Thursday, 28 July
My Christmas season always starts early, but this year is impressive even for me. On 28 July, nearly a full five months before the great day, I was packing my bags and heading to Heathrow airport ready to perform A Christmas Carol for the first time in 2016.
This Summery celebration of the yuletide season was due to a group called Golden Glow, who were holding their summer convention in New York State. Golden Glow is a huge organisation made up of people who collect Christmas memorabilia of all sorts – as I was to find out they are passionate and committed collectors indeed.
Every trip that I make provides me with new adventures and experiences and on this occasion I was rewarded with a realisation of a dream that was harboured in childhood: to go upstairs on a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, for the very kind people at Golden Glow had offered to fly me Business Class, which is definitely not a stipulation of my contract, just a kind and generous thing.
Liz drove me to the airport and we tearfully said our goodbyes. You would think after all these years of travelling we would have got used to this, but it never gets any easier, and I made my way through security and on towards gate B41, where BA flight 175 waited.
I have to say that I loved every second of the experience: being called up to board first and relishing the moment when the flight attendant said: ‘good morning, Mr Dickens, straight up the stairs, enjoy your flight.’
The little bubble atop the 747 fuselage almost becomes a private jet, so small is it. I don’t know how many passengers were up there, maybe twenty, but we were served by two very attentive stewards.
Champagne to start (it was only 9am, but – hey – it was offered!), and then I settled into the huge reclining seat to peruse the lunch menu. This was no ‘Chicken or beef – sorry, chicken’s run out.’
Loch Fynne smoked salmon with red and white radish and wasabi crème fraiche
Garden of grilled baby vegetables on little gem lettuce with tabbouleh and carrot hummus
Fresh seasonal salad served with vinaigrette
Braised short rib of Herefordshire Beef with celeriac mousseline, buttered carrots, swede and thyme jus
Grilled prawns tossed in tomato basil butter served with saffron risotto and Tuscan style vegetables with olives
Pappardelle and courgette ribbons bound in truffle cream sauce, served with fresh green asparagus and slow-roast cherry tomatoes
Main course wakame salad featuring grilled breast of corn-fed chicken marinated in lemon with pickled cucumber and miso dressing.
Mocha and Mascarpone mousse cake with strawberry puree
Warm apple raisin sponge pudding with toffee sauce
West Country Brie and Belton Farm Red Fox served with Bramley apple chutney
A selection of whole fresh fruit
Tea, coffee and chocolates
At take off another advantage of being up here became apparent: so far from the engines was I sat, that the noise and vibration was almost unnoticeable.
Of course the flight was relaxing and quiet and the cabin had plenty of room to walk and stretch my legs. I watched a succession of films, starting with the brilliant Steve Jobs, and ending up with the ridiculous – but fun – Eddie the Eagle. And I slept for a while, stretched out on my full length reclining seat, wrapped in an eiderdown (not a thin blanket, you note, but a real eiderdown!)
Of course, as soon as the plane touched down all luxury and privilege went out of the window, and all 605 passengers stood in line waiting to be seen by a surly immigration official; and all 605 passengers gathered around the baggage carrousel; and all 605 passengers waited in another line to be checked by a surly customs official before being disgorged into the arrivals hall.
I quickly found my way to the rental car offices, collected my car and set off for Rye Brook, Westchester County, New York.
The drive was about an hour and as I made my way I caught ghostly glimpses of the New York City skyline through the hot, humid haze.
At one point I passed a very odd looking golf course, which seemed to be made of artificially coloured grass, with vivid greed fairways and sulphurous yellow rough – it didn’t sit comfortably within the surrounding landscape at all. As I passed the main gate the garish sign proudly advertised it as The Trump Links.
I reached the Hilton Westchester and pulled my bags into the lobby (don’t BA send someone to do that for you, when you have flown business class?) and for a moment it seemed as if I was actually on my official Christmas tour. The whole foyer (and I was soon to discover the whole hotel) was decked out for Christmas: trees, wreathes, coloured lights, giant Santas, nutcrackers and glass ornaments abounded.
As I checked in I was welcomed by the hosts of Golden Glow 2016, Bill Steely and Michael Storrings who asked me if Id like to join them for a drink; and so the party began.
Bill gave me a quick tour of the hotel and the sheer scale of this event began to dawn on me for the first time. Lectures were taking place in one ballroom, whilst another was being prepared for the evening banquet. 650 chairs around circular tables looks an awful lot, and even though my show was two days away I began to think how best to perform in this huge space.
More meeting rooms were given over to museum spaces, where the delegates displayed their treasured collections of Christmas memorabilia. Some Victorian, some early twentieth century, some post war, all carefully researched and beautifully displayed.
But the strangest thing were the notes: in every hallway, in every lift, on every table were little handwritten notes encouraging other delegates to go to room #418, or 139, or 624 or wherever to trade. One read ‘Room 274. Good Stuff!’ it seemed slightly suspicious to me…
I got a little rest before joining the group for the evening’s banquet, which was to an Italian Theme. The food was excellent, as was the company although I was beginning to fade fast as my body was convinced that it was 3am.
