Saturday 14 November
My night has been broken and restless, as I’ve been trying to find a position, and an arrangement of pillows, that will ease the continuing spasms in my lower back. I really doubt that I will be able to do the shows today, or at the very best I will have to sit in a chair and just recite, which will be disappointing for everyone involved.
Having written the blog, propped up and surrounded by pillows like an elderly man in his hospital ward, I start the lengthy process of getting up to make coffee, and am slightly surprised that I am able to move with less difficulty than I’d imagined. Maybe things won’t be quite so bad after all.
I stand in my room and tentatively begin a series of stretching exercises, keeping my back straight at all times. It works, and soon those big muscles that were threatening to lock are becoming mobile once more.
I run another hot bath, and follow it up with a shower, directing the powerful jet to my back. When I emerge I am feeling human again!
I go to breakfast. The hotel is built around a lovely courtyard, with a fountain in the middle. The sky is Californian blue, and the morning temperatures are already warm. The idyllic surroundings are slightly spoiled by the smell of aviation fuel, from planes departing the nearby John Wayne Airport.
That said, the courtyard is a lovely place to sit with an orange juice and coffee, just relaxing (I believe the term in these parts is ‘chilling’; I am British, however and must preserve the high standards of our mother tongue)
Worries about my ability to perform subsiding, I need to prepare for the day ahead, so iron shirts for two shows and makes sure that everything is packed in my little roller-bag.
I do some research and find that there is a CVS Pharmacy just a mile from the hotel. I pick up all of my costume and go to the car park, where my unloved silver Hyundai Sonata is patiently waiting for me.
Alright, I was rather mean about it yesterday and as I look at it again, I realise that it is a sleek model, not unlike a Mercedes in shape. I silently apologise and we vow to start on a new footing today.
At CVS I scour the shelves and purchase pain killers expressly targeted at the back region, a pack of medicated, adhesive heat pads and some sun block.
My performances at Rogers Gardens are in an open-air amphitheatre and re-reading last year’s blog reminded me that I got terribly red, so the sun block is an essential part of my preparations.
It is still far too early to go to the venue, so I decide to do a little exploring. I scroll through the points of interest on the satnav unit I find ‘Balboa Island Pier’. I maybe a bit slow sometimes, but I am guessing that Balboa Island Pier may – just possibly – be near the ocean.
I follow the directions and am soon driving slowly through the small community of Balboa. The main street is narrow and crowded and lined with two story wooden houses. There are plenty of juice bars and everyone looks so, well, Californian. Most of the crowd is in brightly-coloured lycra – their bronzed skin glistening as they run, or power-walk. A few grizzled relics from the 60s, with various shark-toothed necklaces, pass the time of day with each other. This really could be a set in nearby Hollywood!
I drive until I can go no further, and then I walk along the edge of the sea relishing every sight, smell and sensation: Balboa is a seafront community, with each house having its own jetty. The size and opulence of the craft moored there tells its own story as to the wealth of the owner.
Across the sound (presumably from the island itself, which is serviced by a small ferry), come the strains of a tuba being played.
The water is full of people Kayaking, and paddling surfboards. A few little motorboats buzz here and there. A stately pelican stands on a wooden post and watches it all go by.
The sky is blue and the palm trees are vivid green against it. As I stand looking at this gentle scene, I remember that despite the events of yesterday the world is essentially a good place, a peaceful, friendly place and no minority will ever take that from us.
I leave Balboa in a very positive frame of mind, and ready for the day’s events.
Rogers Gardens is basically a nursery, but on a grand scale. The car park is already full but I find a spot near the back gate, which is where my actual venue is situated. As soon as I enter, members of staff are welcoming me back, and a series of radio messages sees me handed over to Theresa who is in charge of looking after me during the next two days. She has been labelled my ‘handler’.
We go to a building, containing some of the administrative offices, which is to double up as my dressing room and green room. I am shown into a board room, and Theresa fetches me a coffee. There is a box of books on the table that need signing for a group attending the first show, so I get down to that, while we talk.
As it is still early, I decide to sneak around the garden centre incognito and take a few pictures, but almost as soon as I emerge into the sunlight I am greeted by Hedda, who is responsible for booking me. Hedda is a Brit, and is in charge of ‘Holiday Buying’ for Rogers Gardens. Last year she put a toe in the water by booking me for a single day, to see what the public’s reaction was: the result was two sell-out shows, so this year she has doubled my stay.
We walk to the little amphitheatre, where the set has already been laid out in front of the large box hedge backdrop. The technical guy is testing the twin bars of LED theatre lights, and has three microphones to chose from. Between us we settle on a head mic, that you wear like a pair of back-to-front spectacles. It’s a bit Madonna (or Brittney Spears – depending on your generation), but it will do the job, without falling off.
