I steadied my camera above the steering wheel as ghost-like, white drifts delicately laced the highway before me, my morning's caffeinated heart beating in excitement of falling snowflakes signaling the oncoming storm. My simple map directed me onto smaller and smaller wintry roads with subtly changing landscapes, all monochromatic in color: the farm houses, fields, trees, and rivers seemed only to be gray, and slowly disappearing into an ominous cloak of fog. And as my spinning tires progressively lost their grip, and approaching headlights became farther and fewer between, I knew I was reaching my destination of Fort Atkinson.
The Fireside Theater is a successful venue in the middle of nowhere. For over twenty years- as is the case for many regional theaters- its director travels to New York City to recruit eager actors and actresses hoping to fill roles in their off (times ten)-Broadway productions. If chosen, the lucky performers sublet their places and call this rural community home for the three-month duration of their contract, singing and dancing their way into the hearts of a sleepy, mostly geriatric audience bussed in five times a week- twice a day- from neighboring Midwestern towns; I nearly spat out the hot tea Jamie had prepared for me upon learning one patron actually died at one of the Fireside's shows- "the lights came up, and grandpa was dead." More recently, another happy customer had a not-so-happy accident in his pants during one of the numbers. Although he was later seen in the bathroom half-naked, cleaning feces from his body, some of it had escaped through his pant leg onto the beautifully carpeted hallway. Outside the gift shops selling scented candles and porcelain Santas, the stench compelled cast members to turn a nose at their costumed colleagues: "are you sure you didn't fart?" It's no wonder the American Bus Association declared the self-dubbed "spectacular" Christmas show "one of the country's finest attractions." I never knew there was such a thing as the American Bus Association but, then again, I hadn't even heard of the Fireside Theater, let alone the town in which it stands. If it weren't for my good friend Jamie lending her magic talents as one of Santa's elves, well, I probably never would have.
Shortly after a tour of the cute house she shares with other cast members, we drove to Scottie's: a favorite main-drag dive of theirs that serves pancakes larger than your head. Seated at the counter was an older man in a flannel shirt sipping strong coffee. A deep scar was carved from his ear, down his neck, and across nearly his entire face, ending abruptly at his cloudy left eye. Joined by his friend in a mesh hat, he stared unevenly at me as I entered without a blink. A single brunette in her late thirties sat a little further down, and briefly switched her attention from the Coca-Cola paraphernalia lining the walls to grin suspiciously at me. Scottie gave each of us menus, and I reluctantly decided on a skillet called "the Mounds": potatoes, cheese, mushrooms and sausage, topped with two eggs over easy. The cashier hadn't changed her hairstyle since the mid-seventies, and I smirked ever-so-slightly as she poured us ice water. A boy of about ten rushed behind my stool to look at a figure shoveling thick snow outside, and his rat tail bounced ever-so-lightly against his neck. His father counted crumbled bills above an empty plate and chatted with the cashier; I realized that he, too, had a rat tail. The man with the cloudy eye cracked a joke, and Scottie laughed heartily, weighing down the sizzling bacon. He asked Jamie how the shows were going, and when she'd come to Belmont's for a drink again (the actors at the Fireside are local celebrities in this town of eleven thousand, so a sighting at one of the two bars is inevitable). The clock ticked too quickly, and we had to leave before the food was ready. I slipped plastic bags over my rainbow Tigers and, with thanks and styrofoam containers already smelling of grease, stepped onto Main Street.
Navigating the roads was difficult, but I suppose that was part of the fun. When I picked up Jennifer and her son Jared, it was impossible to tell where their apartment's driveway ended and its lawn began, everything blending into one soft, sparkling white sheet of snow. My wipers were on full-speed, smearing sleet across my windshield and forcing me to squint, and over conversation and the tight snare rolls from Plug's album, Drum n' Bass for Papa, they started making a low, disconcerting chug on their way to the icy hood; it was almost as soon as I noticed it that the blades made their last triumphant rise- then stuck there. The rain-like flakes now cluttered the glass, melting red taillights with green ones telling me to go. I knew I was in trouble. Had the mechanism frozen? I parked in the Fireside's lot and tried my best to clear away any snow, then guided the wiper arms back and forth with my hands. No, they were not frozen, and surely nothing was in their way. Like the anonymous grandfather deceased in his plush seat, my wipers were through. So, I retreated for the time, following everyone to the green room with my disgusting mess of egg, cheese, meat and potatoes. Ah, Wisconsin…
While Jamie and the rest of the girls were putting on their faces and taping microphones next to their ears, the men simply adjusted their ties. A stagehand in black whisked by with a walkie-talkie, anxiously blurting out "five minutes 'til show time"! Through the walls came muffled cheers and applause as the host announced- with sincere bravado- the tour groups present. And then, I was snuck through the back and took a seat amongst the holiday revelers from Osh Kosh, St. Paul, and other destinations hours away, hiding a camera in the pocket of my kelly-green hoodie. On the right side of the theater-in-the-round sat a group of perhaps 50 women, all in matching red sweaters and ornate hats; on the left was another group of seniors in Christmas garb and wrinkly smiles. There was a smattering of families with mullets and 80's eyeglass frames and, when the canned soundtrack began, I felt I could only be in a deleted scene from Borat.
