It’s pretty hard to miss the 15-foot, 800-pound Nutcracker standing sentry at the end of the driveway. Or the Mouse King and the rest of the cast stationed around a storybook cottage in Ballard.
For some 30 years, these oversized Nutcracker characters stood in the lobby of McCaw Hall during the holiday season. Pacific Northwest Ballet commissioned Maurice Sendak (of “Where the Wild Things Are” fame) to design original art for the version of “The Nutcracker” choreographed by Kent Stowell that ran from 1983 to 2014. (Since 2015, PNB’s “Nutcracker” has been the one choreographed by George Balanchine, with sets and costumes by Ian Falconer.)
So how did Sendak’s figures wind up in Ballard?
There’s a ballet connection: the Nutcracker house is the home of PNB Orchestra’s longtime principal harpist, John Carrington. After PNB retired the Stowell/Sendak production, Carrington began displaying two figures at his house, and added more over the years. He purchased the biggest nutcracker from a member of the stage crew, and PNB gave him the other pieces.
“’The Nutcracker’ used to take over my life with 40 shows. Now it takes over my whole year,” Carrington said. “I’ve just been known as the Nutcracker house.”
You can see the Nutcracker house through the month of December on Loyal Avenue Northwest at Golden Gardens Drive Northwest. It’s a one-block-long street that gets a lot of traffic this time of year. Like we said, hard to miss.
Recently, two girls dressed as toy soldiers popped by for a photo just as the crowning touch was added to this year’s display: a creature from “Where the Wild Things Are” on the roof, guarding over the whole production.
This year marks the seventh annual Nutcracker display, but last year, things were looking dicey. Both Carrington and his partner, Scott McElhose, are self-employed — Carrington is a musician, and McElhose restores antiques — and the pandemic brought both their incomes to a screeching halt.
“It was a tough year. I wasn’t working,” said Carrington, who was furloughed and had all his gigs canceled. (A year and eight months later, he’s finally back in the ballet orchestra this month.) “For a while, it was iffy if we would be able to keep the house.”
A neighbor stepped in to set up a GoFundMe campaign last year, which raised more than $8,000.
“We were just overwhelmed with everyone’s response and giving, by people we didn’t even know,” Carrington said. “I felt like George Bailey at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ with all the love and support helping us out as two independent artists during COVID.
“We wanted to make sure we brought [the Nutcracker display] back because we were able to keep the home, and add a couple new touches.”
So McElhose restored the animatronics in two of the figures, which had not worked in decades. Now the mouse in the side yard swings his sword and the nutcracker on the deck crunches his mouth.
The figures, made of plastic and fiberglass, get a tuneup every year. McElhose fixes broken arms and swords, and touches up the paint.
Carrington, a third-generation Ballardite, saw that first Stowell/Sendak production in 1983 as a teenager. Things came full circle when he joined the PNB Orchestra as a harpist in 2002 and played in many “Nutcracker” performances himself. “It was always just a real special sentimental touchstone for me,” he said.
The storybook ballet is a perfect match for the Ballard house’s storybook architecture — gabled roof, turret and all.
“We do it for the community and children who come by, and adult children, too. It just brings a lot of happiness and joy and smiles,” Carrington said. “Some people do remember the Sendak version of the Nutcracker as well. I guess I’m kind of old-fashioned, and living in an old-fashioned house. A sense of Seattle’s history, I want to promote and remember.”