A Christmas Story Rerun

“I always tell people about you at this time of year.” Richard Elmore said as we met and hugged in the lobby of the theatre that is home to the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Richard, or Dick as I know him, had just finished a Sunday afternoon performance of Robert Schenkkan‘s play, “The Great Society” in which he portrays FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover.  The play is a dramatization of Lyndon Johnson’s second term in office.  Playwright Schenkkan’s companion piece “All the Way”, about Johnson’s first year in office, won the Tony Award and is also playing in concurrently at the Seattle Rep in partnership with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival from Ashland, Ore.

“The Great Society,” which I saw, is a powerful and well-crafted piece about Johnson’s tumultuous second term and his fall from grace as the quagmire of the Vietnam War pulled him further and further under and away from his agenda of social programs and civil rights. The play’s themes are sadly still current and harken to the recent events in Ferguson, MO. and elsewhere that confront President Obama and the country. Dick, as J. Edgar Hoover, is the devious FBI director whose loyalties go only as far as his serving his own interests and personal political agenda.

Actor Richard Elmore and I with a towering life-size LBJ cut-out after Elmore's performance  in The Great Society.
Actor Richard Elmore and I with a towering life-size LBJ cut-out after Elmore’s performance in The Great Society.

Dick has been a member of the Oregon company for 30 years playing more parts than his short bio in the program can list. When I learned that he was to be in Seattle with the play, we arranged to meet after the show and catch up.

I first met Dick in Phoenix when he was first starting out as an actor in local productions there. I was working as a theatre reviewer and journalist for the Phoenix papers at the time. We became friends. Eventually I moved to Los Angeles and Dick headed to Ashland where he soon established himself as a resident company member with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But before that, the two of us teamed up one Christmas for an article that I had suggested to my editor at the Arizona Republic’s magazine.To tell the truth, I hadn’t remembered about it until recently when my oldest son and I were watching a 1999 television movie “Season for Miracles.” (We both agreed it was a pretty sappy show.)

“I once wrote a Christmas story,” I told my son who, frankly,doesn’t know that much about my journalism career. That year, as I told my son, I proposed to my magazine editor that Dick and I go out into the neighborhoods of Phoenix at night five days before Christmas and pose as a husband and his pregnant wife in need of help and a place to sleep for the night. Sound familiar? We wanted to test the Christmas ‘spirit,’ just to see whether or not it was still alive and whether anyone would be willing to take us in just as the Bethlehem innkeeper did for Mary and Joseph centuries ago.

Posing as a modern-day version of Mary and Joseph, Rickahrd Elmore and I went door to door in Phoenix seeking a place to stay.
Posing as a modern-day version of Mary and Joseph, Richard Elmore and I went door to door in Phoenix seeking a place to stay.

We went from house to house, knocking on the doors of homes both large and small, festively decorated with lights as well as those that weren’t, of those well-to-do and those less fortunate. It was cold, even for Phoenix. Dick had our story rehearsed. We were passing through Phoenix when our car broke down. We had no money and just needed somewhere to stay for the night so that he could try to fix our car in the morning. I tried my best to look helpless and pregnant, thanks to a well-placed pillow under my clothes.

When Dick agreed to masquerade with me as the Biblical couple neither of us really knew quite what to expect.  Most people, we suspected, would simply turn us away or not answer the door at all. To be sure, that was the case with many. But much to our surprise, some of those who came to the door actually invited us inside, offered us something to eat, phoned the local Salvation Army, gave us money to get a room at a nearby motel and, in three instances, opened their homes to us for the night before I revealed our true identities and told them about my assignment. It was a remarkable and heart-warming experience. I think it restored our own faith in the goodness of ordinary people.

I hadn’t thought about that journalistic endeavor for many years. Apparently, Dick has never forgotten it because no sooner had we hugged each other in the lobby than he told me:”I always tell people about you at Christmas and about that night that we went out in Phoenix.” It’s a Christmas memory that we share. It was a gutsy charade, even then, we both agreed. Dick and I mused whether or not imposters such as ourselves those pre-Christmas nights would still be invited in to anyone’s home today. I don’t know. I like to think that they would.

My original article follows if you’d like to read it.

A Place to Spend the Night 

by Cheryl Crooks
Doris Kroll and her daughter, Lisa, were stirring the pots of fancy Christmas cooking on the stove top when a knock sounded at the front door. She looked at the kitchen clock.
Ten thirty. She looked at the kitchen clock. Her husband, John, had already retired for the night. The family poodle barked at her heels. She flipped on an outside light and cracked the door of her Scottsdale home. “Yes?” she said, peering into the darkness.

A man, wearing an old Army jacket, stepped from the front of the house into the halo of yellow light.  A pregnant woman stood  behind him.

