Life

Holiday classic 'White Christmas' coming to Des Moines Civic Center

The Des Moines Civic Center will turn into a snow globe of holiday cheer when the national tour of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” comes to town. The song-and-dance show will have eight performances Nov. 19 to 24. (Jeremy Daniel photo)
The Des Moines Civic Center will turn into a snow globe of holiday cheer when the national tour of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” comes to town. The song-and-dance show will have eight performances Nov. 19 to 24. (Jeremy Daniel photo)
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For six seasons, Conrad John Schuck hasn’t just been dreaming of a white Christmas, he’s been living it.

Star of stage and screen, he’s again stepping into Irving Berlin’s snow globe world, bringing General Waverly to life in the national tour of “White Christmas.” The song-and-dance extravaganza is coming to the Des Moines Civic Center for eight performances Nov. 19 to 24.

“I love the part. It’s perfect for my age,” Schuck, 79, said by phone from his home in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tenn. He was enjoying some late-October downtime with his “rambunctious” 3-year-old granddaughter, before traveling to New York to begin rehearsals.

“It’s primarily a speaking a part,” he said. “I do get to sing in the finale and do a couple little dance steps.”

He plays the pivotal role of a much-admired World War II Army general who now owns an inn in Vermont. He’s fallen on hard times, however, since no snow has yet fallen. Without a winter wonderland to entice visitors, the inn is out of guests.

But when two of his former soldiers get wind of his dilemma, they decide to give their commander a spiritual and financial boost. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the men, who now happen to be successful entertainers, are enamored of a sister act that’s been booked to perform at the inn over the holidays.

Much drama swirls around the love stories and their misunderstandings, but in the end, everyone’s days are looking merry and bright.

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“It’s just such a positive, upbeat show,” Schuck said. “The Berlin music is timeless, and I never get tired of it. I love it, and it puts me in the Christmas spirit — which is hard to do since (Christmas) starts in June now,” he said with a hearty laugh.

“And like ‘Annie,’ it’s a family show. It’s a great big show — the staged is filled. And kids love it, because it’s a type of theater that you don’t see that much, with this extraordinary tap dancing that Randy Skinner, our director, also choreographed. It’s toe-tapping, literally. The audience toe taps.”

RETURNING TO IOWA

He knows a thing or two about everyone’s favorite orphan, Annie, having played Daddy Warbucks “a couple thousand times,” beginning on Broadway in 1977, and continuing through multiple national tours. He’s made several stops in Iowa with that perky perennial favorite, including performances at Hancher Auditorium in 1998, and the Des Moines Civic Center in 1999.

He’s looking forward to his return trip to the Civic Center with “White Christmas.”

“What I remember the most is how enthusiastic the audiences were in Des Moines,” he said. “It’s a really good theater town.”

He said “Annie” will always have a special place in his heart, since it was his first Broadway show. He stepped out of the show in 2012 when he decided he’d taken that role as far as his artistry would allow.

On the grow

Now entering his sixth season in “White Christmas,” he still sees opportunities for growth with General Waverly.

“My feeling is that acting a part is sort of like a painting — you’re never quite sure when it’s finished,” he said. “And every year I find things that I can do better. It might just be a speech or a movement or an approach to a scene. I like looking for things that are new and fresh. That’s the joy in it. To me, it’s never stale.”

He plans to continue with the General as long as he looks the part.

“It’s a major role. It’s very nicely paced. I have time offstage. I sit in the wings and enjoy the wonderful dancing, which I do. It’s just a great job,” he said. “I can’t think of a better one.”

He described the General as “a composite of those extraordinary Eisenhower- and Patton-type World War II generals. He’s very charismatic and obviously loved by his men. You hear that he was a hero, definitely not behind a desk. He was there fighting alongside his men and on a number of occasions, saved people.

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“I love the fact that he’s that type of man we seem to almost be forgetting in this day and age. He’s very deserving of the love and respect that revolves around this story. If we don’t believe that he’s that person, the rest of story makes absolutely no sense of trying to get the whole unit up to inn to try to and save it.

“So he’s that. He’s also still a military man, and he’s faced the reality that there really is no place for him outside of the military — until the very end of the show, where he admits that what he was looking for in life is right here in Vermont. That’s another reason for doing the part — the extraordinary end of the show where he addresses his troops. It’s great fun to do, and I love the reaction from it.”

Fame game

Never one to want the limelight as the leading man and all the Hollywood game-playing that entails, he was more than happy to be Rock Hudson’s sidekick in television’s “McMillan & Wife,” the dentist in the 1970 movie version of “M*A*S*H” and a Klingon in several “Star Trek” films and television outings.

This time, his character has a housekeeper, Martha Watson, who would like to be the General’s leading lady. Schuck, married in real life to his wife of 30 years, is thrilled to be reunited with Lorna Luft in the Watson role she played two years ago.

“She’s terrific,” he said. “Lorna is just great to talk to. My gosh, she knows everybody from show business from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s through her mother (Judy Garland). She said, ‘After all, Frank Sinatra used to play with me on the floor.’ She had that type of Hollywood upbringing.”

Fame was never part of his vocabulary. He’s in show biz for the love of the work.

“I like rehearsing, I like the language,” he said. “The fame was never even in my thinking. When I saw how difficult it was for someone like Rock Hudson to live, I didn’t want any part of that.

“I’ve been very happy making a living. I was never was part of television series work when it paid what it does now, but it was enough to put food on the table. I could eventually afford a very nice house. That’s more than enough, and I didn’t have any of the problems that go along with that life.”

If you go

What: Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”

• Where: Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St., Des Moines

• When: Nov. 19 to 24; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19 to 22; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 23; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 24

• Run time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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• Tickets: $40 to $140, Civic Center Box Office, (515) 246-2300 or Desmoinesperformingarts.org

• Extras: Post-show Q&A after Nov. 20 evening and Nov. 23 matinee performances; dance master class 9:30 to 11 a.m. Nov. 24, ages 12 and up, $25, registration required at desmoinesperformingarts.org/events/white-christmas-dance-master-class

• Show website: Broadway.org/tours/details/irving-berlins-white-christmas,1002

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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