Our time in the luxury of The Hotel Bethlehem is all too short, as this morning we have to pack up and move on once again. I hang my costumes on their hangers, and while Liz is getting ready, I take them down to the car. A low fog sits over the hills surrounding Bethlehem, it is just the sort of weather that will be delaying flights, causing major disruption to carefully laid plans. For the past two years, on the corresponding day, we have tried to fly south to Virginia and on both occasions have suffered long delays that have threatened to cancel a show. I look up to the skies and shudder at the thought, before shrugging my shoulders and carrying on: it doesn’t matter today, as we are driving instead.
Back in the hotel and Liz is waiting in the restaurant where we sit beneath the gaze of the many famous folk who have stayed here. The walls are covered with photographs of stars from stage, screen, football field and racetrack.
The freshly cooked breakfast (such a rarity in these days of buffets) is delicious, but we cannot afford to linger as we have to get on the road by 8, so we drain the last of our orange juice and coffee and go back to the 5th floor to finish packing.
We are on the road in good time, and settle into our seats for the 4-hour drive to the charming river-side town of Occoquan in Virginia. Although driving takes a lot of the uncertainty and worry out of today’s journey, it may not be plain sailing, as we have the major cities of Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington DC to skirt, any one of which could ensnare us in traffic delays.
We listen, and sing along to the Christmas songs until we reach the end of the playlist, at which time we switch the audio system off and chat as we drive. The first potential problem of Philadelphia is passed, and there is no sign of little traffic. As we make our way into Delaware I see a sign for Claymont and suddenly a whole raft of memories come flooding back to me.
When Charles Dickens travelled to the USA in 1867, he stayed for a short while at the home of his American illustrator Felix Darley, in Claymont. In my early years of touring I was invited to perform in Delaware by members of the Darley Society, and stayed in the same house, which was then run as a stylish B&B by a larger-than-life gentleman called Ray Hester, and his wife Judith. On my first visit Ray, and other members of the society, all dressed up in Victorian costumes, and waited at the gate to greet my flight (you could do that in those pre 9-11 days), and lustily sang carols, much to my acute embarrassment!
They were fun days, and I remember them with great fondness. On to Wilmington, and another memory: arriving at a Victorian festival in the city on board a fireboat, with hoses spraying fountains high into the air, in the company of a large jolly Santa. It was a fascinating boat ride, as Santa was also a private detective, and regaled me with stories from his alternative profession as we waved to the crowds on the shore.
Our journey continues without delay, and almost before we know it we are through Maryland, and into Virginia. We skirt DC and the dear old I-95 (an old friend on my tours), takes us to Occoquan. We are an hour earlier than we need to be, so head straight to the little Hampton Inn and check in. It has been a tiring morning, with a long drive, and when I get to The Golden Goose store at 1, there will be no down time until I finish signing after the second show this evening, so we take the opportunity to power-nap for 20 minutes or so, and then I have a shower to energise me a bit.
The Golden Goose is the most wonderful Christmas store, and I have been performing for the owners Pat and LaVerne over every year of my tour and I adore coming here. Whenever Liz has travelled with me she has come to the Golden Goose, as the performances invariably come late in the tour, and the staff in the shop have of course taken to her, and look after her when I am off doing my thing.
We are greeted with the inevitable and delightful hugs and smiles, and are ushered back into the little office and store room at the back, which becomes our base camp. Pat immediately asks us if we’d like some lunch, and bustles off to buy us a sandwich from the café across the street. I don’t have that long before my first performance, and get changed into costume so that I am ready to go before I eat.
Our Turkey Clubs are delicious, and a perfect boost for the rigours of the afternoon. With fifteen minutes to go until ‘curtain up’ we walk the 2 blocks (look how American I am becoming), to the Ebenezer Church, my venue here. It is packed, and has been for over an hour – apparently people were arriving for the show as early as 10 this morning. The audience has a red hue to it, with the various Christmas sweaters and hats that proliferate, and the little room looks very festive from the back.
LaVerne stands at the pulpit and welcomes everyone, before making a beautifully thoughtful and carefully-created introduction. Liz whispers to me ‘can’t we take her on tour, so she can make all of your introductions?’ The applause as her speech finishes is just as much for her beautiful words as to welcome me, but I walk up the centre aisle and begin. Once again, there is no audio equipment here, meaning I cant play the music to start the show, so I say a few words of introduction before starting the story itself.
It is a niggly start: the main front button on my frock-coat falls off as I try to fasten it, and I have something in my throat which catches a few of my words, resulting in some strange breathless gargling sounds rather than recognisable Victorian prose. But I put these things behind me and concentrate on telling the story in the space available to me. There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the wide spaces of the auditorium in Bethlehem and the tight confines of the Ebenezer Church. I am right on top of the audience, just inches away from the front row, and have to make sure that no grand flourishes of my cane accidentally decapitate anyone – that wouldn’t make for a good Christmas for anyone concerned really.
At the conclusion of the show I take my bows and then make my way to the back of the Church where it has become a tradition for me to greet and thank the audience, as though I had just delivered a stirring sermon to my flock on a Sunday morning.
When the hall has empties Liz and I hurry back to The Golden Goose, where the signing line has already formed. I change and make my way to the little desk in the back of the store, where Brittany is waiting to assist, as she has done for the last few years. As I sign, she takes pictures, opens books, chats to valued customers and generally keeps things moving.
The signing finishes in good time, and I change again, ready for a short break. We are taken out to supper by Jean, Peter and Joe, as has become traditional over the last few years. They are a delightful trio and we chat happily about all sorts of things, mainly recent films and television series, although we skirt the world political situation as well.
Time passes all too quickly, and I have to get ready for the evening show. I get changed and just before 6 head back to the Church, where the audience is waiting patiently. It is not quite full yet, as there has been a major accident on the I-95 and some guests are delayed in the resulting traffic jams.
As LaVerne is making her introductions a gentleman arrives and whispers: ‘Mr Dickens, I understand that the restrooms are behind the stage, and I am going to need to follow you to the front, I don’t want to disrupt you, though.’ That is fine, but of course he will also need to return from the restroom also, so I will have to be aware that he will appear at some stage during the first passages.
We both make our way to the front, I begin and he disappears down the stairs. As I describe Scrooge I watch for my friend’s appearance, and as he comes up the staircase I move to the other side of the hall, taking the audience’s eyes with me, letting him return to his seat with minimum of embarrassment.
Everything runs smoothly, and the show is another very good one, there is always such a warm and friendly atmosphere in Ebenezer and it is a pleasure to perform here. Once more I greet the audience at the end, which include some of the cast of a local high school production of A Christmas Carol, who present me with a t-shirt from their show, and I chat to ‘Scrooge’ about playing the great man.
The evening signing line is shorter, and Brittany marshals everyone through with great efficiency, and soon my time at The Golden Goose is finished for another year. I change and make sure that I have everything packed, before we say our goodbyes to Pat, LaVerne and the rest of the team. Pat and LaVerne embody the message of A Christmas Carol, in that they are proof that you can be successful business folk without resorting to hard-nosed, mean-spirited, sharp practices. They are a couple of modern-day Scrooges in the way that he should be thought of!
Liz and I decide to have a bite of dessert in Maddigan’s bar, and share a thick creamy slice of Key Lime pie, before driving back to the hotel. Another day finished, another venue gone – there are only two more left now and tomorrow we will drive into the luxury of Williamsburg.