Once again I beat the 5am alarm. Shower, pack, move on. As it is too early for breakfast it will be a case of ‘another morning: another muffin’.
I load the car up and try to set my recalcitrant Sat Nav unit. It works for about half a block and then fades away again. Fortunately the Omaha airport is very close and well signposted so I don’t need electronic help today. As I near the airport the malevolent thing bursts into life once more. It tries to take me to the terminal but I need to go to the Rental Car Drop Off. It whines at me: ‘Recalculating, travel .4 miles and make a U turn.’ It is still moaning at me as I drive into the garage. It berates me as I unload the car (even though the engine is off, depriving it off any power source.) As in Knoxville the Dollar Car rental counter is not manned at this hour of the morning, so I have to leave the keys and Sat Nav in a drop off box, and as I walk away towards the check in desks I can hear a small voice calling after me: ‘Make a U Turn……Recalculating……Make a U Turn…..Recalculating……Make….’. It is a possessed thing!
I find a small cafe near my gate and write yesterday’s blog while eating my muffin and then board the small plane. The flight to Chicago is a short but turbulent one. The pilot tries many different altitudes to find some calm weather but it is never really smooth.
We touch down safely in Chicago and I’m soon in baggage claim waiting for my bags. I don’t know if other travellers do this but I always secretly hope that my bags will be first to appear on the carrousel and today, in one of the busiest airports in the world I come out 1 and 3.
I am to be met by Brendan, the son of the event organiser and sure enough there he is, clinging onto a poster with me in full Victorian garb. We are to be driven into Chicago itself by a limo sent from the hotel: The Langham. Our driver is Mike and between him and Brendan various sites are pointed out and history explained.
As we get closer to downtown I begin to feel the same thrill that I had when I went to New York City for the very first time: This is what an American City should be, it’s what I’ve seen in the movies. Every stereotype and cliché is here. Rickety water towers, metal fire escapes, tightly packed tenement buildings, soaring skyscrapers and, of course in Chicago, the raised steel railroads.
The Langham Hotel is located in the heart of downtown and from the second that the limo door is opened for me I am transported into a world of luxury. Oh, no check in at the desk opposite the front door here! I am greeted by a slim, smiling girl who escorts me to the lifts and accompanies me to the 12th floor, where I am gently ushered into the Club lounge into the care of Carlos, the butler.
My check-in takes place while I sit sipping a delicious Americano, looking toward Lake Michigan. Carlos takes me to my suite, and takes 10 minutes to show me all of the features, including a bathroom mirror which doubles as a television.The suite has a huge living room, huge bedroom, huge bathroom, with a huge bath. A walk in shower, 2 lavatories (presumably so that I don’t have to walk all the way from the living room to the bathroom) and a wonderful mini bar cabinet with a selection of different wine glasses and tumblers as well as the usual snacks and drinks. It is a different world
Would I like anything pressed? I half think of getting my costume shirts ironed but decide I need to retain some sense of reality so do them myself.
At 11.30 I get a call to say that my car is waiting to take me to Stan mansion, where I am to perform this afternoon. Mike is my driver again and he continues his tour guide spiel as we make our way through the City. His knowledge of movies filmed in Chicago is almost encyclopaedic and I must watch The Blues Brothers and The Untouchables again soon!
STAN MANSION AND THE WINDY CITY
We arrive at the Mansion and I meet Connie and Victor for the first time and what a remarkable couple they are. Connie is Italian-American, all straight talk and nervous energy. Victor, her husband is originally from Northern Ireland and is gregarious and calm, taking all of Connie’s panics and problems and gently getting them sorted.
The Stan Mansion is a hugely impressive and imposing Victorian building. It was purchased 5 years ago and now is a venue for events, especially weddings. The main hall has a small stage at one end and a balcony at the other. The room is a hive of activity, an army of set-dressers, lighting guys, sound guys and caterers creating something very special indeed. The stage itself has been draped with red crushed velvet, and to look at it you would belive it is a genuine Victorian room. As I look round the room and take in all of the people here, I get some idea as to the commitment that Connie has made to this event. Nothing has been skimped on (my hotel included). Nothing has been left to chance. No wonder she is a bundle of nerves, she has been working towards this moment for over a year.
