Sunday 8 November
It is the middle of the night when my alarm goes off. 3.45 am. The house is still – not even the ghost is awake (actually I think he may be on his holidays, as I haven’t heard anything from him during my stay).
I get up and finish the process of packing, carefully folding my costumes and placing one in each case. My main suitcase feels very heavy, but I can’t imagine that I have gained too much during my three days in Ohio, other than the coffee cup that Carol gave me last night. I hope that I don’t end up having to pay for excess baggage.
When I am sure that everything is packed I go round the room a few extra times, to make sure that I haven’t left anything; it is so easy on these early morning starts to leave my pen, or cufflinks, or watch, or passport, or wash bag, or any number of things.
Satisfied that I have everything, I carry my cases downstairs trying to make as little noise as possible, and get to the car. The sky is clear and the stars twinkle brightly which is beautiful but also means the car is very icy. I start the engine and let it run for a while until the main screen has cleared. The dashboard warning says that I have 21psi in that troublesome rear left tyre, which should be ample to get me to Columbus.
The roads of course are quiet at this hour, and I flick through the radio channels, until I am rewarded with my first Christmas Station. Yes, a broadcaster out of Columbus is bringing me ‘twenty four hours of your favourite Holiday classics!’ For the first time this year I am lost in a world of Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and the rest of them.
I have written extensively on Christmas songs in the past, and I am sure I will again, but here is a question: Why no songs from any of the Christmas Carol films? WODC play ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch’ which is taken from a 1966 cartoon, but do you ever hear ‘I Like Life,’ or ‘Here Comes Mr Humbug’, or ‘One More Sleep ’till Christmas’? No, you do not! Something should be done! I hereby call for the media outlets of the world to be petitioned to correct this heinous oversight.
I make good time and pull into the parking garage at Port Columbus Airport to drop my little limping Chevy off. The airport terminal is quite busy, even at this time of the morning, but I get checked in and through security with time enough to allow me a brief breakfast, before going to the gate for boarding.
At the adjoining gate an increasingly desperate Delta Airlines agent is making announcements to the passengers waiting to go to Minneapolis: ‘we are in an oversold situation. We need 2 passengers to volunteer not to fly and are offering a $500 voucher.’ It does no good, in fact the very opposite, for a few minutes later she announces again that ‘we are in an oversold situation.’ Now, however they need 3 passengers to volunteer, and are offering £1000. People are beginning to get excited by this reverse auction and are wondering how high the bidding will go before somebody cracks. I hear talk of potential Caribbean holidays.
We never get to find out how far Delta are prepared to go as the Atlanta flight is called and we board a very modern and up to date 737.
The flight is completely full and there are the usual issues of enough space for the carry-on bags. Eventually everyone is strapped into their seats and we head for the runway.
Flight DL2583 is rather frustrating in that it flies directly over the top of Knoxville Airport, which will be my final destination later this morning. For now though I can only watch as the Smokey Mountains pass beneath me. Oh, for a parachute.
The clear skies over the mountains give way to heavy cloud over Atlanta where we execute one of the bounciest landings I can remember in a very long time.
Any layover in Atlanta inevitably involves a ride on the underground metro service that links all of the main terminals. It is a lucky day indeed if your departing flight is in the same concourse as your arriving one. I have no such luck and have to transfer from A to D. I have plenty of time however and am able to find a power outlet (surprisingly scarce in so modern an airport), which enables me to finish yesterday’s blog post.
I hit the ‘publish’ button just as the flight is boarding, so I apologise for any glaring typos or grammatical errors that may have slipped the net. The flight back to Knoxville is very short, and soon we are sweeping down over the same mountains that I had seen earlier, and making a much better landing.
Knoxville is one of my favourite little airports: it has a very friendly, southern atmosphere to it and of course it always heralds the beginning of my time in Pigeon Forge, which is a highlight of any tour.
The car rental desks are next to the baggage claim area, so I am able to sort my car out, whilst waiting for my case to appear. The parking garage is just across the street and soon I find my steed for the next few days: It is a black Jeep Compass, and I instantly love it. It is small and nimble – it reminds me of a young terrier, anxious, keen, quick and playful. Liz and I have always wanted such a dog, who would be called Eathie Burn (long story) – so my little Jeep becomes ‘Eathie’ in my mind.
