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The Precocious and the Frightened in Annual Rite of Pageant

<i> Henry Chu is a Times staff writer. </i>

Back when Christmas traditions were being born, perhaps even before caroling and yule logs and credit cards caught on, the elementary school holiday pageant put down deep roots.

It’s a rite of winter as traditional as tongues stuck to metal lampposts, or Saturday traffic jams on Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

Where shepherds once watched their flocks by night, parents now watch their flocks by day--their little ones who parade on stage, sing out of tune, squint through the dazzle of camera flashes and sometimes drop out of character and bleat for their mamas from the footlights.

Thousands of children throughout the Valley take part in these annual performances. But whether they’re in Woodland Hills or Mission Hills, Northridge or North Hollywood, the shows all incorporate some common elements. The “Sounds of Celebration” program at Danube Avenue School in Granada Hills provided a perfect example this week.

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First, every pageant has its Precocious Child, also known as the Musical Child, the Dancing Child or, in scattered instances, the Juggling Child. Lead roles as narrators, performers and prima ballerinas strew their paths like rose petals. They wear their laurels gracefully, with no sign of nervousness and only an occasional quick swipe of the hand to keep their crowns from slipping off.

Enter Annie Dempsey, 7-year-old violinist, actress and dancer extraordinaire.

Shimmering in a fluffy white gown, Annie played the starring role--the muse, Imagination--in Danube’s “Fantasyland,” a series of song-and-dance vignettes based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

“I had her in first grade last year,” said teacher Juanita Lindena, the show’s director. “She was always extremely bright, and a ham from the word go. No sense of fear of people. She’s a natural.”

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Annie introduced each vignette, ranging from Goldilocks and the Three Bears to the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf--a Sensitive Lupine of the ‘90s who daintily startled each piglet in turn before sashaying merrily across the auditorium floor with all three of his alleged victims.

Annie delivered her lines with elan, even though, she said later, she “memorized them in one day.”

“My dad used to go to church, and he used to have all these shows, and he wanted me to be in them, and I play the violin, so I’ve had all these recitals,” she said in a single breath, then launched into a litany of other roles she’s had since she was a tot.

“A long career in show biz,” joked Principal Rosemary Enzer when Annie finished.

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It was during one of the nursery-rhyme vignettes that adults discovered another holiday program mainstay: the Inevitable Blunderer.

Long before “America’s Funniest Home Videos” made kiddie screw-ups big business, children have floundered over lines, tripped on stairs, tugged their tutus off and sucked their fingers on stage, before dozens of parents who are simultaneously embarrassed and proudly clawing for a good camera angle.

At Danube, “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” had barely begun when out jumped the little boy whose job it was to hold up the cardboard clock, site of legendary rodent shenanigans.

“Hickory, Dickory, Dock,” the chorus sang. “The mouse ran up the clock. The clock struck . . . “

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7:30?

No, wait a minute. The clock hands actually read 1 o’clock, as in the rhyme--but the clock was upside down.

Video cameras captured the moment. Muffled giggles rose from the audience. But the expression of concentration on the clock-bearer’s face forbade correction. Behind him, Annie fidgeted a little, oblivious to the gaffe and the fact that here was where Imagination truly was required.

She pressed on, coming to the romantic tale of a prince and princess--the pageant’s de rigueur Cutie Couple.

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But as far as Alicia Grimaldo and Ryan Lueck were concerned, they were the Cooties Couple, loath to stand any closer together than was absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, their roles demanded that they hold hands, so they reluctantly inched nearer and nearer until the icky deed was done--sort of. Ryan’s hand remained wrapped in the folds of his Christmas-red cloak.

“Awwwwww,” the audience cooed, to a strobe storm of flashbulbs.

Alicia, who had instead wanted to play a swan in the “Swan Lake” segment, took no offense at her royal groom’s squeamishness. She shook her head as vigorously as he did when asked if they had secretly wanted to hold hands. Compounding the tension of having to fake a love scene, she had awakened that morning feeling ill.

“I thought I would be sick,” she declared. “I thought I would throw up.”

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Luckily she didn’t. And it was nothing that a few potato chips didn’t cure, she assured her principal.

Danube parent Deby Hess thought the young actors were darling. “They were all cute. Being a new mother and just getting into the school system, I look forward to seeing what they can do outside of home,” she said of her four children.

Her kindergartner was one of the production’s more bashful participants during a choral piece. “Top row, right in the center, head hung down,” Hess pointed out.

But standing in the row in front of Hess’ daughter was an extreme variant of the Shy Child: the Terrified Child.

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The frightened girl refused to face the crowd, showing only her long plaits of jet-black hair, nearly knocking over another child as she stumbled because she wouldn’t turn to look where she was going. But Hess, 39, knew that out in the audience sat a mother and father who still watched with pride, the inevitable complements of the tyke types: The Unshakably Adoring Parents.

“Even with the pitfalls, you’re there because it’s your child,” she said. “Whatever they do--whether they just stand there and not say a word, or dance their feet off--you’re there to support them.”


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