Audiences love this mix of Martians and Santa Claus
A Fullerton holiday tradition began as an incredibly bad movie.
Not even that so-bad-it’s-good kind of thing. Just plain bad. Maybe it’s the spirit of Christmas, but decades later, one little community theater has embraced the awfulness of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” and turned a lump of coal into a present that just keeps giving.
The 11th annual run of the Maverick Theater’s live production of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” has been sold out for weeks. In fact, it sold out in 48 hours, just like last year. It’s a smash that no one, including director and co-writer Brian Newell, foresaw.
“I don’t know how this became a success,” said Newell. “I had to beg actors to do it. They thought it was a suicide show.”
The original 1964 film is routinely included on lists of the worst films ever made. But the Fullerton theater, carrying the unofficial mission statement “Theater for people who don’t go to the theater,” saw an opportunity.
The story follows Martians who kidnap Santa Claus in an attempt to bring Christmas to their repressive culture. Two kids stow away in the Martian ship in order to save Santa, but mostly end up being the targets of a lot of the jokes. It’s especially easy to see the humor of the play when the two “children” are played by adults.
Newell and co-writer Nick McGee did make important changes to the script, but much of the original remains.
“I focused on the message of our version of the show. Kids playing with toys and expressing themselves,” Newell said. “Even though there’s a lot of silliness there, it’s still a Christmas show.”
Newell also asked his actors to play it totally straight.
“It’s something so ridiculous it’s absurd,” he said. “What happened after that was the audience.”
The first few performances, the actors stuck to the script. And to the bewilderment of the cast and crew, audiences took to it. Feeling more confident, several of the cast members, who were experienced improv performers, began to take liberties.
“We always hope something happens that is unexpected,” said McGee, who has also played Santa and one of the Martians during the play’s long run. “It gets everybody in the mindset. Last night, my belt fell off and the audience erupted. It was this magic moment.”
Consequently, the audience can get a different show every night.
“I love it when stuff goes wrong,” said Jamie Scheel, who plays Billy, one of the children. “And it goes wrong all the time. Because everyone else is being so strange, I have to stay grounded as much as I can and use my reactions as jokes, but we very quickly realized what we can do and when we can do it.”
Though the cast still works within the script, the show often feeds off that element of the unknown.
“Every show gets stopped by some improv,” Newell said. “It’s kind of like the cherry on top. The improv adds that special touch. That’s where the comedy escalates because it just happens.”
The goodwill the show has generated since its first run in 2005 even caught the attention of Victor Stiles, who played Billy in the original movie. He loved the Maverick’s production, and during the show’s second run, he visited the theater in Fullerton and regaled theatergoers with personal stories from the making of the film. He returned the following two years.
Stiles’ support was similar to what the Maverick’s other long-running holiday hit, “Night of the Living Dead,” received early on. Judith O’Dea, who played Barbara in the original horror classic, went to the theater to give her blessing.
The Maverick was also the first in Orange County to stage “The Rocky Horror Show” and later put on a musical version of the adult film classic “Debbie Does Dallas,” in which the performers break into song instead of, you know, what the film is actually known for.
During the 11 years of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” there has been some turnover of cast members — the production could be intimidating to newcomers. But McGee tells them to “learn the script, so well you know it by heart. That gives you the power to make some crazy choices and take some comedic risks. If you don’t know it, it’s so easy to get thrown off. After that, you can almost do no wrong.”
Each November, Scheel has to shave his beard to play little Billy. That usually invites questions from people he knows.
“I tell them I’m playing a 10-year-old boy,” he said. “If they’re still with me, I guarantee they’ll love it.”
But good luck getting tickets.
“Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” plays through Dec. 30. The Maverick Theater is at 110 E. Walnut Ave. in Fullerton. Call (714) 526-7070 for information.