As 5am wake ups seem to be the norm at the moment, this morning is a normal one. The early start gives me plenty of time to finish off yesterday’s blog, upload the photos and get it posted before having breakfast which is a simple continental affair in my room.
I have an exhausting shower (it is so powerful in this spacious bathroom, that it completely knocks the wind out of you) and then carefully pack all of my things, making sure that I’m not leaving anything anywhere.
Even at this hour of the day there are people playing the slots and provocatively dressed waitresses are gliding among the rows of machines ferrying drinks orders to the gamers.
However beautiful and friendly The Borgata is, one thing I won’t miss is the tobacco scented gaming floor which is the hub from which everything else radiates.
I trail my bags through the hotel and to the car park, before loading up the Jeep and setting my SatNav for Burlington NJ. The weather is foggy, wet and cold but being a Sunday morning the roads are relatively clear and the drive uneventful and unmemorable.
As I get closer to Burlington which is situated on the southern side of Philadelphia, it is noticeable that the snow is still laying much more thickly here and the sidewalks look icy and dangerous. The road’s, however, have been well treated and are completely clear
Even though it is only 9.30 I go to my hotel to check in and there is a room available for me, which is wonderful. I also have time to do one load of laundry before I need to drive into Burlington itself to get ready for the first of two shows today.
On the door next to mine is taped a little card, with a picture of a rather past-middle aged couple scantily dressed. ‘For fun, call us’ and then there are 2 cell numbers and an email contact. I hope that they are checking out today, or I may have trouble sleeping tonight.
With laundry completed and coffee drunk I get into the car and make my way towards Burlington.
My venue, as it has been for many years, is the Broad Street United Methodist Church, an impressive historic building in the very centre of downtown Burlington. I have to circle the Church a couple of times to find a parking space, which is odd as in the past I’ve just been able to pull up outside until I realise that it is 11.30am on a Sunday morning, of course it is going to be busy.
I am flowing against the tide as I carry my costume bag and top hat into the Church. Everyone is happy and smiling and among friends. The main sanctuary of the Church is a lovely, open well lit space, with a balcony above. I have always found it a most welcoming place as well as a beautiful venue to perform in.
Busy on stage is Laura Jaskot, moving a chair, table and stool into place ready for my show. Helping her is her husband Joe, Marcia and her husband Bob who have formed my ‘team’ over the years here. We all greet each other like the old friends that we are and continue to make preparations.
Once I am in my dressing room, Marcia appears with a tray laid with a teapot and a plate of cookies, she even bobs a little curtsey! On the plate are M&M, raisin, choc chip and plain cookies. These are welcome and I munch happily whilst reflecting upon how different my preparations are to my great great grandfathers. I am indebted to my brother Ian for forwarding the following information about CD’s dressing room fare:
‘2 tablespoons of rum mixed with cream, a pint of champagne, sherry with a raw egg beaten in, a cup of beef tea and soup to end the day.’
Beneath the main church there is a large room, which is laid out with tables for refreshments after the show. An army of volunteers are folding programmes, plating up cakes, cookies and other delights, making soup, tea and coffee. It really is a community effort here.
Laura has been eagerly following my blog over the last few weeks, so is keen to let everyone know about it. My cards are going to handed out with every programme.
In my dressing room there are shelves containing tins and jars of foodstuff ready to be distributed. On the peanut butter shelf four jars are lined up looking as if they are auditioning to become new members of Snow White’s dwarfs: Skippy, Creamy, Jif and Crunchy.
As 1 o’clock approaches the audience are piling in and a good crowd it is too. When we are ready to go, Laura steps onto the stage to make her introductory remarks. Unfortunately she gets a bit tongue tied whilst attempting to caution people to move quietly if they have to go to the restroom. What she means to point out is that it is an old building and it creaks a lot, which may disturb other audience members, what she actually says is: ‘If you do need to use the bathroom, remember that this is an old building and everyone can hear everything!’ After that warning I’m sure that nobody will move and will suffer with legs crossed until the show is over.