“I’m sorry to bother you at this late hour, ma’am,” the man said, “but we’re from out-of-town and our car just broke down.” The man was a Phoenix actor Richard Elmore. I pretended to be his wife.

Five days before Christmas, we decided to test the Christmas spirit by going door to door, seeking room for the night, just as Joseph and Mary had done centuries ago.Their reactions to our plea for a place to spend the night had not been unexpected. So at the third house, when Max Coulson asked us to come in, we were surprised. Mrs. Kroll listened quietly as he told of our misfortunes. After a moment she said, “Would you like some coffee?” and invited us inside.

“I just got home from art class,” she said, seating us at the kitchen table. In the adjoining living room was a ceiling-high Christmas tree with wrapped packages beneath. The kitchen was bright and warm and smelled sweet from the confections. “We’re making candy,”she said. “I’ll fix your coffee in a minute.”

“If you only had a place for my wife, I can sleep in the car, but she’s pregnant,” Elmore said.

“My daughter has a spinal disease so I can’t give up her bed but you could sleep on the couch,”Mrs. Kroll said. “I feel badly about letting you sleep in the car,” she said to Elmore. “It won’t be very comfortable. At least I can give you a blanket.”

“I don’t believe it,” my “husband”said, returning to the car afterwards. “Her husband was unemployed, her daughter had a spinal disease and she was still giving you a place to stay.”

The evening hadn’t begun as well. People at the  first two Scottsdale homes turned us away  with, “Call the police or the Scottsdale Family Society, they’ll help you,” and a polite but firm, “We’re cramped here, we’ve had a lot of people come for the holidays. Sorry.”

“Tell my wife what you just told me,” he said, ushering us into the family room where his wife, Loretta, and their two children were watching television.

“My wife is pregnant and, well,we were just wondering if you might be able to put us up for the night,” Elmore said. “We have no money.”

“What can we do to help these people?” Coulson said after Elmore had explained our predicament.

“Why don’t we fix them some coffee?” Mrs. Coulson said.

“Thanks, but we don’t want to cause a lot of trouble,” Elmore said.

There must be someone we can call,” Mrs. Coulson said. She walked to the telephone on the breakfast counter and began to thumb through the directory.

“If we could just sleep in your backyard,” Elmore said.

“Oh no, you couldn’t do that. It’s too cold,” Coulson said.

“Maybe the Salvation Army,” his wife said, lifting the receiver. She dialed the number.

Just down the block from the Coulson home, Gene Cash was pushing his motorcycle into his garage. We approached him.

“I suppose so,” Cash said, when asked if he had a place where we could stay “I have a spare room. If that’s not what it’s for, what is it for? Besides, you would be good company.”

We were speechless. No one took in strangers anymore. You couldn’t trust them.

It was 11 p.m. when we knocked on the door of Ruth and Meade Long’s Scottsdale home. They were getting ready for bed. Long answered the door. As Elmore began to tell our story, Mrs. Long joined her husband  at the door.

“Give them some money, Meade,” she said.

Long mumbled something to his wife. He seemed reluctant. Because Long had been laid off his job, their income had been reduced to the money Mrs. Long earned cleaning houses during the day. She stepped away from the door and picked up her purse that was on the living room table.

“Here,” she said, handing us ten dollars. “There’s a Motel Six just down the street. You should be able to get something there. I’d be afraid to let you stay here because our dog bit the mailman today.”

“This sure is changing my attitude about people,” Elmore said as we drove away. “Really makes you stop and think.”

The next evening we decided to visit a neighborhood in central Phoenix. We walked up the steps to the front door of a brick house. The porch light was on. Elmore pressed the bell.

“Who is it?”a man shouted from inside. The stocking feet of a man lying on the floor watching television with a beer can sitting him could be seen through the door window.

“Hello?” Elmore said.

“We don’t want any,” the voice said.

“We don’t want any? What does he mean,’We don’t want any?'” Elmore said as we headed towards the house across the street.

“We have company and have no room here,” the man at the next house told us, “but go across the street to that house. Tell her Matthew sent you. She has a little house out behind hers.”

Elmore and I walked to the corner house to which Matthew had pointed. Mary Carr opened the door just as Elmore was about to knock. She had on her coat and scarf and was on her way to a school board meeting. We told her what Matthew had said.

“You can’t stay out there,” she said, referring to the house Matthew had mentioned. “That’s just a shed. It’s dirty and about to fall down. But come in.”

We followed her into the living room.

“Sit down, sit down,” she said, motioning to us. She took off her coat and threw it across the dining room table. “Let me see if I can find somebody to help you,” she said, picking up the telephone book. “The first people I think about in these situations is either the Salvation Army or the Crisis Intervention Center.” She found the number, reached for her telephone and dialed.

