Today promises to be sad day in a few respects: firstly we are moving out of our beautiful suite this morning, secondly the alarm is set for 5.15 and thirdly it will be the last morning in the little VW that has been my companion since November 23.
My phone duly wakes us at the prescribed time and I get straight out of bed, knowing that I will fall back to sleep if I don’t. I start the process of packing, and Liz follows suit. Packing is a strange experience this morning, as I haven’t had to get everything into my cases for almost a month. The two costumes are bundled up and squeezed into my little carry-on case which has the twin benefit of being with me in case of mislaid baggage, as well as reducing the weight in my checked back. The top hat is stuffed with socks and surrounded by the thick scarf that I use on stage, before being surrounded by other clothes. The cane is laid diagonally (it’s length dictates the size of my case), and everything else is then carefully and neatly packed around it. I ditch a few things to save weight, and lifting the case am fairly confident that I will hit the 50 lbs limit.
On the other side of the room Liz is going through the same process, albeit without a top hat or cane, and we both zip up our cases in good time.
It is indeed with heavy hearts that we close the door on suite 3285: it has welcomed us and comforted us and cuddled us at a time in the tour when we most needed welcoming, comforting and cuddling. There is a beautiful moon out as we pull the bags to the car, and the Inn’s white lights are twinkling in the darkness. When we return next year renovations will be complete but hopefully the old lady will have retained her grandeur and elegance.
We are on the road by 6.30 and there is a surprising amount of traffic on the road. The inky blackness becomes diluted with the dawn, becoming royal blue before the sun takes over casting its golden rays across the flat swampy landscape of Virginia. We have to stop briefly for a splash of gas before arriving at Richmond airport. We unload the VW and I say a silent thank you to it for keeping me company and looking after me so well. At the Enterprise car rental desk the clerks are surprisingly perky at this early hour, and ask where we are from and what we are doing here – on hearing that I am touring with a one-man show they promise to look up the clips on YouTube, before wishing us a good day.
Richmond airport is quiet this morning and we are very quickly checked in (my bag tipped the scales at 49) and through security. We have a rather disappointing breakfast, accompanied by a cup of very watery tepid liquid that was given the name coffee at the counter, but which in reality is a distant relative to that beverage.
(It is unfortunate that everything today gets compared to Williamsburg, and 45 minutes behind us that delicious buffet is being laid out, as serene servers pour freshly squeezed orange juice and rich coffee to the guests lucky enough to be there).
We get to our gate and decide that our caffeine needs have yet to properly served, so Liz goes to a Caribou Coffee outlet to buy two proper cups, but the guy serving her takes an age and by the time we get them we only get a couple of sips in before boarding begins.
The flight is on one of those little regional jets, a CRJ 700ER (the name looks like a response to a rather risqué Carry-On film: ‘OOOOH! ERRR!’). It is a full flight, but there is a remarkable amount of legroom on these little planes, and it feels quite luxurious. In front of us sits a little girl all on her own and eventually a woman (a stranger, not her mother) takes the other seat. They begin to chat and the little girl, who is ,7 displays a quite remarkable maturity in her conversational ability – neither of us could ever been so confident at her age.
The flight will take us to Minneapolis and is due to last 3 hours, so I decide to try Delta’s new inflight movie service: you log onto the their Wi-Fi network, with no charge, and then select from a library of online films. Within a few minutes I am watching The Race, a biopic of the American athlete Jesse Owens who won golds at the 1936 Munich Olympics beneath the racist glare of Hitler’s Nazi regime. The film is superb, as is the whole Delta system.
As we fly further North so the ground beneath us turns white – just a dusting of frost at first but soon thick snow and frozen lakes: oh, yes we are definitely nearing Minnesota!
The plane finally docks with the jet bridge and lets us disembark and instantly the blast of arctic cold hits us. We were in Minnesota two years ago and have never experienced cold like it, and now those memories become reality once more.
On the way to baggage claim we suddenly see a large poster that could have been put there especially for Liz, and the photo op is too good to miss:
Having collected our bags we get a tram to the car rental desks where we I ask to be upgraded to a 4WD model, as fresh snow is forecast overnight and I don’t want to be slithering about in a small saloon model. Our new companion is a Hyundai Tucson, and it feels chunky and safe as I take it out onto the freeway.
It is around 12pm by now and I don’t have any commitments until 5.30 this afternoon, so we decide to do what all visitors to Minneapolis are encouraged to do and pay a visit to the Mall of America, which is the largest shopping mall in the USA. We enter from the car park and at first it is just another shopping mall: brightly lit, soulless and somewhat depressing; but then we arrive at the central hub which is in fact an indoor amusement park. Roller coasters twist, rise and plunge over our heads, while a traditional carousel gently delights the riders. An intrepid man rides a long zip wire high above us and gigantic Lego models dominate one quarter of the space. It is extraordinary to see and you would expect the air to be filled with screams of pleasure from the children on the rides, however it is rather strangely quiet.
We walk through the mall, feeling rather overawed and somewhat disappointed by what we are seeing. We find an Italian restaurant and decide to have a proper lunch, as we are not entirely sure what the evening will hold. We both order large bowls of pasta and meatballs, which feels a suitably warming meal to counteract the blast of cold that will be hitting us again soon.
Having finished lunch we walk back through the mall, looking in a few stores on the way, but with no real enthusiasm. I used the word soulless earlier, which is surprising for the place has sucked so many souls over the years that it must hold a surfeit of them somewhere.
