant, provided there’s a bathroom stall or spare bedroom should you need to flee a party like Cinderella, as some old chestnut threatens to turn you into a blubbering mess.

Let the kiddies deck the halls, jingle bells, and prance about with Rudolph and Frosty. The best secular songs for grown ups are the ones with a thick current of longing just under the surface, a yearning for those who aren’t here with us, for a better future, for the way we were…




There’s got to be some hope in the balance though, some sweetness to savor as we muddle through.

(Judy Garland famously stonewalled on the first version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" until lyricist Hugh Martin agreed to lighten things up a bit. In the end, both got what they wanted. She got her update:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Let your heart be light 

Next year all our troubles will be out of sight

But the tension between the promise of a better tomorrow and her emotional delivery holds a place for Hughes' appealingly dark sentiment:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

It may be your last 

Next year we may all be living in the past

"I'll Be Home for Christmas" manages to ring some of those same bells.

As a rule, the oldies are the goodies in this department.

More recent bids by Coldplay and Taylor Swift have failed to achieve the proper mix of hope and hopelessness.

It’s a difficult balance, but singer-songwriter Ellia Bisker pulls it off beautifully, above, by turning to O. Henry’s enduring short story, "The Gift of the Magi."

Accompanying herself on ukulele as she performs under her parlor rock pseudonym, Sweet Soubrette, Bisker’s sound is both sunny and plaintive. It's an appropriate choice for a young bride who parts with her most valuable asset, in order to give her cherished husband a "worthy" gift:

I want to give you something that I can’t afford,

Let you believe with me we’re really not so poor.

You see that package waiting underneath the tree? 

It’s just a token of how much you mean to me.

(Spoiler for the handful of people unfamiliar with this tale: he does the same, thus negating the utility of both costly presents.)

In an interview with Open Culture, Bisker praised the O. Henry story’s ironic symmetry:

It’s a little like the death scene in Romeo & Juliet, but without the tragedy. The story itself still feels surprisingly fresh, despite the period details. It has more humor and sympathy to it than sentiment. It surprises you with real emotion. 

The Romeo and Juliet comparison is apt. The story covers a time period so brief that the newlyweds' feelings for each other never stray from purest wonder and admiration.

Bisker taps into those feelings in a way Joni Mitchell’s meandering, unreleased take on the same material did not.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers also took a crack at musicalizing "The Gift of the Magi," but the sound is more Ozarks than shabby, urban New York, with background harmonies hinting that the young couple may be part of a larger support network.

Bisker's song starts, as it ends, with a pair of young, broke lovers who only have eyes for each other.

Let’s not forget O. Henry's parting words:

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi. 

Enjoy this musical gift, readers. The artist has made the track free for downloading, though perhaps you could scratch up a few coins in thanks, without pawning your watch or cutting your hair.

Read O. Henry's short story "The Gift of the Magi" here.

Listen to Ellia Bisker’s "Gift of the Magi," and four other tracks off of Sweet Soubrette’s name-your-own-price Happy Holidays album here.

We were young and broke, but we didn’t care 

You had your pocketwatch, I had my golden hair 

We were just scraping by, waiting to make it big 

I was an ingénue, you were just a kid 

But it was Christmas eve, didn’t know what to do 

How could I hope to buy some kind of gift for you 

Ain’t got no trust fund hon, ain’t got no savings bond 

Just got my student loans, the clothes that I’ve got on 

I want to give you something that I can’t afford 

Let you believe with me we’re really not so poor 

You see that package waiting underneath the tree 

It’s just a token of how much you mean to me 

Frankincense (here’s what I wish, what I imagine) 

Gold and myrrh (that I could give, give what you are worth) 

Put them in (this is the gift, gift of the magi) 

The manger (it’s not a fraction of all that you deserve) 

