The 25th and final "Hometown Holiday" variety show takes place this weekend in Rockford. Those onstage and in the audience are reflecting on what the show has meant for the city.
To understand the full impact of "Hometown Holiday" on Rockford, you have to go back well before its 25-year run. One person who can do that is Paul Logli. He was a year ahead of show creator J.R. Sullivan at Rockford’s Boylan Catholic High School in the late 1960s. While Sullivan pursued a career in the theater, Logli went into law, serving as Winnebago County State’s Attorney and as a judge. Since then, he’s remained active in the community. He's now the president and CEO of United Way of Rock River Valley.
Logli also had the chance to participate, both on the board and onstage, at New American Theater (NAT), the professional company started by Sullivan in 1972. He said NAT earned accolades outside of the area, gaining glowing reviews from Chicago theater critics -- and beyond.
“But the most important thing about Jim’s work," he said, "was the impact it made not only on the city and the region. And in many ways, it became one of the outstanding repertory theaters in the nation.”
For a Rust Belt city trying to cope with losses in a changing world, NAT was a point of pride; Sullivan’s continued leadership of it was an endorsement that Rockford still mattered. So his announcement in 1994 that he was leaving to pursue new opportunities was met with shock and even dismay. And his return with “Hometown Holiday” got a warm welcome.
“It was kind of like, you know, withdrawal," said Logli. "And making withdrawal a little bit easier. We knew he’d come back every year and do this holiday show.”
For Sullivan the feeling was -- and is -- mutual.
“I have come back to do this 'Hometown Holiday' every year because of gratitude," he said. "I was given so much for so long that I want to give back. And the fact that this show has come to mean so much to so many people is deeply gratifying, but that’s what I wanted, that’s what I hoped for.”
The 14th anniversary show marked another homecoming of sorts. After years of performing at nearby Veterans Memorial Hall, "Hometown Holiday" moved to the former New American Theater building. Local businessman and philanthropist Richard Nordlof had bought the building a few years before -- after NAT closed its doors -- and gave it to the city. Now Sullivan once again stood on his old stage, in what is now the Rockford Public Library’s Nordlof Center, in a space designated by the City of Rockford as the J.R. Sullivan Theater.
The name aside, Sullivan thought it appropriate for "Hometown Holiday" to be in this spot, with its echoes of NAT.
“What’s past is present here with this show -- literally," he said. "And the two live together as they always do at the holiday season especially. They live together, they thread together. They’re strings of the heart. And that’s the case here.”
Marcella Rose Sciotto has been in the show’s ensemble for more than ten years. She said "Hometown Holiday" is special, with each year's show newly written by Sullivan, just for Rockford.
“It’s so magical that it has happened all these years," she said. "I feel super lucky to have been involved. I think this town has been really lucky. I mean, it really is a Christmas gift to every person that’s on that stage and every person that’s in the audience.”
But now Sullivan says this will be his last "Hometown Holiday." After a long stretch as director of an off-Broadway theater in New York, and other endeavors, he’s pulling back a bit. He wants to focus on his job as artistic director of the Irish Theatre of Chicago, and on doing more writing. He said to look for a book next year. And even though it only ran for a few days each year, this show involved a big commitment to make it happen.
So, Sullivan said, it was time to end its run. But it’s poignant.
“It’s something that’s not easy to let go of," he said, "because it has meant so much to me. But I know that because it has meant so much to so many others, that it's something that will last.”
Paul Logli said he and others in the city understand why Sullivan is ending the show. But Logli says it will be missed by many, even as the community celebrates a man who loved -- still loves, he said -- Rockford, a city that embraced him. And one that treasured -- and still treasures -- the many magical moments of theater that J.R. Sullivan shared with his hometown.
- Hometown Holiday is an underwriter of WNIJ