The show is lovely. Throughout the tours I always try and give myself new little challenges, for instance making Marley more dead was one such a few days ago. Sometimes I make wholesale changes to a scene and sometimes I just try and achieve something small, something that probably only I would notice. It helps keep the show fresh to do this. Today I decide that in the very brief moment when Scrooge is standing at Marley’s graveside he must be recognisably seven years younger than he is during the rest of the show. It’s slightly OCD, I know, but it keeps my brain active and focussed.
This afternoon’s audience is a great mix of those who have seen the show multiple times and plenty of first timers, which is always fun. There is a sense of initiation from the experienced club members and they laugh knowingly as the newbies are pulled into the story. The set up of the Church allows me some moments in among the audience and they all play their parts to the full. The show finishes triumphantly and we all move downstairs.
By the time I have changed costumes there is already a very long queue waiting for me. At the head of it, by my table is Laura’s mother who keeps the line moving and takes pictures when required. On the table is another lovely tray of tea and cookies.
The signing line goes on for a long time. Lots of audience members are sat at tables enjoying the refreshments laid on and as they see the queue shortening, grab their books and join on the end. I am beginning to feel tired but everyone is so friendly and enthusiastic that it is a pleasure to meet them all.
At one point the wailing sirens and clanging bells of a fire truck are heard in the streets and everyone rushes to the window to stare but this is no case of morbid fascination about some disaster or other, no, today Santa Claus is being driven throughout the streets of downtown Burlington by the Fire Department.
Eventually I am able to get back to the dressing room and change. As has become tradition a group of us go to dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant around the corner from the Church, Francesco’s. I have a lovely bowl of pasta and the conversation is bright and cheerful. During our dinner Santa wails and clangs his way past us again. The streets are deserted and it must be a rather strange feeling for him up there waving to nobody. I think back to Santa Mike at The Borgata and his descriptions of his various bookings.
During dinner Laura is fending off compliments about her organisation of these events and it is a massive undertaking on her part. Brushing off the praise she says, ‘what do I do? I have lots of volunteers, they come to me and ask me what to do. I tell them find something that’s not being done and do it!’ her husband Joe, with quiet and impeccable timing responds: ‘It’s the same at home.’
Seriously, Laura does do an amazing job for the Church.
After dinner we all troop back along the icy sidewalks to the Church. I see that there is now plenty of parking and decide to fetch my car and bring it closer. Laura shows me where there is a parking lot immediately behind the Church and waits until I pull up. As an avid reader of the blog she is pleased to be introduced to Manx, the Jeep.
We now have almost 2 hours before the next show and I gratefully lay on the sofa and have a nap. I am roused from it at 6.20 by Marcia bringing me a fresh tray of tea. It really is most civilised.
The evening audience is much smaller. The weather is icy and it is a work morning tomorrow so only about 70 have braved it. However every one of them deserves as good a show as I can give them, so any thoughts of fatigue are banished and I get myself into the right frame of mind to give 100% once more.
During the show something happens that I have been waiting for 6 years for. Outside the Church is a tram line and as the trams rattle along they sound a bell of warning. For the very first time in 6 years the timing is perfect:
‘As he watched, this bell slowly began to swing and so did every bell in the house…’ bang on cue a tram rumbles passed bells jangling. Everybody hears it and laughs.
I am so pleased with this evening show. With a small audience it could drift into an unmemorable and disappointing performance, but I keep the energy up and work hard, as does the audience. It is less theatrical than say the massive spaces of the Borgata or even of this afternoon’s show. It is more like storytelling and as my first memory of A Christmas Carol is of it being read to me in bed on Christmas Eve, it’s a rather nice atmosphere in the room.
There is no standing ovation, but that doesn’t matter. I know that I have done a good job and that the audience has loved it. This is borne out in the signing room where the conversation and chat is even more animated than this afternoon. One lady very kindly gives me a copy of an amazing Christmas Carol popup book, signed by her and her family. ‘You have been so kind signing everything for us in the past we wanted to give you something from us.’ Very very special.
After changing and gathering up my belongings I say good bye to everyone and head back to my hotel, where exhausted by the day’s efforts I get straight to bed (the card has gone from room 151, so hopefully my seep will be uninterrupted).
There cannot be two more contrasting venues than the glitz, bright lights and razzmatazz of The Borgata and the gentle quiet Church community of Broad Street United Methodist, yet they nestle alongside each other on my itinerary and both have provided me with unforgettable memories.