Sunday, December 6
Today is a day to be survived.
My alarm sounds at 3.45 and I get up straight away to minimise the risk of falling back to sleep and missing my flight. I pack my costumes into my two cases and trawl around the room a few times to make sure that I have got everything with me. A long stay (and four days certainly qualifies as that) tends to see me spread my things out somewhat and the opportunities for losing something are great. Add to that the early hour and the risk is doubled.
When I am sure that I have everything, including the maroon cravat that I almost left hanging in the wardrobe, I roll my cases to the lift and having checked out go to the parking garage, where I can’t for the life of me remember where I parked my Dodge. With hindsight I really didn’t need to rent this car: Lee had come to the airport to meet me and I could easily have taken a cab back this morning, but there might have been a situation where Lee was delayed and I might have needed to drive myself to a venue, so I suppose it has been a slight insurance policy, albeit an expensive one.
At 4.30am I am standing in the garage peering blearily at the rows of cars, wondering which is mine. I hit the ‘unlock’ button on my key fob and a beacon of blinking lights answers my call. I load my cases and set off for Omaha’s Eppley Field Airport. My route takes me through a residential district that I do not recognise, and many of the houses have their Christmas lights lit, making it a very festive drive. At one point, as I cross a railroad track, a doe ambles across the road: she pauses, looks at me, and then continues on her way. She is not frightened by my car – at this early hour these are her streets, not mine.
There is no traffic on the road, and I reach the airport in excellent time. However often you travel, and how ever many times you go through the same routine, there is always something new to be learned. Today’s lesson is not to put the laptop computer into the first bin on the x-ray machine conveyor belt, because if you do, you have nothing to put it back into at the other side. Much better to put the bag on first and computer last, so that you can slip it straight in and walk away. I think I may have been on the road for too long.
It is still early, and I don’t really feel like breakfast (did you ever think that you would ever read those words in my blog?), so I compromise with a cup of orange juice, another of coffee and a banana and walnut muffin.
At the gate I write a little of the blog, until the boarding process begins. I have become very used to waiting for Zone 2 to be called, but glance at my boarding card anyway and amazed to see the word ‘Sky’ printed there. This means that I get priority boarding before the hoi polloi. A look at my connecting flight and there is the same story. I assume that Bob and Pam Byers must have realised what a difficult day this was shaping up to be and had tried to ease the way in any way they could. I am extremely grateful to them.
Not only does my Sky Priority status allow me to board early, but it has also given me an extra comfort seat, with a massive amount of legroom. Indeed I have as much legroom as I want, because I am sat immediately behind first class, in the first row containing three seats. The aisle seat juts out, meaning that I have nothing in front of me until the cockpit.
After a while those passengers sat further back in the plane begin to board and I perfect the smug ‘oh-you-had-to-wait’ expression that I so detest in others when I am shuffling my way to the back.
The flight is not crowded, and I have the whole bank of three seats to myself. With the space in front of me it is easy to work on the laptop and I finish the blog quickly, before watching the first episode of House of Cards’ season 3.
The benefits continue: I could have complimentary beer and wine if I wish(although that does seem rather excessive at 6am). The only disadvantage of sitting in seat 10C on a Boeing 717 is that the aisle through the middle of first class necessarily makes a dog leg to run through the centre of the main cabin, and my legs are right in the firing line as the beverage carts unsuccessfully negotiate this chicane.
After an hour in the air we make our descent through thick fog and touchdown in Detroit. We seem to taxi for ages, and it is as if the pilot has decided to drive me to Philadelphia, but eventually we pull up at the gate and disembark. We have come into gate A67 and my onward flight departs from A29; having learned my lesson when I transferred through Detroit on my way to Omaha I decide to take the tram this time, and take the escalator to the upper tier where I wait for Michigan’s equivalent of the bullet train to arrive.
Once at my gate I set the computer and camera up, so that I can upload photographs to accompany my blog post, but frustratingly the Detroit Airport wifi system is down, and I can’t do any online work.
Soon I am boarding again, and take up another comfy, roomy seat, this time by the window. Because the airfield is shrouded in freezing fog we have to taxi out to a de-icing station before we can take off. What I don’t need today is delays. We finally leave Detorit and head towards Pennsylvania. I watch a little more TV, before looking out of the window at the amazing view below: we are flying towards Harrisburg, over the dear old Susquehanna River, and there are a range of hills poking through the morning mist: it is as if the sharp knife-edge of the ridge is actually cutting through the cloud, as if it were white silk.
Despite the delay in departure we actually land at Philly on time and when I get to baggage claim I call Pam, who is picking me up and driving me on to Hershey. My big suitcase is among the first to arrive on the carousel and in no time I am seated in the Byers’ Volvo X90 and we are driving towards the chocolate town.
Time is tight today, as I have a sound check scheduled for 1.30, prior to a show at 3. Unfortunately Pam and I are so busy talking that she accidentally misses a turn, and we have to go on for a further four miles, before doubling back again. It is eight miles of driving that we can barely afford. As we go on the early start is catching up with me, and I doze in the passenger seat, losing all sense of time.