I used to window shop, I would never tell 

There was a pair of combs made out of tortoiseshell 

I tried them on one time, put up my long long hair 

If I were rich and famous that’s what I would wear 

You wore your father’s watch, it was a vintage piece 

It made you feel like fifty million bucks at least 

But it was fastened with a flimsy nickel chain 

You wanted better but you said it’s all the same 

I want to give a token to you of my love 

A little luxury to keep your spirits up 

I’ll cut and sell my hair, the only gold I’ve got 

To buy a golden chain for your pocketwatch 

Frankincense (here’s what I wish, what I imagine) 

Gold and myrrh (that I could give, give what you are worth) 

Put them in (this is the gift, gift of the magi) 

The manger (it’s not a fraction of all that you deserve) 

I can’t forget the look that flashed across your face 

When I walked into our apartment late that day 

And I took off my hat revealed a pixie cut 

Gave you a little box told you to open up 

You pulled out the golden chain that lay inside 

Were you about to laugh were you about to cry 

You said I shouldn’t have, because your watch was sold 

So you could buy for me a pretty pair of combs

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City this January as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Beautiful Short Documentary Takes You Inside New York City’s Last Great Chess Store

Chess Forum in Greenwich Village is, like Gramercy Typewriter and the Upper East Side’s Tender Buttons, the sort of shop New Yorkers feel protective of, even if they’ve never actually crossed the threshold.

“How can it still exist?” is a question left unanswered by "King of the Night," Lonely Leap’s lovely short profile of Chess Forum’s owner, Imad Khachan, above, but no matter. We're just glad it does.

The store, located a block and a half south of Washington Square, looks older than it is. Khachan, hung out his shingle in 1995, after five years as an employee of the now-defunct Village Chess Shop, a rift that riled the New York chess community.




Now, things are much more placid, though the film incorrectly suggests that Chess Forum is the only refuge where chess loving New Yorkers can avail themselves of an impromptu game, take lessons, and buy sets. (There are also shops in Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Upper East Side.) That said, Chess Forum might not be wrong to call itself "New York's last great chess store." It may well be the best of the last.

The narrow shop’s interior triggers nostalgia without seeming calculation, an organic reminder of the Village’s Bohemian past, when beret-clad folkies, artists, and students wiled away hours at battered wooden tables in its many cheap cafes and bars. (Two blocks away, sole survivor Caffé Reggio’s ambience is intact, but the prices have kept pace with the neighborhood, and the majority of its clientele are clutching guidebooks or the digital equivalent thereof.)

Khachan, born in Lebanon to Palestinian refugees, gives a warm welcome to tourists and locals alike, especially those who might make for an uneasy fit at tonier neighborhood establishments.

In an interview with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, he recalled a “well-dressed and highly educated doctor who would come in wearing his Harvard logo sweater, and lose repeatedly to a homeless man who was a regular at Chess Forum and a chess master.”

The game also provides common ground for strangers who share no common tongue. In Jonathan Lord’s rougher New York City chess-themed doc, Passport Play, Khachan points out how diagrams in chess books speak volumes to experienced players, regardless of the language in which the book is written.

The store’s mottos also bear witness to the value its owner places on face-to-face human interaction:

Cool in the summer, warm in the winter and fuzzy all year long.

Chess Forum: An experience not a transaction

Smart people not smart phones.  (You can play a game of chess on your phone, Khachan admits, but don't fool yourself into thinking that it's giving you a full chess experience.)

An hour of play costs about the same as a small latte in a coffeehouse chain (whose prevalence Khachan refers to as the Bostonization of NYC.) Senior citizens and children, both revered groups at Chess Forum, get an even better deal—from $1/hour to free.

Although the store’s official closing time is midnight, Khachan, single and childless, is always willing to oblige players who would stay later. His solitary musings on the neighborhood’s wee hours transformation supply the film’s title and meditative vibe, while reminding us that this gentle New York character was originally drawn to the city by the specter of a PhD in literature at nearby NYU.

Readers who would like to contribute to the health of this independently owned New York City establishment from afar can do so by purchasing a chess or backgammon set online.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City through December 20th in the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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