The night was dark and cold, and the inn beckoned brightly.
Wrapped in long robes, a young couple led a donkey through the front door, startling guests in the main lobby.
“My wife is heavy with child,” the bearded man explained to the astonished proprietor.
The couple wanted to know whether a room was available.
Despite the unusual scene before him, night manager Robert Nagle somehow kept his poise.
“Just one night?” he asked nonchalantly.
“Yes,” the stranger replied, identifying himself on a guest registration form as “Joseph of Nazareth” traveling by donkey with his wife, “Mary,” from the “State of Judeo.”
“You’ve come a long way,” Nagle mused.
“Yes,” Joseph said.
“You’ll be in Room 101.”
No, it wasn’t Bethlehem. The date was Dec. 23, 1969. The setting was the Holiday Inn at 200 E. Exchange St. in Akron.
If that innkeeper had been born 2,000 years earlier, Christmas might be a lot different today.
“Joseph” and “Mary” were actually Dave Bullock and Pearly Gibson, two members of Alice’s Restaurant, an underground church on North Hill. The activist congregation, named for folk singer Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 album, was conducting a guerrilla campaign against “the commercialization of Christmas.”
Members distributed leaflets that urged Akron shoppers to spend only $2.50 for each person on their Christmas lists and donate the rest to help poor people.
“We feel it’s about time people start remembering what Christmas means and why it came to be,” Bullock told Beacon Journal reporter John DeGroot. “It is a time of Christ and love, not business and money.”
Church members conceived of the Holiday Inn stunt for its shock appeal. They expected that the costumed couple and donkey would be turned away as soon as they arrived at the front desk.
“Joseph and Mary were poor people,” Bullock said. “We wanted to show what would happen when a poor young couple, dressed like Joseph and Mary, tried to get a room nearly 2,000 years after the birth of Christ.”
This was an era of Vietnam protests, political confrontations, racial tensions and generational differences.
Surely the establishment would slam its doors on a couple who looked like hippies.
The innkeeper, who wore a three-piece suit and eyeglasses, had his reservations when he saw the donkey on a rope, but he figured “it had something to do with the Christmas season.”
“I’m a religious person,” Nagle later explained. “And I had sort of a funny feeling about the whole thing.”
Before handing over a key to Room 101, he asked the robed couple to tie up their donkey to a hitch in the parking lot, where the animal would be safe overnight.
The shock campaign worked in reverse.
“Joseph” and “Mary” were startled by the innkeeper’s generosity. Nagle didn’t know it was a stunt. He thought the couple was poor.
“I couldn’t believe it when he gave us a room,” Bullock later admitted. “He even offered to give us a free meal.”
The visitors weren’t hungry, but they were thirsty, so Nagle sent over some liquid refreshments from the Grotto Bar.
The alcohol content, if any, was not specified. However, it should be noted that Gibson wasn’t actually “heavy with child,” if any spirits flowed.
The next morning
By the light of dawn, Joseph, Mary and the donkey were gone. The manager didn’t charge them for their stay on the night before Christmas Eve.
“I knew they couldn’t pay,” Nagle later said. “I mean, a donkey is not a normal form of transportation. I figured it had something to do with it all — poverty and the Christmas season.
“Maybe I proved a point. After all, it is Christmas.”
The uplifting incident captured headlines across the nation. The following year, Nagle was invited to Holiday Inn’s national convention in Memphis, Tenn., where hotel owners applauded him and presented him with the chain’s Goodwill Award.
It wasn’t the last goodwill gesture at the Akron motel at Exchange and Grant streets. In 1984, Holiday Inn franchise owner Michael Gallucci donated the five-floor building to the University of Akron for use as a residence hall. The dorm was renamed Gallucci Hall in his honor.
In December 1969, there was room at the inn.
In an increasingly commercial world, Joseph and Mary discovered that the spirit of Christmas still shined brightly.
“It sure didn’t happen this way 2,000 years ago,” Bullock admitted.
Mark J. Price is a Beacon Journal copy editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to email@example.com.