When I wake we are in the gentle, rolling terrain of Lancaster County, the scene dotted with tall silos. The day is clear and the sun is shining. We are running a little late, but not disastrously so and all is well, until:
‘HOLY ****!’ gasps Pam, as the two cars in front of us is brake hard, each swerving in opposite directions. Another car had decided to turn left into a small road, without signalling and the guys in front of us had to react instantly. There is squealing of tires on tarmac. Our route is blocked: the car waiting to turn in front of us and the other two fanning out on either side, narrowly avoiding it. Pam brakes as hard as she can, and aims for the grass verge on the right, missing the nearest truck by inches. Now the attention turns to our mirrors and the hope that everyone behind us has been as vigilant, and are able to stop without hitting the temporary road block. Back at the front, the catalyst for this mayhem duly makes the turn, quite unaware.
A deep breath, and we are on our way again: unharmed. I knew that this was a day to be survived but that’s not quite what I had in mind.
We finally pull up outside the Hotel Hershey at 2.15 and I rush up to the Fountain Lobby to do a sound check, before going to my room. The lobby is a large hacienda-style space and is set up for the tea service that will precede my show. Many of the audience have arrived early, so get an extra bit of A Christmas Carol as I go through a few lines for the benefit of the sound engineer.
The tea is due to start at 3pm and my show will be underway at around 3.45, so I have about an hour before I need to be back on duty. I go to my room on the third floor, and try to prepare myself.
This is not a good way of performing, and hopefully next year we can avoid such tight connections.
I lay out a towel on the floor and do some exercises to try and get the blood pumping a bit, and then have a lovely shower. The gel provided by the hotel is scented chocolate mandarin, and I come out smelling like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange.
I get into costume, and take a few deep breaths before returning to the Fountain Lobby for the show itself. The guests are enjoying their tea and many come and shake me by the hand when they see me. One gentleman comes and asks if I would pose for a photograph with his mother-in-law, who is ninety four, and has flown in from Portland, Oregon to be here.
At 3.45 I am given the nod and stride into the middle of the tea tables to begin. There is nobody to make an introduction here, so I have to get everybody’s attention with a bellowing ‘ladies and gentlemen, welcome!’
There is no stage, no focal point for the performance and I have to circulate around the room, which is dominated by a large marble fountain in the centre. I have to make sure that each corner gets plenty of attention during the show. To a certain extent it is not so much a theatre performance as a purely vocal one: I can’t pause for too long, because at any given time a portion of the room won’t be able to see me, and will have no idea why everything is quiet. For these tea events I cut the script back to its bare minimum, and the programme runs a little under an hour, rather than the eighty minutes of the full stage version
It is not an easy venue, but it is a challenge and there is a great satisfaction when it works. I am a bit tired and my limbs feel a bit heavy, but the show goes as well as can be expected. The applause is very generous and a lot of people come to the signing table to afterwards, even though we have nothing to sell. As is so often the way at venues that I have visited often, many of the guests have seen me multiple times, and shake my hand like old friends.
With the tea finished, the attention now turns to the dinner performance. I return to my room and run a hot bath, in which I luxuriously soak for a while. I lay on the bed, relaxing as much as I can. All too soon it is time to get into my other costume and go to the Castilian Room, where dinner will be served.
The Castilian room is beautiful with ornate chandeliers and colourful décor. My stage, complete with chair, stool, hat rack and table, is set in the centre of the room with tables laid around it. Tonight I will be performing between each course of dinner. I do a sound check, and then greet the guests as they arrive. I will be sitting with some of the top folks in the Hershey organisation, as the guest of Richard Wyckoff and his wife. Also in the audience is Pam, entertaining her mother and an old family friend; and David Keltz with his wife Teresa, who are friends of long standing.
Many of the other diners are familiar faces, and one party has been to all of my dinner shows at Hershey (sixteen up to this year). I am really feeling the effects of the day now, but know I must keep the adrenaline flowing for the next couple of hours. The company at the table is good and conversation flows easily. Fortunately no-one expects me to regale them with stories about Charles Dickens, so I do not feel as if I have to perform even when not on stage.
The inter-course format (a very carefully placed hyphen, there) is one that I used to do a lot, but now it is only the Hotel Hershey that stages such an event. From a personal point of view it is a slightly frustrating way of performing, because you can’t build any emotion or tension through the story, but I have to remind myself that the guests are here to enjoy an overall experience that includes good food, fine wine and great service, and that I am only a part of the whole.
During the performance I use the room as much as I can, and pick on individuals to represent various characters: Old Scrooge, Fezziwig, Young Scrooge with his fiancé Belle and of course the object of Topper’s desire. The event is fun, and hopefully everyone feels included. As each chapter finishes I ring a little bell and the next delicious course is served.
We make good time and it is before ten (which is always our target), as I raise a glass in a toast to the spirit of Christmas and bring the evening to a close. I say goodnight to my table companions, and sign a few menus and books before going to my room to change.
I haven’t been able to spend much time with David and Theresa, so we have agreed to meet in the hotel bar to catch up. David is also an actor, who does one man shows based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and Theresa has a background as a theatre producer. Each year they come to Hershey to support me, and hopefully sometime soon we can create a show together: Poe meets Dickens (hmm, may have to work on the billing!)
Our chat is wonderful and they are such good company, but I really need to get to bed, so we say our good nights at the lift and my day comes to an end, a long time after it began.
I have survived.
Hotel Hershey: http://www.thehotelhershey.com/
David Keltz: http://davidkeltz.com/