Wednesday, December 2
I am now back in the central time zone. When I arrived in Omaha yesterday my phone and kindle re-set themselves automatically, whilst I manually adjusted my watch. My body clock, however, remains stubbornly in the East and it is only 3.45 when I wake up.
Today is the anniversary of Charles Dickens’ first reading performance in the United States and I am very grateful to him for paving the way for my current adventures.
My early wakefulness means that I have plenty of time to finish off the blog, before showering and going to the lobby for breakfast. I have to be back in my room by 7.30, as I have a live radio interview with one of the Omaha stations, so I have a simple bowl of Granola and some fruit before returning in time to make the call.
The interview with Patrick and JJ is a typically highly-caffeinated morning-show affair, but there is one moment which makes me feel very good: last year I performed at the Central High School in Omaha, and Patrick’s daughter was in the audience. When she left for school that morning she had said that the students were going to have to listen to some speaker that was visiting, and it sounded dull. However, when she came home she was babbling how amazing it was, and how none of her friends could believe how one man could do all the characters, and that he really WAS related to Charles Dickens….and…and…and….
So, that is nice feedback to get a year on.
As soon as the interview is finished I get ready to meet Lee downstairs, as we are driving to a different High School to perform A Christmas Carol to another group of students who will hopefully be as excited as Patrick’s daughter was.
Lee pulls up in his grey Toyota, and his wife Susie gets out and gives me a lovely hug of welcome. It is Susie who is the massive Dickens fan here, and who was the catalyst for my first visit five years ago.
The drive to the Omaha North High School takes little more than ten minutes, and we park in front of the imposing 1920s building. In the lobby we are greeted by Melinda Bailey, who is in charge of performing arts here. Before taking us to the auditorium she introduces us to the Principal of the school, Mr Gene Hayes.
Goodness! What a …. Presence. Mr Hayes must have played pro football in his youth, for he is a mountain – no, a range of mountains – of a man. His hand envelops mine and I am soon lost in a bear hug that threatens to crush the very air from me. ‘Welcome! Welcome! It is great to have you here! Let me take your coat! I’m going to hang it in the closet! Here, give me your hat and scarf too!’ (yes: every sentence ends with an exclamation mark.)
As we are about to leave the office a young student wiv attitood saunters up the corridor and there follows a scene which explains why Principal Hayes is so good at his job and why he has been in charge here for so long.
The student calls out: ‘Hey Bro!’ and Mr Hayes booms his reply, ‘Come here Brother!’ and they embrace. There follows a moment of banter between them, until the student says something along the lines of: ‘how could I be in class, you suspended me dude, you suspended me!’ And now there is a subtle change in the dynamic as Mr Hayes asks ‘and why did I suspend you, do you remember that? Why did I suspend you?’ The relationship has instantly changed and the student stands contrite before his Principal, full of respect.
It is obvious that the students and the staff are completely in the orbit of this man and know exactly where the line between comradeship and duty is drawn.
Melinda walks us to the large auditorium, where a group of acting students are rehearsing a one act play. It is fascinating to watch them at work, and I realise that I sometimes miss the joy of being in a cast and creating something as a team.
Our group increases as the director of the Doulgas County Historical Society, Kathy Aultz, arrives and there are more hugs of welcome. I am feeling very hugged today.
We are all making rather a lot of noise, and the student director scowls at us, as the rehearsal continues. Out of professional courtesy I sit on my own near the front and watch the rehearsal until a bell rings and the session is over.
As the students pack up, I place the furniture on stage for my set, and after deliberating for a while we decide to close the main curtains, and restrict my performance to the thrust stage over the orchestra pit. I do a sound check with the microphone system, and the remaining theatre students in the hall give me a round of applause: I’m not sure that a sound check has ever been so enthusiastically greeted before.
As the next lesson is due to start soon, I go to my dressing room to get ready.
At 10 o’clock I return to the wings and can hear Mr Hayes addressing the large group of students, and reminding them of the expectations that he has of them – that they must show respect to their visitor. There is silence in the hall.
Mr Hayes passes the baton to Melinda who makes a more detailed introduction and the show starts. The students are remarkably attentive throughout, they do not respond much (I would imagine they all terrified of being the first to make a sound), but neither is there any shuffling nor rustling.
