The weather has improved no end today. There is still snow on the ground but it is a bright morning, the sort of morning where everything seems to be more vivid, more real.
After breakfast I get to my room, pack everything up (and STILL I haven’t left anything behind so far this tour: it is a miracle) and leave the room. As I pick my cases up I’m suddenly aware of a twinge in my lower back. I desperately hope that it doesn’t develop into anything more serious that may compromise any of the shows.
As I‘m in the lobby I see one of the drivers who has been at the hotel for years and it makes me think about my visits here in the early days of touring. In those days the tour was coast to coast and almost every day involved flying to another City. I don’t think my agent at that time trusted me with a car or a schedule, as I hardly got to drive myself anywhere.
A day would generally start at around 4.30/5.00 with a trip to an airport, then an early flight to one of the big hubs, then a layover before getting another flight to wherever I was due to perform. Off the plane at maybe 12, straight to a venue, perform, sign, perform, sign, perform and sign. Yes, I used to do three shows in a day sometimes. It was hectic and exhausting. One delayed flight or missing bag would throw the whole tour into mayhem and often I travelled in my costume as there would not be time to change before a show at the other end.
Hershey always seemed to be an early start and the driver would have his car warming up at 5 o’ clock for me. As I look at him today at 9.00am I think how glad I am that these days things are so much more relaxed.
I leave the lobby and say my quiet goodbyes to Hershey once more and load up the salt stained Jeep.
Today I am driving into the north of Pennsylvania to the town of Lewisburg and specifically to the Country Cupboard Country store and restaurant.
My route takes me through the Susquehanna valley and most of the drive is along the banks of the river itself. It is one of America’s forgotten rivers I think, for it is so beautiful. The crisp morning light show it off to its best effect and the views all the way are stunning.
The innocence of the landscape that I noticed driving through Eastern Pennsylvania has gone and the roadside architecture is rougher, peeling and downbeat. Innocent it is not. We are getting into hunting territory and this is Guy Country. Almost every other store is an Adult Store, and the ones in between are beer barns, firework stores, trading posts and motels where even Norman Bates would be nervous.
Billboards advertise gun stores proliferate. On the road saloon cars are rare, whilst huge trucks are prevalent: my little Jeep seems rather effeminate in their company.
After an hour and three quarters on the road I start to approach the town of Lewisburg which dates back to 1784. It is a small town with a population of under 10,000 and boasts a University as part of it’s attractions.
On the outskirts of the town just off the main highway, is a sprawling single story building that houses the many facets of The Country Cupboard Country Store. The store is made up of a large gift shop selling anything from Christmas decorations to clothes, shawls, table cloths, jewellery, ornaments, cookies, candy and hundreds of other goods. The range is tasteful and well selected. The other end of the business is a 750 seat restaurant that serves good plain country food.
Alongside the main building are 2 hotels. The store has become a destination in its own right and much of the business comes from coach tours stopping in. I am due to stay in the Best Western as I have for my previous 2 visits here.
I am welcomed back warmly and even though it is only 10 o’clock, my room is ready and waiting for me. Room 263, where I always stay.
263 is gorgeous. Large, with a remote controlled fire place and a large Jacuzzi bath, what a shame that I’m only going to be here for less than 24 hours! My immediate concern is, of course, laundry. I get a large load of costume shirts into the machine before settling in.
My sound check is at 11.30 and I stroll over to the main building to meet up with my contact here, Missy. The room is laid out with tables so that there is not an inch of space. A stage at one side is flanked by 2 beautiful Christmas Trees. Waitresses are busy laying the tables and preparing the room. Apparently the audience are already standing in line waiting to come in.
Even though this is only my 3rd year here it seems as if the visit is much more established, we all fall into very easy banter like old friends. I get back to the room and sort out the laundry.
The very cold weather is creating a very dry atmosphere and this has two effects on me. Firstly my throat dries out very quickly and I need to drink lots of water. I’ve had troubles with my voice here in the past. The second effect is that a huge amount of static electricity is created and every time I touch a door handle I get a jolt of electricity arcing through my hand. It’s quite alarming.