I will be performing this evening at The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, which is situated in the small town of Chanhassen in the outskirts of Minneapolis. It is a 20-minute drive from the mall, and the road conditions would have brought Britain grinding to a frozen halt. Minnesotans are not fazed by a bit of snow and the roads have been ploughed and salted, so that the traffic is moving without hindrance, indeed with remarkably frightening speed.
Our hotel for the last two days of the 2016 is the Country Inn and Suites in Chanhassen, and of course it is bound to suffer in comparison with the Williamsburg Inn, but the room feels slightly dowdy , the towels a little thin and grey, the heating system a little confused (either stifling, or freezing, but never in the middle). For all that there is plenty of room in the suite and once more we have a separate living room with comfortable sofas and chairs, as well as kitchen sink, microwave and refrigerator.
And the Country Inn and Suites has one huge advantage over Williamsburg: it boasts a guest laundry! I know my regular readers will have become greatly concerned about my laundry needs over the past few days, but fear not, for here I can feed quarters into the trembling machines and return to the room a happy man.
My only show today is at 7 at the arboretum which is only 10 minutes way. After a brief rest I have an energising shower and we get ready to drive through the snowy night. I visited the arboretum for a day last year and was completely entranced by it, but this is Liz’s first visit and I hope that it is as impressive as I remember.
Even as we make our way along the long drive, there is evidence of a superb modern light installation in the grounds, the white snow illuminated in greens and oranges. We unload the car with as much expediency as we can manage, so as not to be in the -20°C temperatures for any longer than necessary. The main lobby of the visitor centre is a magnificent towering glass and wood hall, lavishly decorated with lights and trees.
We walk through this cathedral-like space and into the older part of the building where I am to perform, following the signs to ‘A Christamas Carol’
We are greeted at the Snyder Room by Clarissa Pfarr who works at the centre and who has co-ordinated the three days of shows that I am doing here. Last year when I performed here the lighting was a bit disappointing, so this year Clarissa has hired some theatre lights and had them rigged up on a balcony casting a superb light onto the stage below.
As we are chatting so Peggy Johnson arrives and hugs us both warmly. It was Peggy who first saw me perform in Williamsburg many years ago, and who has been responsible for various shows since. Peggy encouraged the powers that be within the arboretum to bring me here and is responsible for this part of the tour; she immediately takes us under her wing and once I am settled in my luxurious spacious greenroom, takes Liz and I for a quick walk around some of the magnificent light show outside.
The installation is the work of British artist Bruce Munro who has made quite a career of featuring his work around the world. Here he has filled the landscape with tiny lights which slowly change colour. The light field stretches as far as the eye can see, and each section changes at different times, meaning that the entire scene is alive with light. Pictures cannot do credit to the sheer scale of what is before us, and we are breathless with amazement (not to mention being breathless from the cold).
We are only outside for a few minutes, but we are not hardy Minnesotans and do not have the correct clothing for these conditions. We come back inside and spend some time admiring the lavishly stocked gift shop before returning to the green room and getting ready for the performance.
The Snyder Hall is a small venue, but Clarissa has created a lovely stage and set for me. The doors are opened an hour before the show and cocktails are served to the guests as they chat.
I am keen to get going as I want to try my new lighter approach on the full-length script (as the Williamsburg events were around food service the scripts were shorter there). I am slightly worried about my voice as all of the buildings here are heated with very dry air, but I drink as much water as I can and let the menthol vapour from my Fisherman’s Friends lozenges permeate my sinuses.
Clarissa welcomes the audience and then starts the music, which is being played through her iPhone. The music is not quite loud enough and a few people in the audience don’t realise the show has started. It is not until I stand on the stage and say ‘Marley was dead to begin with’ that full silence descends upon the room.
The secret to this new-improved show comes from the voice of the narrator. I had become too intent on working every single syllable and giving them dramatic emphasis. Now, I just tell the story and as in Williamsburg it works superbly.
The audience laugh and chuckle and are a delight to perform for. The Minnesotan character is slightly more reserved and the audiences here tend to be more stoic than a typical American crowd, but their enjoyment is apparent from beginning to end. Even though they do not stand at the end of the show I know that I have done a good job here, and this feeling is backed up by the fact that Liz gives me a big hug saying ‘The best ever!’
And now a very strange thing: no signing line! The arboretum have decided not to offer anything for sale, so there is no formal signing session. I stand in the lobby and audience members come up and shake my hand and congratulate me on the show, but no signing. Within 20 minutes of the show finishing I am back in my normal clothes, and wrapping up ready to go back into the cold again.
Liz is chatting to Peggy and some of her friends, who have seen the show in various different venues over the years, and they are a lovely bunch. After a few photographs and many warm handshakes, Liz and I return to the car and drive back towards the hotel.
We have a light dinner in Axel’s restaurant near the hotel, which is a very stylish venue. I have a burger and Liz has fish fingers made from the Minnesota native fish, the Walleye. When we are finished, we walk out into a light snow, and everything seems Christmassy at last. There is something magical about the silence of a snowfall, and it feels as if we should be running and sliding down the main street in Bedford Falls shouting ‘Merry Christmas!’
We have had a privileged day, that started in Williamsburg and ended among the warm, generous, and stylish folk of Chanhassen. It is a wonderful life.