Christmas Tails

After two decades of directing the annual Miami Christmas Pageant, Chuck Bridwell recalls one particular scene that will forever stick in his memory: the time a camel nearly backed into the orchestra pit. "It came within three feet of the violins," he says. The camel is just one of some 500 animals, four-legged and otherwise, that Bridwell puts onstage each year. Singing, dancing Christmas presents, elves, flamingos, choir members, local newscasters, and a Hawaiian-shirt-clad Santa also make appearances. And that's just in the first act.

Bridwell, minister of music at University Baptist Church in Coral Gables and executive director of the church-sponsored extravaganza since its first big-scale production in 1977, compares the event to "a giant jigsaw puzzle. For 21 years the jigsaw puzzle has fit." Though not without mishaps, of course. That's to be expected when you combine professionals and amateurs, some of whom have never been onstage before.

"There are some things you just can't control," shrugs the minister, who adds that he's only stopped the show twice. One time a dancing bear (actually a nine-year-old girl in costume) dropped eight feet off the stage and onto the musicians. Luckily her padded outfit protected her and the guitarist she landed on. The other time, a backstage technician stepped on an electrical cord that was a main connection to an amplifier. Through every other glitch, including the donkey who got stage fright and refused to carry Mary across to Bethlehem, Bridwell has remained steadfast.

This year's show, with its Christmas-in-Miami theme, requires the director to weave a South Beach flavor into his religious message. "We aren't too subtle," he offers with a wink. "We try to entertain people. Act One is the theme portion, with a big finale and pyrotechnics. After intermission it's purely the life of Christ." According to Bridwell, Act Two has its own special effects. "We portray the Leonardo da Vinci painting of the Last Supper in a frozen tableau that comes to life. But it's not a Cecil B. DeMille four-hour movie that goes into a lot of detail."

Most of the onstage participants are members of the church. "There are people in the choir who are on the voice faculty at the University of Miami and others who can't read music or carry a tune," Bridwell notes. "We try to find people's gifts and plug them in where they are gifted." Moreover, he adds, "our professionals are tolerant of those who are starting out." And some troupers really are just starting out. Bridwell gets requests as early as January from expectant couples who want their babies to star in the pageant's all-important manger scene. "I'm sure it's a friendly competition," he smiles.

-- Robin Dougherty

The Miami Christmas Pageant runs Friday, December 11, through Sunday, December 13, at Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W Flagler St. Tickets range from $12 to $20. Call 305-444-7464.