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RTD ARTICLE 12/22/06

Dec 22, 2006

Jessica Robben will portray Mary in the Nativity pageant tomorrow at the Carillon. Lewis Robben will be Joseph, and 4-month-old Joshua Bliley will fill in for Baby Jesus.


In biblical terms, 75 years is but a flash. For a theatrical production, 75 years is an almost miraculous amount of time to keep a single show running, even if it is a pageant about the Christmas miracle.

Tomorrow's 7 p.m. performance of "The Nativity" at The Carillon will be the 75th production since the mid-1920s. Only a few annual pageants were skipped: three because of World War II and several because of weather -- high wind, heavy rain or ice.

"I know my family has come in snow," said Jack Irwin, 78, who holds the record for the most appearances. He was a shepherd in 1945, the year the pageant resumed after World War II. This year, he'll be the innkeeper in his 57th performance.

"For one reason or another, I wasn't in it for three years along the way," he said. "One year I got stuck in traffic. . . . It's just the actor and ham in me that I keep coming back. Now it's a matter of wanting to see how long I can keep going."

The milestone year brings a few new twists. A brass quintet of "trumpet angels" will back up the choir. A new backdrop has been built with a donation from the Carillon Civic Association. The cast, crew and choir will total about 300 people.

Cast members will return from as far away as California to participate. For many, it's a family tradition.
"My grandfather did it. His children did it. And now I'm doing it," said Victoria Quilter, 15, as she adjusted a new halo while trying on her angel's robe in a fitting earlier this week. "This is kind of what puts us in the Christmas spirit."
She and her twin sister, Anne Miflin Quilter, have been angels for years. Their older sister, Caitlyn, was Mary last year.

This year's Mary is Jessica Robben. Her father, Lewis Robben, portrays Joseph. Baby Jesus is played by 4-month-old Joshua Bliley.

The 30-minute pageant began in 1926 in Capitol Square. Douglas Southall Freeman, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and newspaper editor, wrote the script and narrated the performance.

In 1945, the production moved to The Carillon in Byrd Park, with Mallory Freeman as narrator. His son, Allen Freeman, is narrator now. Allen's sons are performing, making the fourth generation of Freemans to participate.

The city's recreation department sponsored the show until 1986, when concerns about separation of church and state arose.

The Richmond Nativity Pageant Foundation was created to continue the operation, helped now by a $300,000 endowment fund.

It costs about $12,500 to stage the pageant, including renting space from the city. The performance is free, though the foundation does collect donations.

The pageant traditionally was held on Christmas Eve until 2001, when it moved to Dec. 23 to avoid competition with church activities on Christmas Eve.

The crowd may reach 2,000 to 4,000 people, depending on the weather. A concert of carols on the Carillon bells will begin at 6:30 p.m.

Contact staff writer Katherine Calos at kcalos@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6433.



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