Following dinner there was a very entertaining cabaret act, and it was useful for me to watch the singer perform on the same stage that I would be treading in 48 hours. I watched his movements, observed the light and tried to see how the audience reacted to him.
The show finished at around 9.15 and I headed straight to bed, leaving the members of Golden to Glow to participate in the final event of the day – Room Hopping…..
Friday 29 July
Day two was basically a free day for me and was a chance to relax and acclimate.
At breakfast I discovered that Golden Glow was not the only group staying in the hotel, for in the restaurant was scattered various members of The American Academy of Ballet. There were young dances, presumably from the corps de ballet, and there were more imposing performers who must have been the principals. There were older ladies with perfect poise who presumably were the choreographers and directors. There were then less impressively formed characters piling bacon and eggs and bacon onto their plates, who made up the stage management and tech teams.
As I watched this company gather I reflected on what an amazing thing art is – here was a huge group who had come together to tell a story to an audience, and here was I, on my own, preparing to do the same thing: live theatre – you can’t beat it for its massive scope and wide ranging appeal.
I spent the morning running through A Christmas Carol, which I hadn’t performed since December 27. I looked at the blog posts from last year’s tour to remind myself of changes I had made to the show during that trip, and went over and over those passages just to fix them firmly in place.
With a couple of runs under my belt I then took myself off for a walk in the hot humid morning sun. In the land behind the hotel there is a park with walking trails, so I headed for that, not using a map, just following my nose. I admired the front gardens of the nearby houses, proudly laid open to the passer by, unlike the English who like to hide their gardens behind walls, fences and high hedges.
The walk in the park was beautiful and took me through grassed landscape, past carefully tended garden spaces and alongside a wildflower meadow.
At one point I came upon a huge cedar that had spilt and fallen, judging by the brightness of the wood and the sweet scent, probably the night before.
I continued my walk out of the park and through more neighbourhoods before returning to the hotel and a delicious lunch of Pear and Apple salad with grilled chicken.
In the afternoon there were to be a series of lectures and two in particular caught my eye: ‘A Victoria and Albert Christmas’ and ‘Dickens: The Real Man Behind A Christmas Carol’
I took a seat to one side and near the back, from where I could listen, incognito.
The first lecture was very interesting and described how Prince Albert’s influence changed the way that the British nation celebrated Christmas, by introducing lavish decorations and gift giving to the feast.
In describing the ancient pagan rituals our lecturer Kit, explained that ‘wearing of any ivy wreath was thought to prevent falling hair.’ Ivy wreathes for me then, although it may be too late already.
The second lecture was given by Gary Dean, who I had met at one of my tea performances in Hershey. It was a fascinating talk about the financial trouble that Dickens was in during 1843 (Martin Chuzzlewit was not selling well and Charles was scared that his lavish lifestyle and continued financial imprudence of his father, may lead to severe problems.)
Under these circumstances Dickens came up with the idea of producing a highly popular book for Christmas, which would be sure to sell well, and he had the opportunity of tackling one of his biggest social concerns at the same time: the plight of the poor children in the big cities.
Dickens had been working with the Ragged School organisation for a while and encouraged many philanthropists, most especially Angela Burdett-Coutts, to support him. By writing a wonderful, magical tale of Christmas, that also featured the worst of society, Charles could bring the plight of the poor to the very forefront of the public consciousness.
Gary spoke very well and didn’t allow himself to become side-tracked into overt sentimentality or hero-worship for his subject – he told it as it was. He pointed out that many early adaptations left out the hideous, starving characters of Ignorance and Want, and I let out a gentle sigh of relief that they feature in MY show!
The banquet on Friday evening was Germanic (the overall theme for the convention being ‘All Round the World’), and on this occasion the entertainment was ‘Christmas Idol’ in which a few of the delegates performed on stage and were judged by Candy Cane – a Rockette from Radio City (played by Bill Steely’s wife Janine), Jack Frost portrayed by a young ballet dancer, and Vixen, the naughtiest of all Santa’s elves.
The performances ranged from superb, verging on professional, through exceedingly good, to charming, talented and all the way to tone deaf, but it was a fabulous evening and the audience were completely engaged, giving repeated standing ovations, and waving their smart phones in the air, to replicate the 60s and 70s tradition of lighters and candles at rock concerts.
The judges deliberated and were good-naturedly booed when they didn’t put the two cute kids through. The decision was correct, however and the joint winners were by far the best singers. on the night.
After dinner I spent a little time with Bill, Janine and the other judges in the bar as they wound down from their evening’s efforts.
Saturday, 30 July
Saturday marked the day of my show, but as I wouldn’t be performing until 8pm, I had plenty of time to myself again.
After breakfast I made my way up to the grand ballroom to look at the stage, and as the room was deserted I placed a couple of pieces of furniture on it and started to rehearse. It was a good exercise and very useful to get used to the very wide nature of the room. It would be important to make sure that the show was spread out to all corners and not become too centred.
