The Changing Look of Nutcracker: Program Books Over 75 Years

San Francisco Ballet danced America’s first performance of the complete Nutcracker at the War Memorial Opera House on December 24, 1944. The first production was choreographed by Willam Christensen; artist Antonio Sotomayor designed the sets and Russell Hartley (who also created the role of Mother Buffoon) created the costumes. As the production premiered during World War II, the program book, below, includes advertisements for War Bonds and a note about air raid precautions in the Opera House. On the cover of the first program book is Gisella Caccialanza Christensen, who danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

In 1954, Willam’s brother Lew, who succeeded Willam as SF Ballet’s director, created a new production designed by award-winning children’s book illustrator Leonard Weisgard. This more elaborate production was set in the American Victorian style of the 1850s. The program book covers evolved with the production, incorporating Weisgard’s colorful designs and a black-and-white image from the production.

The 1960s

The 1960s Nutcracker program book cover designs are characterized by deeply saturated color. As the decade progresses, the quaint, old-fashioned look of the design veers into Nutcracker psychedelia (never thought you’d hear those two words together, did you?). The first Lew Christensen Nutcracker played (from 1954–66) to more than 400,000 people. In 1967, Lew worked with designer Robert O’Hearn to create a lavish new production. With more than 250 costumes and a mechanized and electric Christmas tree, the O’Hearn production celebrated the 75th anniversary of Nutcracker‘s premiere in Russia. It took three years to raise the $130,000 for the sets and costumes.

The 1970s

The 1970s program book covers (all of the O’Hearn production) featured a mix of photography and illustrations, and even sculpture of the characters on the covers of the Nutcracker program books. Notice the characters that make up the sleeping child’s hair on the 1973 cover!

The 1980s

In 1980 Robert O’Hearn created new sets for the second act candy kingdom, and in 1982, fresh Flower costumes were designed. The 1980s program book covers were heralded by the advent of color photographs on the covers. In 1986, a new production was unveiled, designed by Jose Varona and featuring choreography by Lew Christensen and new artistic director Helgi Tomasson.

The 1990s

The 1990s featured the Jose Varona production, and program book covers that were a mix of illustration, still-life photography, and computer-created design, often featuring the iconic dancing, tambourine-wielding bear of that production.

Helgi Tomasson unveiled a brand-new production in 2004, set for the first time in San Francisco. With costumes by Martin Pakledinaz and sets by Michael Yeargan, this Nutcracker, set in 1915, has become a beloved classic and continues to be performed each year. Program book covers through the years have featured several of the productions’ many costumed characters.

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  1. Jace Iversen

    The 1960 Production of The Nutcracker was a great favourite of mine. The Snow scene, the Arabian Dance and The Waltz of the Flowers dance in my memories along with the many other delights of Clara’s journey. And the growing Christmas Tree entranced the audience and thrilled the children viewing the Christmas Party. An enchanting night at the ballet!

  2. Margaret Baptista

    That’s me raising my hand on the cover of 1971! Wow! Forty-five years after my last class, I started Gentle Ballet last year. Brings me so much joy to be dancing again in my 60s. Thank you for offering this adult class!

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