It is a good, professional, workmanlike performance. Without a responding audience it doesn’t have that magic that lifts the show, but it I am certainly pleased with the way it goes. The applause at the end is very warm and Melinda comes up onto stage she is clearly very excited by what she has seen.
We have time for a few questions, which are mainly from the theatre class, I think, as they centre on technique: how do I prepare so many different characters, how do I line-learn: things like that.
Eventually the audience file out of the hall, and I change, before returning to the main office where Principal Hayes gives me another huge hug. I tell him how well behaved the students were and what a credit to the school they are. He beams a big white toothy smile and says ‘Oh, but they have no choice!
It is about 11’45 when we leave and Lee suggests a light lunch at Panera Bread. I order a tomato soup in a bread bowl which, as the name suggests, is a loaf of bread, with the centre scooped out and filled with soup. The croutons scattered on the surface seem a little superfluous, with so much other starch around.
Lee takes me back to the hotel, where I can enjoy a completely free afternoon.
The hotel is based in an apartment block which has a grocery store attached, so I go and buy a few supplies. At the till the staff member asks ‘paper or plastic?’ I assume he is enquiring as to whether I am going to pay by card or cash, but the same question at an adjoining till makes me realise that he is referring to packing of my goods – a plastic bag or paper. I go green.
I spend the rest of the afternoon doing some admin work. When I return to the UK I have a further five days of performing before Christmas and I have to book hotel rooms at each venue.
And then a much more important job! Liz is flying out to join me in a week’s time and will be travelling with me to the last few venues. Our flights back were booked at different times so, although on the same plane, we are on different booking references and I want to make sure that we are seated together. This process isn’t quite as straightforward as I’d thought.
Firstly, although booked with Delta airlines the flight is actually going to be with Virgin, so to log on I need to discover what the Virgin flight number is, instead of the Delta one. The booking references similarly are different for each airline.
After an hour or so of to-ing and fro-in between websites I finally manage to get us seated together in row 56.
During this process I also get a call from the front desk to say a package has arrived for me, and I am once again reunited with my scarf.
I do have an event this evening, but it promises to be a very relaxing one. Rather than shoehorn another performance in, Kathy has decided to try something new, and has laid on an exclusive dinner at the General Crook House, which is the headquarters of the Historic Society.
Lee picks me up at 5.30 and we drive over to the beautiful old mansion, which sits in the heart of the old Fort Omaha. There are carol singers on the front porch to welcome us, and the house is decorated for Christmas. Susie is there and Kathy is there and I am there. Yes, obviously I am there, but I am also there. Let me explain: To help promote the events Kathy has had a life-sixed cardboard cut out made of me and he is standing at the bottom of the stairs. I am introduced to Flat Gerald (as he has become known).
The dining table is spectacularly decorated and laid for a five course dinner. The guests start to arrive and we are all served with a Kir Royale before chatting and exploring the house. At 6.30 we are called to table and Kathy formally welcomes us, before pulling out an important folder and reading a Mayoral proclamation: November 30 –Dec 6 has officially been declared Gerald Dickens Week in Omaha!
The dinner is delicious: it has been catered by Chef Mario, one of the rising culinary stars in Omaha. We start with an amuse bouche of avocado cream and pomegranate seeds, before having a deliciously rich Gouda soup (with a hint of local ale). A simple salad of winter greens is elevated by slices of pear and scattered almonds. The fish course is a scallop, topped with a plum shrimp all in a roasted tomato ‘sea’.
From the delicacy of the seafood to a glorious rich fillet mignon, supplied by the Omaha Steak Co. If you can’t get a good piece of beef out here in the mid west, then where can you? And, indeed, this is a seriously good piece of beef.
The whole evening is wound up with a triple chocolate mousse cake and a glass of champagne, with which we toast anything and everything that we can think of. It has been an amazing culinary experience, with good company and fine conversation. What a civilised way to spend an evening.
Every guest has been given a slim volume of A Christmas Carol, and I ask everyone if they will sign mine as a memento of the evening. In turn I put my scrawl in their books before we all say our goodbyes and drift away into the crisp cold night. Plenty of sit-ups for me tomorrow morning, I think.
Susie and Kathy are starting to clear up, and Flat Gerald is still guarding the hallway as Lee opens the door to take me back to the hotel.
I get ready for bed and don’t even bother with the TV, for I know that I will be asleep upon the instant.
Omaha North High School: http://north.ops.org/About/tabid/135/Default.aspx
Douglas County Historical Society: