Upon waking my first job to pack Top Hole away: all of that work and now the show is getting shipped back to England.

Kathy has generously said that she will pack all of the costume and props, as well as a few other things that I don’t need on the road anymore, and get them sent.  I am to leave this box of goodies at the front desk and Brenda, the festival’s treasurer, will pick them up later this morning.

I write my blog, and post a few pictures online.  My brother Ian has nominated me for the black and white photograph challenge, which means posting a monochrome picture every day for five days.

I’ve decided to post pictures from the trip, so I need to look out for suitable subjects over the next few days.

Outside, the weather has changed and there is a strong wind whipping round.  The sky is filled with dust from the arid country, and there are palm fronds lying in the streets.

I am moving slowly as I feel very tired, achy and fatigued after an intense two days of performing here.  In truth the thought of performing again today doesn’t appeal but I know I need to motivate myself to do a good job.

I know nothing about the next venue but hope that it provides some sort of spark: a small audience in a non-descript room will not cut it today!

I get everything packed up and make a couple of trips to the car before having my breakfast and checking in for my early flight tomorrow morning.  I am due to fly out of Los Angeles on Spirit Air.  Spirit is a very low budget airline that makes you pay for everything, even a normal sized carry-on bag, so I have to be very careful to do everything by the book, and not incur extra charges.

As I get ready to leave a lady calls my name, I do not recognise the petite, blonde woman in blue jeans and a khaki denim jacket, until I suddenly realise it is Queen Victoria!  We chat about the shows and say our goodbyes.

I set my Sat Nav for Newport Beach and I am on my way.

The drive is extraordinary: the wind is so strong that I can hear the car’s body being shot blasted by the dust storms and can feel it coming through the air con system (and into my throat – I close all of the air vents).

On the road there is tumbleweed being blown across the carriageways.  There have been professional moments when metaphoric tumbleweed seems to have rolled across the stage but I’ve never seen it for real before.

The road takes me through the mountains and the terrain is wild and stark.  I can imagine the cowboys of the Spaghetti Westerns riding through these hills.

The Wild West

The Wild West

Today’s venue is Roger’s Gardens in Newport Beach.  I arrive a full hour early.  My initial perception is that it is nothing more than a large garden centre and my heart rather sinks.

A few years ago I performed at a similarly large, busy venue and the shows were always just an added on event in the massive scheme of things.  The audiences were never large and I never enjoyed it.

Here I fear may be the same and in my tired state it is the last thing I need.

I decide to drive the fifteen minutes to my hotel in the hope that I can get an early check in and lie down for a little bit.

I am lucky and have forty minutes or so relaxing in a comfortable room, before heading back to Rogers Gardens.

In a small shopping mall next to the hotel there is a formal clothes hire shop, with a wonderful name: Friar Tux.

Another thing that attracts my notice is the tree lined central reservation.  The trees are going golden and red.  Somehow I never expected to see fall colours in California.

The car park at Rogers Gardens is very full now, but I find a space and take my costumes and props from the boot of the car.

I have no idea who I am meeting or where to go, so I just walk into the midst of bedding plants, hanging baskets and all of the other flora and fauna you would expect to find in such an establishment.

Almost at once I see a notice board advertising forthcoming events and I notice that my good friends, and event sponsors from Massachusettes, the Vallencourts are here today.  What a coincidence, it will be wonderful to see them.

I am standing at the top of a steep slope and as I look around I notice at the foot of the hill there is a rug, a chair, a stool and a hat stand. How strange: those are the props for my show.  I assume they are waiting there to be collected and taken to my venue.

Then it begins to dawn on me for the first time:  the slope is covered with benches; there are stage lights being rigged up; the props are framed by poinsettias and Christmas trees.  Good grief: I am performing outside!

The stage

The stage

Under Californian skies

Under Californian skies

Back in Riverside I had wished for something extra from today’s venue but I not expected this.

As I am taking all of this in, a tall smiling man welcomes me and introduces himself as Michael.  He asks if everything looks ok and then is on a small radio, letting lots of unseen people know that I have arrived.

Within minutes I am meeting Karen, who has been assigned to look after me for the day and getting me whatever I need; and Hedda who is ‘in charge of Christmas’ and has booked me to be here.  When Hedda introduces herself it turns out that she is from England too, and her parents live in Henley-on-Thames, about 20 miles from us.

The AV guys are setting up the sound system and there is lots of ‘ONE, ONE, ONE. ONE TWO, ONE TWO. ONE, ONE’ going on.

Karen takes me to an admin building and shows my dressing room, a rather elegant board room with lovely paintings in it.  She fusses over me checking constantly if I have everything I need.

I go back to the stage area to do a sound check.  The microphone that I am given is the sort that sit on top of your ear.  I know from experience that they always fall off but in the current circumstances there is really no choice, as a normal lapel mic will do nothing but pick up the strong wind, which is still blowing.

All I can do is tape the microphone to my temple and hope for the best.

Back in my board room I am just getting ready to change when the President of Rogers Gardens comes to say hello.  Everyone is very excited about my being there and about the show.  We chat for a while and then he leaves me to complete my preparations.