With our sound check completed I carry on with my tour of the gardens, admiring the amazing displays. In a room dedicated to Christmas I get my first glimpse of the Byers Choice carollers proudly on show. As ever, when I see the carollers, I feel an immense sense of pride in what Joyce, Bob and the family have achieved.
For those of you who are unaware, Byers Choice manages and promotes my tours in America. I have been working with them for over ten years and they are the kindest and most professional people you could wish to meet. I was fortunate to be introduced to them all of those years ago and our entire relationship –professional and personal – is thanks to these figures looking back at me from a Christmas display in California.
Time is moving on, so I go back to the office and change ready for the first show. I take my pain killers, and affix the heat pad to my back (like I need extra heat, the temperatures are nudging the high seventies outside). I liberally apply the sun cream to the expanses of my forehead and then sit to relax and wait.
Theresa is hovering, with ten minutes to go before the show we decide to walk up to the theatre. On stage a quartet of carol singers are entertaining the crowd, and I take pleasure in the fact that they are also in heavy woollen Victorian coats and scarves – at least I am not the only one suffering: comrades!
The carollers finish and Hedda makes her introductory remarks, finishing with: ‘and now relax and enjoy A Christmas Carol.’ That should be the cue for my music to start, but there is a glitch in the system and there is a rather unprofessional pause, followed by some electronic static, and finally the tolling bells come in. I walk through the centre of the audience, and begin the show.
It is a strange feeling being in the open air, and seeing the audience so close, and so plainly. Real life goes on around us: a nearby display of wind chimes add their own soundtrack to Victorian London. A baby cries out, at the very moment that the Ghost of Christmas Present brings forth ignorance and want. It is as if the whole nursery is joining in with the show.
The heat isn’t quite as bad as id expected, as Hedda had arranged for a series of well-placed giant umbrellas to provide some shade (last year the sun was directly in my eyes, and made things difficult: the folks at Rogers are good at learning lessons). Even my back seems to be playing along…until…I jump up into the air as Fezziwig: as I land I can feel all of those lower muscles cry out in protest. For the remainder of the show, I am a little more careful.
It is great fun and the audience respond fantastically and when I finish they are all standing (maybe out of relief, those seats can’t be comfortable!) and cheering.
Theresa escorts me back to the office, where I have 15 minutes to towel down and change, before making my way back to a signing session, where there is a line of people waiting for me. Hedda has set up a table and chair for me in one of the display areas, which will be Santa’s base in a few days time. The people are very kind and complimentary, and lots of pictures are taken.
After the signing has finished, I go back to the office, change out of my costume and make the most of the two hour break before my early-evening show at 5.
I drink some coffee, play backgammon on my phone, read a book on my Kindle, lay flat on the floor to ease my back muscles again.
And soon it is 4pm, and the process of preparation begins again. More painkillers, another hot patch, new shirt. Make sure watch is transferred from the other waistcoat, Victorian penny in pocket. New batteries in microphone, cravat properly tied. New cartridge in fountain pen ready for the signing session. Shoes double knotted, check coat collar turned down properly.
As Theresa escorts me to the top of the amphitheatre the sun has just set, but the sky still has a light blue tinge to it, and the moon is the smallest sliver you can imagine. The carollers are performing again, this time grateful for their scarves and the audience is appreciatively clapping each song, which is always a good sign.
Hedda takes to the stage, gives the cue and this time the sound effect comes in bang on time. The musical intro lasts for exactly the amount of time it takes me to walk down the steps, which is a happy coincidence.
Again the show is great fun and made more even more magical by the gathering night. All of the trees in the nursery are festooned with white lights, and the whole setting is simply amazing.
I make sure NOT to leap into the air as Fezziwig tonight, and enjoy a pain-free show, which is a huge relief, considering that this morning I was having doubts as to my ability to do it at all.
The only problem I have is when I fling my top hat high into the air as ‘Scrooge got dressed all in his best.’ Black hat, black sky and I have no idea where it has gone: fortunately it returns to my groping hands successfully.
The show finishes and again the audience stand, and cheer.
Having changed and returned to Santa’s chair, I spend thirty minutes or so chatting and poising. There are quite a few actors in the line, who say nice things about the show, and the transition between the different characters. It is always nice to get a fellow professional’s take on the show, and actors are always brutally fulsome in their praise (whatever they actually think: ‘daaahling, you were quite simply wonderful!’)
It is 7pm, and it feels like 10. I change back into my regular clothes, thereby changing from Gerald Charles Dickens back into Gerald Dickens, and go back to my car.
After a short panic as to the whereabouts of my wallet (a regular occurrence), I drive back to the hotel, have dinner in the restaurant and am in my room by 8.30.
I watch a bit of TV and then try to read, but my broken night and the rigours of the day soon have me nodding off, so I turn the lights out and let sleep take me.
Rogers Gardens: http://rogersgardens.com/
Byers Choice: http://www.byerschoice.com/