Victor and Connie run a company called British Taste Events which brings British culture and cuisine to Chicago. This is to be their first major event. Questions come in from all quarters: Where should I sign after the show, how should the merchandise be displayed, where will people eat? Using their complementary skills Connie and Victor get it all sorted out.
My changing room is the main office for the mansion and here I meet Cera, who owns the house. I’m aware of a terrible noise outside and can’t quite work out what it is until I realise that a storm of almost biblical suddenness and intensity has hit. The rain is lashing the streets and the wind is unbelievable. There is lightning and thunder adding to the tempest.
I get changed, and watch from the balcony as the audience arrives. They are being served Smoking Bishop (a red wine based punch, mentioned in A Christmas Carol), as they arrive and the bar is doing a good trade too. I hope everyone stays awake throughout the show.
As 1 pm approaches there are still empty seats and it seems as if a few people have decided to hunker down and not risk heading out into the Storm. It would be ironic if Connie and Victor’s efforts in Chicago are stymied by The Windy City itself.
Originally the plan was to do Mr Dickens is Coming, have a long interval and then do A Christmas Carol but I seek Victor out and suggest to him that we have a shorter interval so as not to lose anyone who may be worried about the storm and leave early
After a collection of introductions my first act is Mr Dickens is Coming. Its OK but the Microphone system isn’t quite as I like it. It is a bit ‘hot’. Boomy. But after I teach myself to moderate my projection and calm my voice down, it begins to work much better.
The applause after the first show is generous and I disappear to change costume ready for the 2nd half. Meanwhile the audience are served plates of English cheeses and fruit, as well as more Smoking Bishop and wine. Watching from the balcony it doesn’t look as if we are losing anyone and indeed the storm has abated and the sun is shining again.
A Christmas Carol is very good and powerful. The room, the set and the lighting really lend to the atmosphere. I revert to type a bit and over-project again, meaning that the microphone system is too loud again so I go through the same process of reigning myself in.
‘God Bless Us, Every One. Have a very Merry Christmas’ and the show is over. The audience who have been there for well over 3 hours stand to applaud. I take my bows and rush back to the ‘dressing room’ to change out of my sodden costume.
We have set up a table on stage for the signing session, as the backdrop is so beautiful and there is a long line waiting for me when I come back down. Lots of Brits are here. A Lady from Rochester, a lady from Sutton Coldfield. There is a goodly group from the Chicago branch of the Dickens Fellowship. There is a charming family: mother, father, 2 daughters. I know that they are charming as they say lovely things about the show and have been reading the blog, so: Hello!
The line dwindles, the room is being packed up around me and all of a sudden Connie and Victor say their goodbyes and are gone. Cera and some of the staff from the mansion are still about, so I change, pack up my things and say my goodbyes. Mike, the driver from the hotel, is there waiting and takes me back to the luxury of the Langham.
As this is my final night in the USA for now, I have a lovely long, soapy, hot bath and watch the television on (in) the mirror. The news is on and for the first time I realise how awful the storms really were. Whole communities have been flattened, at least 6 dead. Sudden tornadoes whipping up without notice all through the State. Emails start coming in, checking if I’m alright, including one from Liz in England. The news has indeed spread across the globe: It has been a major catastrophe in Illinois.
After an hour or so I dress again and head down to the stylish bar where I have a delicious dinner of slow cooked lamb shank, which falls apart with the fork.
Back in the room I pack up all of my things. Tomorrow at 6am I leave the Langham, head to O’Hare airport and home to Liz in Oxfordshire.
I will be in the UK for a week and in that time I have 2 very exciting projects. I shall tell you about them in a special ‘Best of British Blog!’ For now, thank you to everyone who has made the first part of my 2013 trip so successful and thank you to everyone who has been following along here.