A chain link fence enclosed the yard of the next house we decided to visit. Inside, several lights were on. We knocked. Someone peeked out the front window .

We knocked again. A man appeared at the door.

We don’t have any room,” he said and shut the door .

We turned away to try to find room elsewhere.

“Just a minute,” the woman who answered the door at the next house said. She closed the door and disappeared. We sat on the front step wondering if she had gone to summon the police. Just then, Derek Van Deren opened the door. He was wearing a pajama top and wrinkled trousers. He looked as though he had been asleep. “Yes?” he said. He listened patiently.

“We don’t have anywhere here for you to stay,” he said. “It’s too cold to sleep outside. Have you gone to the Salvation Army?”

We told him we hadn’t.

“I can drive you down there,” Van Deren said. “They’ll be able to find a place for you. Let me put on my shoes.”

From the Van Deren neighborhood, we drove to the Encanto Park area where there are many expensive, two-story homes. We r waited at the front door of one. No one answered, but two silhouetted figures in the lighted upstairs window watched us depart.

Around the corner was another two-story home that had been gaily lit for the holiday season.The tall, green Christmas tree, elaborately decorated, was visible through the picture window. Packages hid the base of the tree. A wreath hung on the front door.

We rang the bell. Two faces looked out a side window. None appeared at the door.

The lights were also on at the neighboring house. We decided to try there. Elmore rang the bell. A dog barked.

“See that eye?” Elmore whispered. In the center of the large straw wreath trimmed with a big hung on the door was a tiny peephole through which an eye was studying us.

We rang again. Still no answer.

“Come on,” Elmore said, taking my arm.

As we started down the front sidewalk, the door opened slightly.

“What do you want?” a young boy called. He barred his foot across the opening to stop the dog from bounding out.

“Are your parents home?” Elmore said.

“They’re, uh, busy right now,” the boy said.

We explained that we were looking for a place to spend the night.

“Oh,well really, my parents aren’t here,” the boy said, still hiding behind the door as if he had been instructed to do so when talking to strangers.

“Thanks anyway,” Elmore said, and we turned away

“Wait,”the boy shouted and slipped through the opening, pushing the dog back inside. He was 11 or 12, had blond hair and no shoes on his stocking feet. Let me think,” he said, pacing back and forth on the lawn. His hand rubbed his chin, a mannerism he must have copied from an adult. He looked thoroughly frustrated.

“Go to Central,” he said. “You walk straight down this street and then, uh, well.

He obviously did not know what we should do once we got to Central Avenue, but to him it seemed the place for us to go. Central  Avenue was, after all,a very busy street.

“Thanks, anyway,” Elmore said, reassuring him that we would be fine.

“Merry Christmas,” the boy said, waving to us from the front porch.

“Merry Christmas,” we said.

The boy went back into his house.

“What do you know. It takes a child to show the way,” Elmore said, shaking his head as we left the neighborhood.

Most of the homes were dark when we arrived in a northwest Phoenix neighborhood. But one small house with a string of colored Christmas lights that out lined the front window was still lit up. We knocked at the door.

“No,I’m sorry, we don’t have any place for you to stay,” the woman who stood in the doorway said. She closed the door and watched as we walked away.

Response to our door-to-door search for room for the night had not been as fruitful as the evening before. Of the eight homes we had visited, only two people had offered to help and none had asked us to stay. We would try one more home before quitting. The door opened. A young man’s head crooked around the edge of the door.

“Just a minute,” he said, closing the door. A minute later the door opened again. “Come in,” Dan Brewer, who looked to be in his 20s, said. “I had to put some clothes on. I just got out of the shower.”

He led us through the entry hall into the living room where his wife, Tammy, was sitting on the couch in her robe feeding a bottle to their 4 -month-old daughter. “Sit down,” Brewer said. “Where’s your car again?”

Elmore repeated our story. Brewer left the room and returned with a can of caulking putty and a putty knife. He sat on the floor, cleaned the knife on the rim of the can and put the lid on as Elmore apologized for intruding.

“What do you want, boy or girl?” Mrs. Brewer said when her husband had left the room again.

Elmore and I looked at each other.

“Oh, uh, either, as long as it’s healthy,” he said.

“What do you think is the matter with your car?” Brewer said, re-entering the room. He wiped his hands on a towel.

“I don’t think it’s a big problem,” Elmore said. “I think I can fix it in the morning.”

Brewer exited again. Mrs. Brewer began to talk about her baby and asked about our expected child. Her husband entered the living room again, this time carrying a large, double sleeping  bag. He laid it on the floor and began to spread it out. They were giving us room for the night.

During the two evenings, we stopped at sixteen Phoenix area homes. At each, we had asked for a place to stay for the night. We were turned away at nine. Four others offered to help and three had taken us into their homes. It still beat what happened at Bethlehem.