When I first receive my schedule for the tour, I look through it and pinpoint ‘difficult’ days. Today is the first of those.
The facts are as follows: a drive from Marlborough to Logan airport in Boston for an 8.am flight. A 45 minute transfer at Charlotte airport for me and my bags. Arrive at Knoxville at 12.15, hopefully reunited with luggage, pick up a hire car and drive 45 minutes to Pigeon Forge. Sound/stage check at 1.30. Show at 3. Signing till 5. Show at 8.
In a day like this there are so many things that COULD go wrong and I almost set in motion that chain of events last night by setting my alarm clock for 5pm, not 5 am. Fortunately, very fortunately my sleeping patterns are still not quite settled down and I wake at 4.45.
Because of the early start I do not have the pleasure of the Fairfield Inn breakfast this morning, but get straight on the road. Whilst driving I’ve been listening to a strange collection of American music via my iphone: blue grass from ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, The Monkees, Louis Jordan, The Crew Cuts and the Inkspots. This morning however is much more special. I have ‘Gershwin: New York Collections’ played by Elizabeth Hayes. It is a stunning CD which I adore listening to when I drive and includes some Joplin and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. I’m also in the very fortunate situation to share my life with Liz and hearing her play is a beautiful connection to home.
The drive into Boston is easy, it is a Sunday so there is no commuter traffic filling the many tunnels that now run under the City.
I bid a sad farewell to my Chevy Suburban, my tour of duty at an end and lug my luggage (is that why it is called luggage?) into the terminal. I have time to grab an orange juice and Danish before boarding the flight.
With flights being boarded by zone numbers these days, it is always imperative to be at the front of your particular zone when it is called forward, or the chance of finding any space for carry-on bags is next to none. So there has developed a sort of ritual, a dance if you will. Let me explain: I, say, am in Zone 4 so remain seated while Zones 1 and 2 are called, but when 3 is announced I’m on my feet, scanning the crowd: who else is hovering, waiting. The queue of 3’s moves slowly, where is the end? Who is the last 3? Is the lady with the rucksack in fact a 4? If so I need to be in front of her when the announcement comes. WAIT, who’s the businessman making a fast move on the outside? No, he’s first class, running late, let him go, not our fight. The 3s are dwindling, now to circle round, stand close to the podium. The US Airways rep is picking up the Microphone, start walking, get in line, eyes front: ‘We would like to board Zone F….’ and MOVE. Blast! Rucksack has beaten me to it, but second, a silver, is good.
The whole thing is rather like the start of an ocean going yacht race, everyone trying to be first over the start line.
The morning is lovely and the view of Boston, the docks where I have arrived on cruise ships in the past and the glorious New Englad coast line is stunning. I settle down to read my book, Bill Bryson’s latest offering: ‘One Summer: America 1927” which as ever is such a good and easy read. The early morning catches up with me a bit and I drop into a fitful doze until we start our descent into Charlotte.
The plane is on time so there should be no trouble making the connection and I have time to stroll from B concourse to E through one of my favourite airports in the world. The main hub from which each concourse radiate, is a mainly glass covered atrium, with trees growing, birds flying about and white rocking chairs as seating. It’s very Southern. I’d expect the McDonalds concession to be serving McJuleps.
The second flight of the day is on a tiny jet and takes us across the Smoky Mountains to Knoxville, Tennessee. Again the view is astounding and I can only guess how it must have looked a month ago. I’ve driven in the Smoky Mountains in the Fall before and I think they give New England a run for its money.
The airport at Knoxville is gloriously small and within 15 minutes of getting off the plane, I’m getting into my next hire car: a Nissan Xtera.
The journey into Pigeon Forge is about 45 minutes, and all of the time the purple outline of the mountains sit on the horizon.
And then I am there. Pigeon Forge. How to explain it? Pigeon Forge sits on the edge of the Smoky Mountain National Park and is basically a strip in a Vegas sort of way. As you drive into the town there is a white mansion, with pillars and a portico over the main entrance. Nothing odd in that, except it is upside down. Further along is the Titanic. I mean, the Titanic! Sailing on, water splashing over the prow, iceberg firmly attached to the starboard side. On the other side of the street King Kong towers over the street, clinging onto the New York skyline with one hand, clinging onto a bi plane with the other.
