A Drive Through Pennsylvania
A superb night’s sleep. I wake for the first time at 7am. No 4 or 5am interruptions, and I feel nicely refreshed.
Breakfast at The Ambler is busy, as there had been a wedding here yesterday and all of the guests are appearing in varying states of dishevelment.
After my daily fix of orange juice, coffee, French toast and bacon, I go back to room and start to pack up for the journey to Hershey.
It is an approximately 2 hour drive to and it is a lovely route: the large shopping malls and urban sprawl are left behind and I am driving through the gently swelling arable land of central PA. Farm houses of stone, nestling beneath the shadows of grain silos. Everything here seems simple.
As I see signs for Harrisburg it begins to dawn on me that the second part of my tour very closely follows the first part of Charles Dickens’s 1842 trip. He arrived in Boston, as did I and made his way through Massachusetts, including visits to Worcester and Springfield. He made his way via Hartford and New Haven (past both of which I drove during my few days up and down i91), to New York (Hackensack, NJ for me). Then to Philadelphia (Chalfont is only an hour from Philly) before heading south to Washington DC (Occoquan on the 16 December) and further south to Richmond (Williamsburg on the 17th). After that he returned to Pennsylvania and came to Harrisburg before heading west to St Louis.
Last year I made a short documentary detailing Charles’s time in Pennsylvania and it has been airing during the last few days. Many people have commented on it and I hope that I can see it sometime.
The road stretches on through the fields and on the bridges the road names are displayed, one that catches my eye particularly is ‘West Girl Scout Road’.
I look at the time and realise that in the UK Liz is performing in a concert which is probably starting about now. I put on her CD and it lovely to hear her playing, although I wish I could be there listening to her in person.
The road signs and advertisements are now letting me know that I am nearing Hershey: ‘The Sweetest Place on Earth’. The rural landscape starts to give way to housing but still it is almost from another, simpler age. The towns are small and innocent in their appearance. Tiny chapels and meeting houses hide among the other buildings, almost apologetically.
I pass a sign that warns me: ‘BRAKE RETARDERS PROHIBITED’, which is worrying as I have no idea what a brake retarder is and if I have them fitted. I sigh with relief 2 miles further up the road when I pass a second sign: ‘END BRAKE RETARDERS PROHIBITED’. I seem to have made it through without having been arrested.
If the car windows were open I would now be able to smell the chocolate as I drive towards Hershey itself and see the beautiful hotel sitting on top of a hill overlooking the town below.
The Hotel Hershey
I have been coming to perform at the hotel for almost as long as I have been touring and it is with a lovely sense of familiarity that I check in. The lobby here is always noisy and exciting. Although Hershey is a high end hotel, it is never stuffy or too imposing. Families are checking out or looking in all of the shops which open up off the main foyer area.
I’m given my key and my bar of Hershey Chocolate and make my way to the room, where I settle in, have a coffee, get my costume sorted out and spend some time emailing.
When I get up from my seat and turn round to look out of the window I discover that everything is white. In the hour since I arrived here the snow has moved in and is falling steadily. The first snow of the season for me.
I have a sound check for my first event at 1.30, so I walk the 200 yards from my hotel room to the Fountain Lobby, where preparations are being made for tea.
The Fountain Lobby is a beautiful area in the centre of the hotel, tiled floors and walls and taking up two stories of the hotel. In the centre is, guess what? Yes, a fountain. At one end floor to ceiling windows look out onto a terrace and in front of these there is a majestic Christmas tree. For my event white linen covered tables are being laid.
On the ceiling is projected a huge image of me in front of a London skyline.
Every year at Hershey I do two events each day, one tea and one dinner show. To be honest the lobby is not the easiest venue to perform in , but the whole ambience of the room, the tree, the story, the service is something that the audiences love and come back for over and over again.
