Fifty-two autumns ago, when Nancy McFall was 15 and her name wasn't McFall yet, she was approached by Willam F. Christensen, her dance instructor, about being Clara, the lead role in a new ballet that no one in Salt Lake City — and few anywhere in the country — had seen before.

Opening night would be Dec. 27, 1955.

Nancy said sure, she'd do it, and then watched as her mother, Lottie Gold, went door-to-door trying to hawk tickets.

"The Nutcracker" was a tougher sell back then.

After playing to half-full audiences at Kingsbury Hall during a short run of three or four performances — Nancy can't remember the exact number — Nancy lacked both the evidence and clairvoyance to realize she was standing on the doorstep of a personal and national Christmas-time tradition.

Matter of fact, she thought the first year would be the last year.

"I remember Dr. Lees telling Mr. C. that we weren't going to do it again," says Nancy.

Dr. Lees was C. Lowell Lees, the director of the fine arts department at the University of Utah and, at the time, the boss of Willam F. Christensen, aka Mr. C.

"But Mr. C. had other ideas," Nancy remembers. "He said, 'Let's add a couple more shows and do it again next year."'

Somehow, Mr. C. won out, and "The Nutcracker" lived to see another season, and another, and another ...

... to the point that this year's monthlong run at the Capitol Theatre marks the 53rd straight December the ballet has been performed in Salt Lake City.

And Nancy has been there every year.

Well, almost every year.

After performing as Clara in the first six productions, from 1955 through 1960, she married Dennis McFall and promptly became pregnant.

In 1961 she reluctantly turned the role over to someone else.

Nearly a half-century later, she still gets teary talking about it.

"I just couldn't see anyone else doing it; that was my part and my ballet," she says. "Honestly, it took me three or four years before I could go see it."

But once she did she was hooked all over again.

"It's a fantasy and a story of love," she says. "You can't stay away."

And if she couldn't turn back the clock and play Clara again, Nancy got to live out her own fantasy in 1998 when her granddaughter, Ashley Hanson, was chosen for the lead role.

Ashley is the daughter of Christy, with whom Nancy was pregnant in 1961. So the circle was complete. The pregnancy that stopped one Clara created another.

"I went to every performance," Nancy remembers, "and cried through every one."

These days, Nancy, now 67 with 15 grandchildren, continues to cry through "The Nutcracker" as she works as a volunteer usher at the Capitol Theater. She signed up for the non-paid position seven years ago because "I love to be around the theater."

If the usher guiding you to your "Nutcracker" seats is a petite grandmother who is really light on her feet — and she's crying — it's probably Nancy.

And if you want to absolutely make her day, just say "Thanks, Clara."

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.