By Ron G. Wolfe
The familiar figures have acted out the same silent drama for nearly six decades, using the same theater since its opening night in 1953.
Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, three brave shepherds and three wise men are back again this year on the front lawn of the First United Methodist Church on Main Street, a location they’ve occupied for 59 years.
They tell the same still-meaningful story, a timeless series of events that captivates the world — and Richmond — each Christmas season.
Those timeless figures, however, have a long and colorful history that makes their annual appearance especially meaningful to those in the church and community who had a hand in their creation and performances through the years.
For Richmond and Madison County, opening night means the opening of the Christmas season.
The idea for their “performance” came from the church’s popular pastor in the early 1950s, the Rev. William H. Poore. He proposed the idea to four determined ladies in his congregation who decided a nativity scene could be done for less than the $4,000 that ready-made mangers cost back then.
So, Walker Swofford, Lea Daphne Moody, Katherine Willoughby and Lelia Arnett set out with a $100 gift from the congregation to fulfill their pastor’s vision of a life-like nativity scene on the church lawn where, at that time, all traffic on US 25 could see it.
While French Moore and other men from the church constructed the stable, the ladies under the direction of Swofford began their set design by collecting old mannequins from various stores in Richmond and Lexington.
From these they spent months fashioning Mary, Joseph, the angel, the shepherds and wise men, each representing a special effort or obstacle, but all representing a true labor of love.
Under Swofford’s leadership, Willoughby assumed the role of “errand girl,” while Moody used her training as a beautician to fashion hair and beards that were needed to make the figures life-like, as well as change the “gender” of the female mannequins they had collected.
When the time came for costumes, the ladies took the discarded purple velvet stage curtains from Madison High School to create robes worthy of Hollywood itself. The angel, whose body was constructed from an iron pipe covered with chicken wire, was draped in 17 yards of pure white silk. When that source of material ran out, the drapes came down at the Moody household.
Joseph, the shepherds and wise men posed another obstacle for the ladies who found themselves with female mannequin heads. So, papier mache and modeling clay were used to build up the delicate feminine features into more masculine traits. However, today as one looks at the shepherd nearest main street, his long lashes and blue eyes still reflect “his” original gender. Two coats of shellac made them all weatherproof.
Many of the character were endowed with lush tresses or full beards, and the sources of much of this hair remains a secret today — except for the standing shepherd whose beautiful red-gold beard which came from one of the Moody’s cows.
“We were completely out of hair when we got ready to make that beard,” Moody said several years ago, “so I left Dwight a note, half in fun, and told him our standing shepherd needed a beard and asked if he would mind cutting off the cow’s tail for it. When I got home, the tail was on the table.”
Creating other parts of the nativity took the same kind of ingenuity. One shepherd’s leg was a $2.50 artificial limb that Moody found in a junk shop on a visit to Florida. And, one of the early sheep was made from the sheepskin rugs from the Moody family and its red glass eyes were marbles buried in foam. The original little lamb was what was left of Oscar Swofford’s bedroom slippers.
Some years later, as church members kept the production alive, a crown from Burger King became a part of the creative costumes. And with some added jewels, it still adorns one of the wise men today.
Through the years, the nativity scene has been refurbished and changed as necessary. Some of the characters have been re-dressed, refreshed and changed, although the bodies are the very same ones that debuted in 1953.
Initially, the scene featured live donkeys, but when Rev. Poore was called out one night to chase two cantankerous donkeys around downtown Richmond, the “live” element of the little drama disappeared. However, life did return just a few years ago when a homeless man was discovered after spending the night in the set.
So, the scene is up again this year, in the same spot on the lawn with the same characters under the spotlight who still “act out” the most famous drama in the history of the world.
It is a drama made possible by some ingenious set designers and creative makeup ladies who helped make the production the longest-running one in Richmond. It is a drama where the plot never changes, but the story is enhanced with each performance.