Role of a lifetime

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In the 27 seasons of the Andalusia Ballet, many different ballerinas have played Clara in The Nutcracker. There have also been many different Nutcrackers and countless Mouse Kings. But in all those years, there has only been one Herr Drosselmeyer.

Eric Lidh, a drama instructor at Lurleen B. Wallace Community College, has performed the iconic role of Clara’s “crazy old uncle” since the first Andalusia performance of the Christmas-themed ballet in 1982. He will perform in the role again during this weekend’s performances on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Dixon Center.

“That first year (in 1982) was before the theater was even built, so we had to perform it at the high school,” he said. “We did a few different scenes from the Nutcracker, and (Ballet director) Meryane (Martin Murphy) asked me to play Drosselmeyer. I said ‘yes,’ and I’ve had a wonderful time every year I’ve done it. Meryane has been just wonderful to work with.”

The Ballet has not performed Nutcracker every year since 1982, but Lidh still estimates he has been a part of at least 100 different performances of the show. He has received countless letters, gifts and other signs of appreciation from audience members — but there is one particular moment that stands out in his mind.

“A lady came down here to take her grandson to the Nutcracker,” he said. “That particular year, I threw some plastic snow into the audience — the same kind of snow we use in the snow scene of the ballet. Afterwards, I met her in the lobby and she asked me to talk to her grandson, who was about 4 or 5 years old. I got down on my knees and I said, ‘What can I do for you?’

“And he said, ‘How do you keep the snow from melting?’ He’d gone up and picked up a whole handful of snow. And I looked at it and I looked at him, and I said, ‘Drosselmeyer has magic. If you take this home, and you put it somewhere, it will never melt.’

“She sent me this card the next week that said, ‘Thank you for keeping the magic alive in the mind of a child.’ I had tears in my eyes; that was wonderful. That’s really what it’s all about.”

Lidh, who was a high school teacher prior to teaching at LBWCC, said he has always loved being around young people and that is one of the main reasons he continues to perform in The Nutcracker.

“It is a wonderful thing to be a part of every year,” he said. “My kids have all grown up, but when I’m in The Nutcracker, I have a chance every year to watch these students grow — they start as ginger snaps, then they go on to become mice, and eventually they’re members of the Senior Company. It keeps you from aging, I say.”

In the ballet, Drosselmeyer is Clara’s mysterious godfather, who arrives to a Christmas Eve party and brings gifts for all the children. Drosselmeyer eventually gives her a nutcracker, which later comes to life and takes Clara on a fantastic adventure through worlds filled with mice, living toy soldiers, and fairies.

“I refer to him as the ‘crazy old uncle,’” Lidh said of his character. “He has a certain magic about him, and he is kind of the one who keeps the story moving. Clara actually gets frightened at one point, during the fight with the Mouse King. He doesn’t mean to scare her, but with Drosselmeyer, everything is bigger than life.”

Lidh said it is sometimes difficult to play the same character year after year, so every performance he tries to do something a little differently.

“Everything I say and a lot of what I do is ad-libbed,” he said. “I don’t have any ‘lines’ that are required in the script, so I have a lot of chance to play around. I do things that you probably won’t see any other actor do when playing Herr Drosselmeyer. For example, I start out in the audience and then make my way onto the stage, and I clown around with some of the people in the audience at one point — you won’t see that at a performance in Montgomery or Atlanta or something like that.”

Lidh said he enjoys every performance, but by far his favorites are the afternoon matinees when elementary school students get a chance to view the production.

“It’s a wonderful thing for these kids, because it’s something they’ll remember the rest of their lives,” he said. “It exposes them to so many important things in life — how to act in public, the beauty of music and drama. Plus, many of them get a chance to see their friends perform live on the stage. I can’t tell you the number of LBWCC students I’ve had who said, ‘I remember seeing you as Drosselmeyer when I was a kid.’

“Plus, when you look at how tight school budgets are nowadays, it’s a wonderful thing to have something like this that’s close by and doesn’t cost the schools much to attend.”

Lidh and his wife, Gari, have four children and seven grandchildren. He is originally from Boston and attended Northwestern University in suburban Chicago.

When asked how long he would continue to perform the character, Lidh gave a trademark “Drosselmeyer laugh.”

“I figure they’ll eventually have to wheel me out on stage with an oxygen tank,” he said. “They’ll probably have a recording playing my laugh and lines. I’m going to do this as long as I can and as long as they’ll let me.”