Director Bob Beiring's 35-year Rope Trick

October 14, 2014
Festival director Bob Beiring giving last minute instructions to the Beefeaters during dress rehearsal, 2006
C.K. Wang, photo
It was 1962. 

East coast bred, Yale educated, bachelor Bob Beiring had just been tapped by his Procter & Gamble bosses at Port Ivory (Staten Island) to head westward to Cincinnati for an industrial engineering job at Ivorydale.

He crammed his worldly possessions--an Evinrude 35 outboard motor, a stereo wrapped in blankets, his pole lamp and clothes--into a tiny U-Haul trailer and pointed his Chevy convertible toward new adventures. 

As he crossed the state line into Ohio, the U-Haul snapped from its tow bar, flew across the road, down an embankment and rested in a heap at the bottom. Bob managed to salvage his Evinrude 35 and his stereo, but, alas, not his pole lamp.

Bob rolled into town and wasted no time: He moved into the old L.B. Harrison Club and reported for work.

The next year Bob was in the Army, under a “critical skills” program. The following year, he returned to P & G to work in a new field called data processing and to finally call Cincinnati home.

It was at the 100th anniversary of Yale’s oldest alumni club later in the year that Bob heard a familiar refrain from a priest: “I have a job for you.”

The Rev. Paul Buckwalter, a fellow Yale man, had recently been hired by Christ Church and quickly determined that Bob was single, relatively new to town, Episcopalian, and had no excuse not to help with the church’s 100-strong Boy’s Club.

Being a gymnast at Yale and a kid at heart, it was a perfect match.

About the same time, parishioner Miner Raymond had assumed the directorship of Christ Church’s Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival, then in its 22nd year. Miner, whose day job was supervisor of television production for P&G (think commercials for soap operas), and Gerre Hancock, music director, wanted to change the Boar’s Head from a stand-and-sing affair to a more theatrical production.

“I knew nothing of the Boar’s Head to draw me there,” Bob says these days, “but the rest is history.”

Bob joined the cast as a wait, a medieval watchman whose job description included providing entertainment for the castle. Calling on his skills as a gymnast and his love of theater, he began “planting seeds to spice up the roles.”

Over the next few years, he was able to convince the festival directors that he could slide down a rope hung from the organ loft and that he could walk on the back of the church pews.

The year his bloomers split when they got caught on the gallery’s railing sealed the rope descent as a big hit.

Bob kept adding antics to the wait’s job description. He recruited teenagers and adults to walk with him along the backs of the pews, kissing audience members and tickling them with long feathers.

As the 1960s rolled along, the Boar’s Head became more authentic in costuming and props. Theatrical lighting was added, and females were given more important backstage tasks such as prompting and cueing entrances.

In 1973, Bob’s young daughter Lisa asked to be in the Boar’s Head cast. “I didn’t want to tell her that she couldn’t be in it because she was a girl,” Bob said. But, for more than 600 years in England, the festival had been a male-only pageant.

So Bob went to the church hierarchy. As an inducement, he was able to tell them that his wife had promised to make costumes for all female cast members if women were allowed in the cast.

The answer came back “yes”, and holly bearers, ladies of the manor and their attendants and, over time, women in almost every Boar’s Head role joined the cast.

Bob’s interest in growing the festival into a bigger, more theatrical and inclusive performance didn’t go unnoticed. In 1979, he was asked to chair the Boar’s Head. He accepted, and in one stroke of the pen, he was promoted from a wait to the boss.

His timing couldn’t have been worse.

On Dec. 3, 1979, at the concert of the British rock band The Who, festival seating contributed to a stampede and panic that killed 11 people and injured 27 others. The city council quickly ruled that festival seating be banned at all public events. 

Boar’s Head practice had been to let the first 400 people standing in line for each performance go into the sanctuary. Often the line of hopeful audience members circled the church, creating “crushing crowds”, according to Bob. He knew that would have to change.

Bob enlisted the help of a fellow P & G employee and member of the congregation, Suzann Parker Leist, to come up with a plan to convert from festival seating to a ticketed venue. By performance day 1980, a ticketed seating system that she designed was in place. She still keeps a sharp eye on Boar’s Head audience logistics.

The ensuing 34 years have seen a steady infusion of performance improvements. After all, Bob grew up on Radio City Music Hall in the 1950s. He knew what the big-time looked like. A Boar’s Head Rockettes dance group wouldn’t have won universal approval, but first-class theatrical lighting and opera-quality singers like former New York City Opera baritone Maurice Mandell took performances to a very high level. 

Bob Beiring with Chief Minstrel Maurice Mandell, about 1989
Photo credit: Michael Wilson

Today, Bob relies on 300 cast members to show up and make the annual “Miracle on Fourth Street” happen, and he does it without rehearsal. The dress rehearsal is conducted in front of an almost-full house.

Standing ovation from a full house, 2010
C.K. Wang, photo
Three more packed performances enchant hundreds more guests – many of whom have never before set foot in Christ Church Cathedral. 

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to calculate that Bob and all the people who rally around him have touched 84,000 hearts in the last 35 years.

That’s some track record.

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