Together we drive away from Knoxville and towards Pigeon Forge, Eathie yapping at the heels of the big grown-up Tennessee trucks and SUVs.
When first I came to Pigeon Forge some five years ago, I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought then (and still do now) that it was one of the strangest places in America – a mix of the most beautiful natural landscape and the most brash and modern tourist strips. However over the years I have learned what Pigeon Forge is above anything else: it is welcoming and friendly and hospitable in the most genuine of ways. Here if someone should happen to say ‘have a nice day’, it is not because they have been trained to say it, no, they say it because they genuinely want you to enjoy your day, and hope that they may play a part in that enjoyment. A very good place to visit.
Eathie and I pull up in the parking lot of The Inn at Christmas Place and I unload my bags. As soon as I walk through the front door I am greeted as an old friend by both the staff and the guests, many of who are here for my shows.
As the name suggests The Inn does Christmas all the year round and the lobby is decorated with lavishly festooned trees and glittering garlands. I mentioned yesterday that possibly I was not feeling Christmassy enough yet….well, here is the antidote to that malaise!
I have about an hour to rest in my room, before going to meet Kristy Elder and her team, all of whom I have worked closely with on every visit here. Soon we are bantering away like old colleagues, which in a way we are, and sorting out the stage for A Christmas Carol which I will be performing in a couple of hours time. Even as we chat, members of the audience are knocking on the door, asking if they can be seated. They are certainly a keen bunch here.
I go return to my room for a refreshing, revitalising shower before changing into costume. I am tired as it has been a long day already, but I am feeling ready for this performance. Last night in Cambridge showed me that everything will be fine with the show, and I can commit fully to it and not be scared by it any more. I intend to do exactly that this afternoon.
With thirty minutes to go the room is almost full. It is a small space with the seating right up to the stage, so it is very intimate and cosy with no need for any artificial amplification. As the audience waits Kristy and I hand out gifts that people who have signed up to special packages are to receive. It is always a fun job, with Kristy calling out names and me scrabbling around the room to hand the books out. Many of the guests have been here many times before and this is all part of the show. By the time I am finished, the room is happy and expectant.
The huge 2-story high mechanical glockenspiel in the hotel lobby chimes 3 o’clock and we are ready to go.
I am so happy with the show, I can’t tell you! Today, imbued with the Christmas spirit, everything seems to work: every character is rounded, every move is correct, every emotion hits the mark. My friends in the audience respond vocally and together we ride along with Scrooge and emerge, like him, in a much better frame of mind (that may be fanciful, but it seems that way to me).
The adrenaline is surging through me as I sit at a desk and meet the audience. There is plenty of signing and posing and hand shaking. Two hours after the show began, the last of the audience leave and I am able to go back to my room, where there is a magnificent basket of chocolate and goodies waiting for me, with a note from Kristy welcoming me.
I have a couple of hours down time until I have to get ready to go again, but not for another performance of A Christmas Carol. Kristy had thought it would be a nice idea to reward those guests who have booked to see both of my shows (I am performing Mr Dickens Is Coming! tomorrow), by hosting an informal meet and greet evening. Canapés have been made and laid out on a buffet table, and the room has been converted from theatre to cabaret-style seating.
As the guests arrive we chat about this and that, and it is a lovely time. After a while I get up on stage and reminisce about how I developed A Christmas Carol into what it is. I talk about my beginnings in theatre and life on the road. Questions come from the floor, which open some interesting discussions and we are soon over running the hour time slot that Kristy had set aside. Nobody seems to mind, so we keep chatting away until eventually I wrap it up at about 9.30.
What a nice evening!
I realise that I am very hungry, so quickly change back into civvies and go to a restaurant next door (The Inn at Christmas Place does not have its own restaurant) where I have a delicious pizza: a bizarre collection of toppings, featuring Thai curried chicken, and vegetables billed as ‘Thai Dyed’) and a salad.
I return to the hotel where I can reflect on a quite marvellous day.