Patti Wenzel

Nostalgic trip Home for the holidays

By - Dec 16th, 2009 04:40 pm
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John MacGivern is Milwaukee's favorite holiday elf.

John McGivern is Milwaukee’s favorite holiday elf.

If you have a ticket to John McGivern’s Home for the Holidays, consider yourself lucky. This seasonal walk down memory lane, running through Jan. 2 at Next Act Theatre, has only a few open seats left and those who filled them at the opening matinee will agree it was a nostalgic and heartfelt trip.

McGivern moves his holiday narrative out of the family home on Bartlett Avenue and into the streets, regaling the audience with stories of his newspaper route and delivering the Milwaukee Journal Christmas calendar dressed as an elf (a future indicator, anyone?), sledding in Riverside Park, flocked Christmas trees and visiting Santa at the Kooky Cooky House at Capitol Court. 

McGivern’s stories are filled with Milwaukee references, but they are recognizable to anyone who grew up in the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s. Wholesome stories about family, friends, the cornucopia of business owners on the main drag and tales of scary nuns are the paint that McGivern uses to illustrate his, and our, childhoods.

While 90 percent of McGivern’s one-man show is observational humor, he does turn his eye to those moments where we learn the real meaning of life, and in the case of this performance, the holidays.

McGivern drew the audience into the world of orphanages in the mid-’60s, typically not a humorous topic. St. Rose Orphanage stood across from St. Mary’s Hospital, and the orphans would attend 6:30 mass where McGivern served as an altar boy. He knew these children from school, including Annie, but never knew they were orphans. His realization caused the then 12-year-old McGivern’s heart to hurt, knowing these children had no one to praise them, pray with them or scold them when they were naughty.

Each year before Christmas, his parish held a benefit for St. Rose and one of the fundraising events was a cake walk. McGivern’s mother made the one, non-boiled food she knew for the walk — sugar cookies with white frosting and silver dragees. Those cookies, among the beautiful cakes, were embarrassing to John and he spent 65 cents and many prayers trying to win the cake walk simply to pick the cookies and throw them away.

“But I didn’t win,” McGivern told the audience. “You know who did win? Annie.” Annie went to the table covered in cakes and picked up the cookies McGivern’s mother had made. “And she went back over to her friends, the other orphans, and started handing them out to each one. I never would have done that.”

He learned that day the meaning of generousity and family, that sharing and kindness and love are what we as humans are to rise to and what this season is all about. Thanks for helping us learn that, John, you little elf.

Tickets for Home for the Holidays are sold out for all shows, except Dec. 30. Information is available at

Categories: Arts & Culture, Theater

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