Saturday, November 12, 2011

St. Charles festival clips Sugar Plum Fairy's wings after she violates anti-cursing rule

This is a story about how the Sugar Plum Fairy got fired.
Laura Coppinger played the holiday sprite for six years during the Christmas Traditions festival in St. Charles. By all accounts, the 29-year-old was a popular character at the monthlong festival along historic Main Street.
"The spin that I gave to her was that I was a fairy on a sugar high," she said. "I was really loud and really over the top, and that's probably why I was the Pied Piper of children,"
Her trouble started with a drug test. Festival hiring came under the control of the city of St. Charles this year, and all city employees are required to take the test. Coppinger was told to report to a local testing facility to give a urine sample.
After she filled the cup she accidentally flushed the toilet, a no-no. Apparently, some people try to dilute their samples with the incoming water.
"I don't have to take drug tests too often," she said, 'so out of habit I flushed the toilet, and as soon as I did it I was like, oh, no."
Coppinger said the woman working at the facility dumped her sample and told her she would have to go back to the waiting room until she could supply another one.
Coppinger, who also works as a substitute teacher in the St. Louis Public Schools, said that meant she was going to miss a job interview.
"Out of frustration with myself and frustration with the fact that I was going to have to sit another hour, I cursed," she said.
Coppinger said she didn't direct her words at anyone, but she was visibly angry, and she stomped back to the waiting room and started slurping down soda and water. A short time later, the woman working the counter told her that she should go home.
"I asked her why and she said, 'I think you should call St. Charles HR about that,' " Coppinger said.
When she called the city, special events coordinator Karen Godfrey told her she had broken the Christmas Traditions code of conduct, specifically a section titled: "Christmas Characters Don't Know Naughty Words."
Coppinger protested. She told them that the section refers to her behavior while she is in costume as the Sugar Plum Fairy, not while she is in a hallway at a private drug testing facility.
"I said, 'Look, can I just apologize? I understand it was rude to curse,' " she said.
But the city told her it was too late.
St. Charles would not discuss Coppinger's dismissal. Carol Felzien, a spokeswoman for the city, provided only a statement from the city's legal department. "It is the policy of the city that personnel matters are not commented upon, including the recruitment process for prospective employees," she relayed in an email.
Coppinger hired a lawyer to ask the city to reconsider, but several emails and letters got no response.
As word of the Sugar Plum Fairy's dismissal has spread, some merchants have started to grumble.
Jim Brown, owner of Riverside Sweets, said his livelihood depends on the success of Christmas Traditions, and the Sugar Plum Fairy has been one of the big draws.
"I think it's unfortunate that the city would use an out-of-context situation, a trivial matter in my opinion, to judge somebody's job capabilities," Brown said. "Come on, who amongst us hasn't said a bad word in our lives?"
Coppinger said that over the years, she has developed the character far beyond her appearance in "The Nutcracker" ballet.
She invented a full story line and gave the fairy a mischievous streak.
"I even had this obnoxious high-pitched voice that you could hear three blocks away," she said.
Coppinger got into the role so much that she paid someone to make her a big, glittery pair of wings. And, in the spirit of Christmas, she volunteered to fix other characters' costumes and work with some of the new actors to help them perfect their roles.
Being the Sugar Plum Fairy was not a high-paying gig. This year Coppinger was going to make $13.08 an hour. Her earnings gave her enough extra cash to buy Christmas presents for friends and family. But she said that wasn't the real draw.
"I loved going back year after year and inspiring all those kids to still have magic at Christmas," she said.
Theresa Rubio, owner of Grandma's Cookies on South Main Street, said the Sugar Plum Fairy has always been professional as well as energetic.
"If anything, they should pay her double for what she's done for Christmas Traditions," she said. "This whole thing is stupid."
As for Coppinger, she said it's difficult to think about an unhappy ending for the Sugar Plum Fairy.
"I'm heartbroken," she said. "Everybody makes mistakes."

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