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The Sugar Plum Fairy, masks, vaccination cards: How a South Philly family and the Academy of Music ushers in ‘The Nutcracker’

The Messina family has been ushering people to their seats for 50 years on Broad Street.

Ushers and sisters, Rita Messina and Susan Messina (right) work at the Philadelphia Ballet performance of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at the Academy of Music. Their father is also an usher, down the street at the Kimmel Center.
Ushers and sisters, Rita Messina and Susan Messina (right) work at the Philadelphia Ballet performance of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at the Academy of Music. Their father is also an usher, down the street at the Kimmel Center.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

When house lights go down on Broad Street, when the orchestra is tuning and ballerinas tighten their shoes backstage, a member of the Messina family is likely there, making someone feel at home or asking them, in an ever-so-kind, South Philly kind of way, to silence their phones or adhere to COVID-19 protocols.

“Excuse me, honey, could you pull your mask up a little bit,” Rita Messina, 54, asked a little girl in red velvet about to take her seat Thursday night.

For Messina and her younger sister, Susan, 53, the Academy of Music is a living room that can fit 2,500 people. They call the cavernous venue “cozy” and even though they could hum “The Nutcracker Suite” backward by now, they still treated every ticket holder heading into Thursday night’s performance like a guest, not just ushering them to their seats six or sixteen rows from the stage, but also to something they know is magical.

“I really do feel like I grew up here,” said Susan Messina, now in her 36th year as an usher.

The Nutcracker, a Philadelphia Christmas tradition as entrenched as the Macy’s light show, has adapted to the ever-evolving age of coronavirus. Ticket holders need to show their vaccination cards with matching ID and anyone under 12 unvaccinated or partially vaccinated must have a negative test result from the last 48 hours. Gianna Williams, a security guard checking vaccinations by the entryway on Broad Street said she had to turn away just one person Thursday, a woman who was partially vaccinated.

“That’s actually been the first one,” she said. “Everyone’s been great.”

COVID caused at least one change to the Academy’s Nutcracker tradition: the meet and greet with the Mouse King and Sugar Plum Fairy was put on hold this season out of health concerns.

“I’m so sorry,” Rita Messina told a woman who’d asked about the Mouse King’s whereabouts.

On stage, performers do not have to wear masks.

The Academy of Music imprinted on the Messina sisters long before they worked there, starting decades ago when their father, Michael, brought them in while he worked. He used to usher there. Their sister, Rosie, was an usher. Rita’s two sons, too. Her daughter worked coat check.

The Messina sisters even come in on their day off to decorate the Christmas tree in the Academy’s lobby. Susan brought the tree, from her house. Rita chose the lights.

“I’m a colored lights person,” Rita Messina said. “To me, colored lights are Christmas.”

Susan Messina stood across from her at door five, programs stacked in her arms, on the opposite side of that endless debate.

“I love the white lights,” she said.

Michael Messina, 75, recently retired from an office job at a South Philly funeral business but still works his night job, a block away, at the Kimmel Center. While his daughters worked The Nutcracker Thursday night, he was showing guests to their seats on the Kimmel’s second tier for “The Glorious Sound of Christmas” show.

Michael Messina said he took a part-time job ushering at the Academy 50 years ago to help pay for a stereo his late wife, Rosina, wanted for Christmas. And like many part-time jobs, it stuck around.

“I’ll probably keep this job until I die or can’t remember where it is,” he said

The art of ushering, Messina said, comes down to personality.

“The secret is liking people,” he said. “All my daughters are great with people.”

Usher manager Kyleigh Taylor is responsible for 187 ushers between the theaters and said being the Messinas’ boss is a breeze. She said Rita, in her ninth season, has never missed a day of work.

“I check in with them all the time when I have questions about how things should be done,” Taylor said.

While the majority of the audience is well-behaved, particularly for The Nutcracker, ushers are always on alert for talkers, photographers, crying babies, cell-phone users, and, lately, masks.

The Messinas won’t wake sleepers unless they’re snoring. The goal, they said, is to be kind, not stern.

“Especially during the pandemic, with the masks,” Susan said. “People have done so much to try to get back to normal and we want this to feel normal for them and so they understand. We haven’t had many problems at all.”

During the opening minutes of The Nutcracker, one of about two dozen the Messina sisters will work this season, they stood in the lobby with fellow ushers, waiting for late arrivals and discussing the various musicals and plays shutting down on Broadway because of COVID-19.

“God forbid,” Rita Messina said.

When a worker pushed a noisy trash can across the tiled lobby, Susan Messina pressed her body up against the theater door to seal it tightly. She didn’t want any noise to filter in and distract the audience. And just before intermission, the Messina sisters sometimes slip into the theater to see the snowflakes falling down on the Academy’s stage.

“Oh, it’s so beautiful,” Susan said. “It never gets old.”