Pageant organizers remember founder
A Jamestown tradition, the Christmas Eve pageant, continues this year at 5 p.m. Monday, Dec. 24, weather permitting. But for the first time in its 37-year-long history, the event will unfold without founder Jeanne Bunkley, who died this year at 94.
Bunkley, an artist who became known for her portraits and landscape paintings, started the pageant in 1975. She modeled the production after a living nativity she remembered from her childhood in Bronxville, N.Y., and was adamant about opposing any departures from the original format, Nancy Cloud remembers.
Year after year, people sang the exact same Christmas carols Bunkley once sang in New York. The farm animals were the only part of the production that came and went.
“It obviously meant something to her,” Martha Milot said. “To me, one of the things that was important was the formula we had was very good. Joseph was always an outstanding man, and the three kings had made contributions to the community.”
The littlest angel was a standout student in second grade, and Mary was an outstanding eighth-grader. The Boy Scouts played the shepherds, and the Girl Scouts were the other angels.
Over the years, the pageant became literally a feather in Bunkley’s cap, according to Cloud. She remembered Bunkley, decked out in a felt hat with a pheasant feather, directing the performance.
“On the night of the performance, everyone had their own space,” Cloud said. “Jeanne stood there, and she was the director. She always had that hat.” She even painted herself wearing the felt hat in one of her self-portraits, Cloud said.
“She wanted it just right. Just so,” Cloud said.
“The formula was terrific,” Milot said. “There are a lot of nice things about Jamestown, but the pageant is one of the nicest.”
In retrospect, Cloud said, the secret to the pageant’s success may be due to Bunkley’s take-charge style.
“Her being such a fathead about it is why it worked,” Cloud laughed. “Being strong willed and doing the same thing every year made it easy and repeatable. It is sort of extraordinary.”
Cloud said Bunkley had almost distilled the entire effort into one Saturday dress rehearsal and then the show.
Milot said they had one meeting at Bunkley’s house in Shoreby Hill, and then they picked up the costumes and went to the dress re- hearsal.
“It worked,” Milot said. “Christmas is Christmas. It brings together all kinds of people, and it doesn’t make a difference what religious affiliation people have or if they have none.”
Milot said she attends the pageant every year and is moved to tears.
Cloud said she has stopped going to the pageant because she no longer lives in Shoreby Hill, but when she did, she liked to step back from the procession and observe a sight she initially discovered accidentally.
“Once I saw it, I would capture it every year,” she said. “Instead of being in line, I stepped away and you just see marching through town – past the bakery and Bay View – this assortment of wings and shepherds and kings with crowns. It would make you weep.”
Nonetheless, Cloud tried several times to convince Bunkley to make changes. Specifically, she argued that “Joy to the World” belonged in the pageant, and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” should go.
“’O Little Town of Bethlehem’ is so poopy,” Cloud remembers saying. “Nobody knows the words.”
Bunkley’s reply was straightforward.
“She said ‘no,’” Cloud remembered.
“Jeanne could rule with an iron hand, but thank heaven she brought it here,” Milot said.
Milot, Cloud and Wharton “Tinny” Biddle belong to the old gang who used to help Bunkley put on the pageant, according to Mary Waddington. Waddington will direct the pageant this year for the third consecutive time.
“Everyone knew Jeanne,” Biddle said. “Jeanne was kind of a staple of Jamestown.”
Biddle described Bunkley as a “war horse” and said she had cheated death several times.
She stayed active. In her 80s, Bunkley played paddle tennis, Milot said. She used to arrive at the Conanicut Yacht Club wearing loafers, which was not a good choice of footwear for the paddle tennis court.
“She was a good golfer,” Cloud said. “She’d call me up on an afternoon to play.” They entered a tournament and ultimately had to face each other. Cloud won.
Milot brought Bunkley to the Christmas Eve pageant two years ago. Bunckley was 92 and had trouble walking, Milot said, but her mind was clear. “The last thing she said was, ‘Are we going to go and get a drink?’”