I get ready for the show, gingerly open the door: JOLT! Back to the hall, gingerly open the door: JOLT! The audience are in now. Oh, my, are they in? Packed In.
Here the crowd is served lunch before the show, well, actually, they serve themselves from the sumptuous buffet on offer. I stand at the back of the hall watching them all coming and going, and enviously eye the tender prime rib carvery, looked after by Roy.
I chat to Missy, and drink lots of bottled water. On the stage KJ, a singer with a guitar is setting up to sing carols and Christmas songs and soon the audience is joining in with her and getting into the spirit of things.
At 1.30 the manager of the store, Steve, gets up and makes my introduction. The stage is lovely, not too high, but with plenty of space to perform. Lighting comes from a series of 6 footlights, so the effect is very Victorian with my face being lit up from underneath.
The show goes extremely well, although with the proximity of those footlights it is certainly hot work and I am dripping even before Marley makes his entrance. Many of the crowd have been to my shows before and know the correct responses so it is great fun.
It all ends with a lovely ovation before Missy whisks me off into the kitchens. She grabs me handfuls of paper towels and bottles of water, and I take a few minutes just to calm down a bit, before we make our way back into the store and to my signing table. Our route through the ‘backstage’ area means we get to the signing table in the store before any of the audience although one particularly keen group are hard on my heels, chasing me down.
The signing line is interesting. The table is a long way from the hall, which puts some people off so the queue isn’t very long, except that it stays the same length, without diminishing for about 45 minutes. People gradually join the back of it in a very unhurried sort of way.
When finally it subsides I go back to the room, hang the damp costume pieces up to air and change back into my normal clothes before joining Missy in the restaurant where at last I can enjoy slices of that delicious beef. I keep drinking water as well as tea and honey to try and keep my throat in shape for the second performance but I can feel it tightening a little already.
Back in my room I don’t do very much, just watch some television and lay on the bed where I doze off briefly and all too soon it is time to get ready for the evening show. Shower, costume, door: JOLT! I am glad I have remembered to turn the microphone off, or the most un-Victorian oaths that I am uttering would be broadcast to the shocked second audience.
The room is just as packed but more reserved. It is the same phenomenon that we have noticed at Byers Choice over the years, the evening audience are always quieter, a harder group to get going. KJ is noticing it on the stage, struggling to get them to join in with her songs.
Steve makes my introduction and welcomes me to the stage and we are off once more.
It is certainly a difficult show. My voice is tight and I’m desperately trying not to over compensate which will only make things worse. I am also trying hard to get responses from the audience and I have to have the same discipline in that aspect of the performance too: don’t overdo it. The sound system is a little ‘fluffy’. Little things just conspiring to make life awkward.
As the story continues, the audience comes alive and I relax meaning we all reach a happy conclusion together and they all fill in the last line: ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’ and applaud loudly. Back into the kitchens chaperoned by Missy and towelling down before making our way to the signing table again.
The short but never ending queue syndrome is repeated and I sign for almost an hour. When the last people have gone and I have signed the inevitable box of product for the shop itself, it is time to wind down. I almost forget my top hat and cane which are behind the signing area and I almost forget my scarf which is still on stage, but I don’t.
Into the hotel, JOLT. Into my room, JOLT. Get out of costume and then over to a grill behind the hotel where Missy and Steve have arranged to pay for my supper, which is very generous of them.
I sit at the bar and order a plate of chicken tenders and munch slowly away at them watching the huge array of sports being shown on big screens around the restaurant. The boxing is particularly amazing. Boxing on ice: oh, no, it is Ice Hockey, my mistake.
I finish up and get back to my room at about 10 and get straight to bed. Tomorrow I have an early-ish start to drive to Delaware and two more shows.
It is a fun but strange life, just dipping into to a community of people, working closely with them, forging friendships with them, hopefully creating some special memories for the audiences together. But then, within 24 hours, it is over and I’m off to meet and work with new people, new friendships, more memories. A truly transient life for 2 months.
But now, in 263 with a fireplace, I sleep.