I am being picked up this morning at 8am, by my dear friends Susie and Lee Phillips, and I want to do a little repair work before they arrive. Along the way I have collected two buttons that have become separated from my frock coat, and this morning is the morning to re-attach them.
After my earlier run in with a doe, a deer, a female deer, this morning sees me re-enacting another line from that famous song: ‘sew, a needle pulling thread’ for I carefully thread a needle and sit at the desk in my room sewing the buttons on, making sure that I make a particularly string repair of the one that fastens the coat at the front.
I am pleased with my handiwork, and start to pack for the days two performances. As I put my black shoes into the roller-bag I notice that the leather soles are wearing thin in a few places – that is another issue I will have to confront soon.
After a quick breakfast in the lobby, I come back to my room and wait for 8 o’clock to tick around and go to meet Susie and Lee.
Susie is a great fan of Charles Dickens, and many years ago encouraged the Douglas County Historical Society that they should book me for performances in Omaha. For the past six years, she has hosted my events and been one of my greatest fans. Her husband Lee has always driven me to all of my performances and has been a good companion along the way.
Our friendship has always been strong, but when they were travelling in England three years ago and they came to stay with us in Abingdon, it moved on to another level. Liz and Susie are in constant email contact, and we share each other’s news and gossip.
Needless to say, there are warm hugs shared in the car park. As we drive I mention my shoes, and Lee says that he knows just the man. He will pop into see him later, and ask if a repair is possible in the time I have available.
Our first destination is the Immanuel Village, which is a community for assisted and independent living. Last year the director of The Immanuel chain came to one of my shows, and asked the Historical Society if I could perform at two of his centres: today is the result of that request.
We are welcomed by the centre manager Vicki, and shown to the small room where I will be performing. It has a low ceiling and the room is bisected with pillars which may make sight-lines difficult, and gives me something extra to think about when I am actually doing the show . Even though the performance will be to very elderly folk, we decide between us that there will be no need for a microphone.
As we chat, so Kathy Aultz arrives. Kathy is the director of the Historical Society, and another great friend: cue more hugs.
Arriving at the same time as Kathy is a new member of the team Rylee, who has been working on the promotion of my visit, but today is hauling the props from venue to venue. I ask Vicki if we can play the CD effect, and Rylee is given the job. He spends a little while making sure he knows exactly how to use the CD player, which is hidden away in a little store-room, and which will shortly double as my dressing room.
There is some discussion as to who will introduce me today. Vicki at the centre doesn’t want to, and suggests that Susie does it, but she MUST say that the performance is a gift from the corporate office. That is the phrase: ‘A gift from the corporate office’. Poor Susie suddenly gets very nervous and tongue-tied, so Kathy steps in and takes on the role.
The audience are starting to arrive now. Some with walking frames, some in wheel-chairs, some sprightly and fit. I lock myself in my littler store room and get ready for the show. When I re-emerge the room is almost full to capacity. I wait in the hallway outside and chat to some of the staff. There is a clock on a nearby mantelpiece that strikes the hour, and which sounds so like my sound effect that when it chimes I have an almost Pavlovian response and almost bolt for the stage.
When everyone is settled, Kathy makes the announcement, and manages to get the ‘gift from corporate office’ line in twice for good measure. Rylee plays the music and I make my way to the front of the room.
Kathy and Susie are sat in the front row, and I don’t suppose that they have seen my performance at quite such close terms before. The audience follow the plot enthusiastically, although I don’t get them gasping and ahhh-ing over the Cratchit’s goose and pudding. I am careful to move around the space, so that those who are hidden behind pillars get to see plenty of the action.
Everything works so well and when the show finishes many of the audience give me a – albeit hesitating – standing ovation.
I make my way into the hallway and say goodbye to the residents of the village as they head back to their rooms. What a nice way to spend a morning!
Rylee packs up all of the furniture and leaves for the next venue, and I get changed. Lee and Susie are waiting, and have decided that we will have lunch at a small diner in the Florence neighbourhood of Omaha. Harold’s Koffee House has been in Florence since 1958, and is a wonderful antidote to the big fast-food chains. No scripted welcome, no carefully prescribed up-selling, just a warm welcome and good food (I have a delicious beef stew to keep me going through the afternoon).
Before long it is time to move on and head for my second show of the day, which will be at the Pacific Heights Village, another community in the Immanuel Group. (Pacific Heights is really a most inappropriate name, as Omaha is right in the centre of America, and couldn’t be further from an ocean).
Pacific Heights is a much larger facility, and we are taken along a series of corridors and down a lift to the room where I will perform this afternoon. On first inspection it looks similar to this morning’s space, but feels a little ‘deader’, so I decide to use a microphone. Rylee and Kathy arrive, and I head off to change, this time in a nearby restroom. In the cubicle there is one of those pull-out plastic decks for changing a baby’s nappy on. I have seen them branded as ‘Diaper Decks’ and this one is called ‘Baby Change Station’. It seems somehow incongruous in this particular setting, but it is very useful to lay my costume on as I change!
It is another completely full house, and I am glad that I decided to use the microphone in here. Kathy gets up and makes her welcoming remarks (even encouraging a round of applause for those generous folks in the corporate office), before handing the floor to me.
The show goes well, although the audience are not as responsive as this morning’s bunch, but certainly they follow the story intently. At the back of the stage is a magnificent stained-glass panel hanging on the wall, which is perfect to kneel in front of when ‘Scrooge went to Church.’
After I finish, Kathy hosts a brief Q&A session, before everyone goes their separate ways.
As I start to get changed a button becomes detached from my waistcoat – so more sewing in store, then.
I say good bye to all of the staff at Pacific Heights, and Lee drives me back towards my hotel in Omaha itself, but on the way making a stop at Andy’s Shoes, a proper old cobbler’s business. There is something delicious about the smell of a shoe maker’s shop and as we walk in the door I am instantly transported back to my childhood, and Guests’ Shoe Shop in Tunbridge Wells.
Andy looks at my shoes, and thinks that he can affect a repair for me on Friday morning when I do not have any commitments requiring costume. Lee will take them in early in the morning and they will be ready by 2pm.
With that it is back to the hotel to have a brief shower and change of clothes before it is time for dinner. Susie and Lee are taking me out, and we go to Father Brown’s steak house in Waterloo. In the same vein as Harold’s Koffee House, Father Brown’s is a family run restaurant, with no pretensions, other than to serve good food in a friendly atmosphere. It is packed,
We are seated and order fillet steaks with baked potatoes and a bowl of…spaghetti? You can have a choice of green beans or spaghetti, which I have never heard of before, so go along with it.
The steaks arrive quickly and are perfectly cooked. If you can’t get a good steak in Omaha, then you are in trouble, and this is a great steak: flavoursome and tender. I do remain to be convinced by the spaghetti though!
It is a lovely evening and we chat about all sorts of things – most especially cruise holidays, for which we all four share a passion (it feels as if Liz is here at dinner with us tonight).
When it is time to leave Susie goes into full marketing mode and tells all of the staff about my shows, and proudly shows them the copy of the programme that I presented her with earlier. They are suitably impressed, and we all talk for a long time. Susie is so talented at spreading the word, and I am sure many other venues could learn from her marketing skills.
We take our leave of Farmer Brown’s and beneath the remnants of last night’s super moon drive back to my hotel. It has been a busy and tiring day, and there will be more of the same tomorrow.