Oh, and it is the location for Dollywood, the Dolly Parton Theme Park.
I love it!
I have been coming here for 4 years now (twice last year) and always enjoy returning. I admit on my first visit I was appalled, as many of you may be reading my description but there is a sense of joy here and a huge sense of friendliness. It is, after all, in Tennessee with its good ol’ southern hospitality.
I am engaged by The Incredible Christmas Place, which is a huge store selling EVERYTHING Christmas. The store grew to be so popular that the owners built a hotel across the street called The Inn at Christmas Place and that is where I will be staying and performing for the next 2 days.
I arrive at 1.30, for a 1.30 sound check.
The welcome is so warm. No, actually, that’s wrong. It’s not warm in a ‘welcome to our hotel, have a nice day’ sense. It is if I’m a member of the team here, just turning up for work. ‘Hi Gerald, great to see you! You want to drop those bags here? Kristy is downstairs, go and say hi! Anything we can do?’ However tired I may be feeling, the whole atmosphere is energising.
I go down to the lower floor where my contact here, Kristy Elder, is putting the final touches to the ‘theatre’. It is actually a breakfast room for the hotel but Kristy and her team are expert at decorating and creating Christmas scenes, so the room has been transformed. The set has a huge fireplace and mantelpiece, with a chiming clock on top. There are Christmas garlands and a lavishly decorated tree. We’ve done this 4 times before so there is nothing to be discussed or changed really and being a small room I do not need a microphone, so there is no technical stuff to be sorted either.
I have about 40 minutes to have a quick shower, get changed and then be on parade as the audience arrives.
Kristy and the team have offered some special packages to audience members who have booked early or have been to the shows before and they get to sit in the front row and are presented with signed books, my CD of A Christmas Carol, this year’s Byers Choice special edition Caroller (Nephew Fred) and some ornaments from the store. It has become a tradition over the years that I present them.
Everything in Tennessee is ‘family style’ it’s all ad hoc and friendly so we are all in the room together, chatting and bantering as the audience takes their seats. Dwight, another member of the team stands on stage and chats to the audience as they come in (he has the BEST Tennessee accent you have ever heard) and by the time the start point arrives we are all the best of friends.
The show itself is OK, but I am struggling with energy and voice, as I feared. It’s a little husky and strained which means that some of the characters are not as clearly defined as I would like them to be. Some of the females especially become squeaky. But it is very nice to do a full length, hour and 20 minute stage show, using the space, using the props, using the audience. By the end I’m fully into it, sobbing real tears for Tiny Tim and sweating profusely (I would imagine the folks in the front row will try NOT to get the special package next year!)
After the show I have a brief signing session in the main lobby, overlooked by a three story high German Glockenspiel . Because of our pre show routine, the signing session is very friendly and there are lots of nice comments about the show, which is always heartening.
After half an hour or so, I can get back to my room and have some much needed rest. I read a bit. Write a bit. Snooze a bit. And then it is 7pm, time to get into costume once more.
In the past it has been a question of sliding back into a still-damp costume for the second show but this year I am travelling with 2 identical outfits. I’ve had 2 new waistcoats made, 2 cravats. I have 2 black frock coats, 2 pairs of striped trousers. I can’t tell you how nice it was to slip into a fresh, dry costume. Actually, yes I can: Its very nice.
Downstairs and into the familiar routine again, chatting, laughing, handing our books. Banter. Dwight doing his warm up act. Kirtsy dealing with all the guests with a smile. Familiar faces from previous years. Handshakes. Hugs. Smiles.
The evening show is much better. The brief rest has done me a great deal of good and I’m much more pleased with the result. The audience is very responsive and laugh loudly and join in as Scrooge makes his journey. It is a really fun evening.
After the signing session, which is a little longer this time, I realise that I haven’t eaten anything today other than a sandwich munched in the car on the drive from the airport. The hotel doesn’t have its own on site restaurant but there is a pizza place next door, with the great name of ‘The Mellow Mushroom’. I have popped in there on many an occasion and it feels as if I’m illicitly sneaking out of a dorm at night.
I sit at the bar with a Calzone and a glass of wine and bring the curtain down on a long, tiring day which in the end worked very well. Very well indeed.