It turns out that they have never staged a theatrical event in the amphitheatre before.  They have used the space for gardening demonstrations and lectures but have never charged the public to attend a show.  The success of ticket sales has been amazing and Hedda is already talking about next year.

The audience are so keen that they were already lining up at the check in table, when I first arrived ninety minutes before the start time.

As the clock ticks round towards one, Karen escorts me to the back of the stage (a large box hedge) and we wait as Hedda makes the introductions.

I walk onto the stage and look at the audience looking at me.  They don’t know what to expect from this show, which is a coincidence as neither do I.

There sound system is very good so there are no issues about having to project harder for an outside performance, but there are a few practical issues I must attend to.  The stage is at ground level and the audience are above me, so I must keep my head up as much as possible:  unfortunately the harsh Californian sun is right behind the auditorium and shining into my eyes, making me squint.

The show goes well and the audience soon get into the spirit of it.  I am working hard and trying to keep the microphone hooked over my ear.  The tape peels off early in the show and, as I had suspected, my lobe is not enough to hold it in place.  I think it must be the case that I don’t have theatrical lobes.

I can feel myself getting hot and suddenly realise that it is more than just the energy of the performance: I am getting sunburned.  If I come back again I must remember to specify sun screen as a rider to my contract.

When I finish and have taken the applause I run back to the board room to change costume and then go to my signing table, which is in a small bandstand (originally from Disneyland).

Near to my chair and table there is a wonderful Christmas display, featuring models of Mr Pickwick, Mr Micawber and a shocked lady (Mrs Bardell?).  There had been more of the figures on stage and Hedda explains that they had originally been part of a Harrods window display in the 1940s.

Harrods figures

Harrods figures

There is a large line waiting for me and everyone is so enthusiastic about the show.  Many comment on how red the top of my head has gone.

One very kind gentleman tells me that he has watched Patrick Stewart’s one man version of A Christmas Carol on many occasions and much prefers mine, for the way I involve the audience in the story.  He is the second person in the last few days to compare me favourably to Stewart’s show and it makes me feel very good.

Hedda has underestimated how popular book sales are at my shows and her entire stock sells out very quickly.  One lady has purchased 15 copies as gifts for all of the teachers at her school.  As I sign for her, the goodwill engendered by the show, is beginning to wear thin further back in the queue.

When everything has been signed and I have smiled for many photographs, it is time for a bit of rest.  Karen brings me cookies, coffee and water.  I sit in the board room trying to relax.

The sound man pops his head in and we try to find a better solution for keeping the mic in place.

I feel very weary now and I really miss having an energising shower before getting ready for the second show.  I’m aware that the top of my head is glowing and that my throat is a bit tense.  I must be careful not to overdo the vocals tonight.

The second show is at 5, after sunset, and the gardens are looking spectacular with every tree draped with hundreds of white lights.

Christmas lights

Christmas lights

The temperature has dropped noticeably and I hope that the audience is well wrapped up.  I consider wearing my thick scarf throughout the whole performance.  I certainly won’t be taking my coat off and flinging it into the audience.

As start time nears Karen takes me back to the stage, Hedda makes her announcement.  As she does, I spot Gary and Judy Vallencourt sitting nearby, so I go and give them a hug of welcome.

‘Please welcome Gerald Charles Dickens!’

The performing area i well lit by the spotlights, and with the thousands of Christmas lights surrounding us, the atmosphere is amazing.  Unfortunately the Rogers Gardens electrical system is struggling to cope with the extra strain put on it.  One bank of theatre lights trip the circuit-breakers and for most of the show only the other set is working.

Again the audience start quiet, unsure of what to expect but soon come round and it is another great success.

There is one moment when I am completely stopped in my tracks:  one of the Harrods figures on stage – a small boy – has the face of my nephew Guy when he was about seven years old.  It is uncanny!

Back in my gazebo and the signing session goes well again, until the last guests leave and it is just Karen, Hedda and me.

It has been a remarkable day, and against all expectations, I have thoroughly enjoyed it.  The staff at Rogers have been professional, enthusiastic, helpful and completely charming.  The experience of performing in the open air has been amazing and especially under the night sky.

It has been the first time for all of us, and we have all learned lessons from the day, but it has certainly proved very popular with the audiences.

I get changed and pack all of my belongings up.  I thank Karen for her superb attentiveness throughout the day and load my car up.

Hedda has reservations at a nearby restaurant and has invited me to join her and the Vallencourts, which I am very happy to do.

The dinner is so much fun, and so relaxing.  It is truly wonderful to catch up with Gary and Judy.  In July this year Gary had a major heart attack and has undergone surgery since, but he is still his ebullient, loud, fun, boisterous self and Judy is still raising her eyes to the Heavens every time he speaks.  They are good friends and I am so glad we have time together.

At the end of the evening we all say our goodbyes and Hedda promises that she will be in touch with Byers Choice first thing in the morning to try and get me back for next year.  It looks as if there may be a West Coast swing to my tours in the future.

Back at the hotel I join Gary and Judy for a nightcap, before we all go to our rooms.  It is another early start in the morning and I set the alarm for 4.45, before turning the lights out and lying down to sleep.

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