In its two hour running time, A Fireside Christmas boasted dance numbers, musical medleys and country star duets (?!), Christmas jokes ("Q: What nationality is Santa? A: North Polish"), the cast's fond "memories" of Christmas, magic courtesy of my elfin friend, and even a musical dramatization of Christ's beginnings. At one point, Jamie called Santa on the announcer's cell phone, and he posed the ethical dilemma to the audience: "do I sell the number to the National Enquirer?" The largely- if not completely- Christian and well-intentioned audience responded with a resounding "no," and I shuddered. There were mini-stories about imaginary families- some war-torn with the wives penning letters to soldier husbands- and four precocious children bringing resigned chuckles to the crowd. The finale saw all of the actors dressed in robes and ecstatically belting out a gospel-styled refrain, repeating "our lord, our king" with fluttering eyelashes and quivering lips. Their faces burned into my eyes as the lights dimmed, and I felt guilty- just for one second- for knowing Santa and Jesus aren't real. Yikes- was that lightning outside? I take that last comment back. How about "for *thinking* Santa and Jesus aren't real"? Any better? Cool- thanks God.
Maybe being a God-fearing Christian would've magically fixed the wiper situation on my snow-covered vehicle, but that's not the case. As a heathen headed towards an eternity in the fiery underworld, I was reduced to driving blind at 20 miles per hour, gripping the wheel a little tighter as if to help decipher scenery dripping in front of my strained eyes. I successfully crossed the street and practically sledded into the gas station, narrowly avoiding a gas pump. A twenty-something employee wore a wool hat they were selling inside and left the tag on, venturing outside to help me. She brought with her a bottle of blue liquid with the word "Splash!" emblazoned in happy red bubble-letters. "Yeah, your wipers are dead. Pour some of this on your windshield and go see my sister Jessica at [inaudible] Auto Parts. Go four stop-lights down, and take a left on Madison." I didn't quite make out what she said, but how many auto parts stores could there be? I chased the warm glow of traffic to a closed Napa store then dejectedly crunched the snowy path back to my humming car.
"Napa is closed," I informed the girl shoveling snow at the Citgo. She smiled cutely at me with white lashes. "I said to go to Advanced Auto Parts," she replied. "It's just a little further down that same road."
And so it went. I never did meet her sister, but a gentleman sold me a bottle of Rain-X which substituted for the impotent wiper blades. My next stop was Shopko, where I failed to find galoshes to wear; instead, I opted for larger shopping bags that I proudly tied just beneath my knees. It was quite a fashion statement. One of A Fireside Christmas' dancers informed me my makeshift boots had the same silhouette as a pair from Dior. "You mean," I began, "Dior has the same silhouette as THESE!" So, I made a nearby Culver's my runway, and put Heidi Klum to shame ordering a ButterBurger with cheese and fries. Sorry bitch, "as you know in fashion, you're either in- or you're out."
We did make it to a bar that night, but it wasn't Belmont's. Black Hawk Tavern was full of drunk, sports-fan locals, all of whom turned their heads to ogle Jamie and Jennifer with our (apparently) grand entrance. A wide-shouldered and bespectacled guy swayed in front of me and dizzily belittled his friend, lifting topped-off shot glasses in vague celebration and spilling well alcohol onto his fingers and the floor: "I buy the shots, so you fucking come to me." We took seats at a booth and battled to hear ourselves over jukebox picks ranging from Journey to Lily Allen and Gorillaz. Really, to be fair, we put on Lily Allen and Gorillaz. There's only so much jock rock one can take while glazed eyes undress your friends.
There had been some drama at that night's final performance. During a cutesy sequence in which the children tell Christmas jokes and welcome multiple Santas on stage, one of the young actresses wet herself, then cried as she ran from the glistening puddle left behind. The host had mentioned that the Christmas show had become a tradition at the Fireside, but evidently, so was urinating or defecating in your pants during it... I just smiled, and drank a couple more Effen and sodas. Jennifer took off her sweater to reveal a tight tee-shirt with the ironic caption "local talent," looking over her shoulder to make sure all eyes from the bar were still on her.
"The loser in the green will probably make his way over here if he gets the balls," she quipped, gulping down her vodka. But, soon enough, she found an excuse to venture up to him herself, occupying a stage outside of the dinner theater to which she had grown accustomed. As a young, single mother who moved to Fort Atkinson from New York a year ago, she certainly wanted to be in the spotlight as much as possible- not just as an actress. Maybe receiving more attention had been on her Christmas wish-list, or she had enough holiday spirit to go around and wanted to tease her admirers with a little taste. If I believed in Santa Claus, I would've only had one thing to ask of him at that moment: to saddle up his reindeer, and offer me a safe ride home.