I meet up with various members of the banqueting staff and go through the timings for the day. The AV guy turns up and we do a sound check. Although it is a big space it is important not to have the volume level too high as the sound echoes and bounces off all of those hard tiles and window panes.
I come back to my room and have a brief lay down before having a revitalising shower and into costume. When I get back to the lobby the guests have arrived and do not seem to have been put off by the weather. Everyone is in good Christmas spirits.
In a room such as this there is no stage where I can perform from. The lobby is big and the fountain in the centre would get in the way, so I have to do to do the show on the move, moving around the room constantly, making sure that everyone gets a bit of it. I call it my ‘Lighthouse Show’: the story sweeping round the entire room catching each corner in its broad beam.
The advantage of moving among the tables is that I can involve people in the show to a much greater extent than usual and I spend the time before it is time to start, picking on suitable ‘victims’. A kindly older gent with a glint in his eye will be Scrooge. On the other side of the room is a candidate for Fezziwig. A young couple sat together are perfect for young Scrooge and his fiancé Belle, and so it goes on.
Sara, the banquet captain for this afternoon’s event keeps me updated on the service and at about 3.45, when the final plates with cakes (all chocolate covered, of course), are laid and the tea cups refreshed for the final time, it is time for me to start.
Unfortunately there is no one to make an introduction so I walk into the centre of the room and introduce myself.
The show here has to be slightly shorter than the standard, so once again I am trying to remember which bits to edit and which to leave out all together. While I am doing that I am also trying to be aware of where I am in the room, so as not to leave anyone feeling short changed. By the end of the show it is not just me spinning around the room, but my head is too.
Everyone enjoys it and although there is no formal signing session, as such, lots of people come up to me with menus and programmes. The tree is a perfect backdrop for photographs and people wait patiently until they can step up for a picture. It’s a bit like being Santa in his grotto.
After the guests have drifted away into the snow, I go back to my room for an hour or so, before the preparations for the dinner show begin. In the room there is a plate of cheese a rather fine looking bottle of Port sent from Brian, the general manager of the Hotel Hershey, a good friend of many years standing.
In previous years the dinner was held in the hotel’s signature dining room: The Circular Dining Room, but during the past year the room has been remodelled with a bar in the centre which means it wont work so well for my show. So this year the dinner has been moved to The Castilian room, overlooking the Fountain Lobby.
The room has been set up with a stage in the centre and tables laid out all around, so that nobody is too far from the action. Many people will have been coming to the event in previous years and it is important to maintain a sense of the Dining Room’s events, whist embracing the new space.
The stage is nice and low, so I can hop on and off it easily and involve the guests in a similar manner to the tea this afternoon.
The dinner performance is broken up into 4 sections, performed between each course of a delicious dinner. This calls for tight timing and communication between the kitchen, the banquet staff and me. Chad, the manager of tonight’s proceedings will be my stage manager and cue me at the appropriate times. We spend a few minutes going through the programme and order of events for the evening and when we are all satisfied that we know what we are doing it is time to start welcoming the guests in.
There has been a cocktail reception running in the lobby and everyone is cheerful as they file up to the Castilian Room.
I am seated, as has become tradition on my Sunday night performance, with Richard and Brenda Wyckoff and their guests, including the hotel manager, Brian and the manager at the Hershey Lodge Hotel, Frank. They are always a fun party to be with and so generous. Conversation flows easily and sometimes it is difficult to leave the table to perform the next Stave.
My introduction and first chapter start at precisely 7.35, exactly when we had planned it and the rest of the dinner runs to our schedule until we finish on the stroke of 10.
The routine of menu signing and photographs in front of the Christmas Tree is repeated until we all say our goodbyes and head our separate ways. I have a glass of wine in the bar and then remember my cheese and port in the room, so head back there to gently wind down.
I hang my costume up, and get into bed (turned down, with Hershey Kisses on the table) and soon am drifting off. I put the half finished glass of port safely out of the way before it drops from my hand, and fall into a deep sleep.