It's hard to believe, but the highly successful Mount Aloysius Madrigal Christmas Feaste that, each year, sells out weeks ahead of time and is always a sure crowd-pleaser didn't start out that way.
"There were some people who didn't give it much of a chance because they'd never seen anything like it before,'' said Sister Eric Marie Setlock, who has been part of the event since its inception 42 years ago at the college campus in Cresson.
These days, the annual holiday event is much anticipated by regular attendees, and when they leave the event, many ask for reservations for the next year's dinner as they walk out the door, said event organizers.
Michelle McGowan of Hollidaysburg, who directs the Madrigal Christmas Feaste at Mount?Aloysius, portrays “Lady Misrule.”
The concept of having a Christmas meal with people dressed in costume - complete with a play-within-a-play, music and dancing, all with an old English theme - was common in other parts of the U.S., such as the Midwest, but not in this area, Setlock said. Similar productions had been tried on a limited basis at nearby schools with minimal success, she said.
"They just didn't think that kind of thing would do well in this area,'' she said.
Another veteran "Feaste'' participant recalled the early days as looking quite different, too. Michelle McGowan of Hollidaysburg, who now directs the entire event and also plays the part of "Lady Misrule,'' said the dinners have evolved in the 38 years she has been involved. She also remembered the people who doubted that the event would ever become successful.
If you go
What: Madrigal Christmas Feaste
When: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 1 and 4:30 p.m. Dec. 2
Where: Cosgrave Student Center, Mount Aloysius College, Cresson
Details: Tickets are $35 for seniors and $40 for adults. Only call-in reservations will be accepted after Nov. 4. Call 886-6525 for more information.
"I think it was because they didn't think something different, like old English, would be popular,'' she said. "But people really do like it, mainly, I think, because of the way the students and the alumni get into the characters and make the people feel comfortable. That's the key: that they make them feel comfortable.''
McGowan said the food has changed from originally a chicken dinner to ribs and finally now to roast beef. The number of people involved in the performance has grown, now with 45 musicians, singers, actors and servers, who are known as "wenches.'' That final group, the "wenches,'' deliver food and drink to the patrons while also doing the "wench toss dance'' that's become a favorite, McGowan said.
"I really mean 'wench toss,'" she said. "Some of our wenches are three feet off the floor.''
The primarily volunteer cast starts meeting in May to begin working out the details of the elaborate production, McGowan said. Some of the groups meet weekly, and some meet monthly. The "wenches'' undergo a training program that includes instruction in dialect, accent and characterization.
But on the nights of the dinners, "a lot is improvisation,'' she said.
McGowan said her part of Lady Misrule is based on an authentic old English tradition that, once a year, the Lord and Lady of the Manor would trade places with the peasants of the town and let the world turn "topsy turvy'' for a day. The poor people would have one of their own become lord and lady of the manor for one special day, and the true lord and lady of the manor would serve.
"It was kind of like 'the meek shall inherit the earth' sort of thing'' she said.
McGowan said she also believes the event has been successful because it has maintained a certain size, which has preserved its intimacy.
The dinners seat 240 people each night, and when tickets are gone - which is usually well before December - no more are sold for the event that year, said Sally Gordon, who is manager of annual giving for Mount Aloysius and is in charge of the event.
"They keep it small so it's very personal, and I think that's what makes it so special,'' McGowan said.
Most of the people putting the "Feaste'' together, either as a "wench'' or as an actor or musician or dancer, are now attending the college or have already graduated, and the event has become a tradition for many people to attend as part of their holiday activities, Gordon said.
"It's just kind of a way to open the Christmas season for many people,'' she said.