As I rehearsed I got more and more into the show, and a few of the delegates poked their heads in to see what was going on. A hotel waiter took a seat at the back and watched the last twenty minutes or so, meaning that I had an audience to play to. When I finished and walked out of the room he said ‘Yeah, good job, very good. Very, very good.’ Never has an audience reaction meant more!
The rest of the day was quiet and relaxing, the main business of the convention being a massive auction that lasted most of the day. Most of the conventioneers (as the hotel manager called them), would be leaving early the next morning, and the business of taking everything down began early.
As the afternoon moved on I began my preparation routine, with showering, ironing and making sure that I had all the props and music to hand, before going to the ballroom.
A chair and decorated table was on the stage, but there was no stool for Bob Cratchit: I looked around and found a wooden piano stool that would do, if we couldn’t find anything else.
I did a sound check, and then the audience began to gather in the hall – all 650 of them. All tired, all wanting to pack their goods, all ready to go home: a pang of nervousness ran through me – could I do this? Could I hold their attention? Well, there was only one way to find out.
Dinner followed the same patter as previous nights (Great Britain being the theme this time). I had a little salad and some Mutton Broth, but passed on the Roast Turkey and trimmings. As dessert was served I left the table and prepared for the off, although I was a bit premature, in that I hadn’t counted on the raffles and auctions, and selling on of the tables centres, and the thanking of the volunteers, and the congratulating of the hotel, and all of the other business that is essential to an event of this sort.
Bill made a short introduction, and left the stage as my introductory music (the haunting opening bars of The Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Carol of the Bells), brought a silence across the room.
‘Marley was dead, to begin with…..’ I felt completely at home.
It was an interesting performance, as the audience had an English feel to it, in that they were slow to warm up, but as the story moved on everyone became completely involved and I began to give more and more. My voice suffered a little with the air con (as it always does when I first arrive in America), but all the little things that I’d worked on in my hotel room, and that morning on stage, worked well. Even the piano stool did its job admirably.
The applause at the end was wonderful and everyone stood as I took my bows. I was very relieved and very satisfied.
Everyone had been given a copy of A Christmas Carol at their table, so there was a fair bit of signing to be done. I sat on the chair on stage and spent plenty of time chatting and posing and shaking hands.
One gentleman, dressed in a red shirt and wearing a large white beard waited until the very end then came to chat. His name is Jim Morrison and he runs a museum of Christmas in Delaware. Many years ago we met and he presented me with a set of glass Christmas tree ornaments in the shape of characters from A Christmas Carol, which I was delighted to tell him we still have.
When the signing was finished I retired to the bar and joined Bill, Michael, Janine and plenty of other new friends. Meanwhile the great exodus had begun and luggage carts loaded high with plastic packing cases full of ornaments and cards were being pushed towards the parking lots.
Really, I was lucky that nobody left during the show (as usually happens, I was informed).
Sunday 31 July
As I hadn’t managed to sign all of the books on Saturday night, I had suggested to Bill that I would sit in the lobby to be available as people checked out, the result being that I had a very pleasant hour or two, chatting to people – including a mother and son who were attending the convention from Exeter in England. I am actually hoping to perform in the town of Ashburton, not far from them, so hopefully we will meet up again in a couple of months.
I said good bye to Michael and Bill and all of the others before heading back to my room to gather my bags and leave.
The main desk in the hotel was long, and there were a few people standing there sorting out their bills. One of the staff said to me ‘Mr Dickens, It’s been great to have you here. Really exciting. Have you enjoyed your time with us?’ and I replied that I had, before telling him my room number and handing over the keys. We completed the formalities and as I went to leave the gentleman standing next to me at the counter said to the clerk: ‘are you free now?’ ‘Yes’ ‘Mmm, I thought you were free before, until that gentleman barged in…’
Suddenly all of the friendship and goodwill and cheerfulness evaporated in one moment. My first reaction was ‘for goodness sake, did the story mean NOTHING to you?’ But then I realised that I has been flattered by the desk clerk’s attention, and had become all starry, I hadn’t even bothered to check if the gentleman was waiting (I assumed he was being served by someone else, I suppose), and had just taken over. I mumbled an apology, which wasn’t received well, and made my way out of the hotel, with a dark cloud hanging over me.
The weather matched my mood, as it was dark and glowering and soon heavy rain began to fall. I drove towards New York City and managed to successfully manoeuvre through the tortuous lane system onto the two story George Washington Bridge.
Soon I was on the New Jersey Turnpike and a good old dose of Simon and Garfunkel Karaoke began to clear my head and soon I was driving on in a much better frame of mind towards a few days of relaxation and friendship, before my next show on Thursday.
My time with The Golden Glow (it is always mentioned as a singular entity), was great fun. I met some wonderful people who love what they do. Hopefully more will come of these few days and I may be invited to further conventions in the future – and not just so that I can go upstairs on a 747.