And so it has arrived. After 47 days on the road the final day of the 2017 USA tour has dawned. Strictly speaking I beat the dawn as I have to get up and ready to be at a television studio at 7.15. I decide not to wear costume today and simply don a smart shirt and cashmere sweater for the interview.
The Fox 9 station is actually situated in Eden Prairie where I performed two days ago, and there is hardly any traffic at this hour. I arrive in good time and pull into the almost empty parking lot shortly before the Martin, the PR guru also arrives.
The station is almost deserted with one man on the front desk, one girl in the news room, one floor manager, one meteorologist and Leah, the anchor who will interview me. Martin and I go to the greenroom and manage to track down some coffee which is greatly needed.
After waiting for around twenty minutes I am called into the studio where I am fitted with a microphone and sat at a large Perspex desk to await Leah. The interview is very good and Leah has done plenty of research and is genuinely interested and excited about the prospect of me performing in The Twin Cities (she is better prepared than one breakfast TV team I remember who had a reputation for bad research and asked the founder of the Cirque du Soleil how many animals the troupe travelled with).
With the interview done I go back to the car and as I drive back towards Minneapolis I can truthfully repeat my opening statement: the final day of the 2017 USA actually dawns.
As I enter the lobby of the hotel it is a sea of purple and white, for the Minnesota Vikings are playing today and the hotel is full of fans (one would of thought that a hotel might be full of the visiting fans, but there is not a Cincinnati Bengals shirt to be seen, although there is one rather incongruous Green Bay Packers fan swimming against the tide.
My breakfast is positively British this morning (I must be getting truly homesick), I start with porridge, then toast some bread, heap scrambled eggs on it, adding bacon and sausage to the side; not a waffle or pancake, or a drop of maple syrup in site.
I have a couple of hours to kill before I am due to meet Jeff, the owner of the Aster Café, to go over the day’s events. At ten o’clock I return to the lobby and watch the hoards of fans leaving the hotel and heading for the game. Many are sat at the bar where the beers and wines are already flowing. After a while I see Jeff pull up in an immensely impressive pick up truck and I jump up next to him. Jeff and I first met in March when I was in town with To Begin With, but he has a long relationship with the family, originally getting to know Cedric and more recently Ian.
Our first stop is a house that Jeff is selling, which sits in the shadow of the football stadium and we drive through the purple lava that is flowing through the streets of Minneapolis and pull into the driveway. The house is an extraordinary Tolkeinesque dwelling with quirky iron work and stained glass everywhere. Jeff had been hoping to sell it to a microbrewery, and one would of thought that its proximity to the stadium would have been a huge bonus, but sadly the sale fell through. There is a viewing of the house tomorrow and Jeff wants to check how the decorating is going.
The upstairs accommodation gives the most remarkable view of the US Bank football stadium, which was only built two years ago. The stadium is fully enclosed and is designed to represent the prow of a Viking ship sailing into the city, although its matt black finish make it look more like a stealth warship – it is a truly remarkable building and dominates the skyline.
From the stadium we drive to the Aster Café where Jeff shows me the River Room where I am to perform: the stage is small and surrounded on three sides by chairs and reminds me rather of the set up at the Vaillancourts mill in Massachusetts. Jeff has been holding music events here for years but is keen to branch out into theatre and my show is the first dip of the toe. There is a definite charm about the room and I am sure that the atmosphere will be superb tonight.
With the site check finished Jeff drives me back to the Hilton, although I don’t go back to my room yet as I want to walk in the city for a while. When I was here in March the whole of Nicollet Mall (one of the main thoroughfares) was undergoing a major remodelling, and the great gashes in the ground suggested that something remarkable was going to be created – the US Bank Stadium is testament to the vision of the city. So I was somewhat surprised and disappointed to discover that the finished mall looks just as it did three years ago! The project has cost the city 60 gazillion dollars, and led to many businesses closing during the years of disruption, and for what? Not very much would seem to be the answer.
For old time’s sake I walk up to the Lund’s grocery store which is where I regularly shopped when I was here for To Begin With, and buy a salad for my lunch. From Lunds I walk through the snow covered Loring Park, where a Christmas Market is on, featuring a giant mechanical Arctic wolf and a similarly animated Moose which children can move by pulling on ropes or by peddling a fixed bicycle. The air is filled with the scent of cooking and spicy punches.
From the park I continue my nostalgic walk past the two apartment blocks where I stayed, and then past the two venues where I performed, The Music Box and the Old Wesley Center, and then I am back at the Hilton where the bar is still full of fans.
I go back to my room and turn the TV on and discover that the Star Wars Marathon is still going on, fortunately it has now reached the original movies and as I eat my lunch I revel in the brilliance of the ‘first’ film.
The afternoon passes slowly until it is time to pack my things up and drive back to the Café. I am aware that the first hints of a cold are starting to make themselves felt, which is not surprising I suppose, but I hope I can ward off the worst of it until all of my shows (including those in England) have been completed. At around 3 O’ clock I can get online and check in for my flight home, which is a wonderful moment for it marks the first step in the two days that will lead to my reunion with Liz.
At the café the staff are busy preparing for the event, David is my tech guy and we do a microphone check, although I really don’t think I need one in this small space.
The doors are due to open at 6, even though the show is not until 7.30, but the audience is already gathering outside the door. Sonia, who is looking after front of house, does a good job of chatting to them and keeping them informed.
With all the preparations completed I absent myself from the River Room, and take a few photographs of the café and of the remarkable view back towards the city – there is a slight fog in the air that gives the skyline an extraordinary golden aura.
Back inside I meet up with Dennis Babcock who has come to watch the show tonight, which is kind of him. He is wearing his Pickwick Club Tie, and if Jeff should happen to turn up without his then a bottle of port will be the forfeit (such are the rules of the club).
I retreat to my dressing room, which is actually an empty shop unit on the upper floors of the old mill building and far removed from the bustle downstairs. The time seems to pass slowly but I have plenty of time to reflect on the last few weeks and on the adventures that I have had.
Eventually Jeff comes up and says that we are ready to start the show (I notice that he does NOT have his club tie on and wonder if the forfeit has been paid).
The audience are packed in and there is a fabulous atmosphere in the room, I really can’t think of a better venue to finish up the trip. Outside the windows the lights of Minneapolis twinkle, whilst the stage lighting is enhanced by candlelight throughout the room.
The intimacy of the show is wonderful, and I am able to capture the gentle narrative of the novel itself as I tell the story. Sometimes a Minnesotan audience can be quiet and stoic, but this group are not – they react and are completely engaged in the show from beginning to end. I give one of my best performances for quite a while and love every minute of the evening.
When I leave the stage having taken the applause a very kind young gentleman hands me a glass of beer, which is very welcome, and I toast the tour before taking a large gulp.
I quickly run back to my upstairs shop and change before returning to the River Room to mingle with the audience. This sort of sums up the atmosphere of the whole event, there is no formal desk to sign at, no orderly line, just lots of people who want to chat. And there are so many people here that I have met before: people with a book that I signed at The St Paul Hotel in 2002, people that I met at The Abbey resort in the mid 2000s and shared dinner with (who give me a bag of presents which include a Chicago scarf, a baseball cap and a toothbrush – the gentleman is a dentist and it is an old joke between us), there are people who saw me at the Arboretum last year, and others who watched To Begin With at The Wesley Center: really quite the fan club!
In particular it is great to see a contingent from To Begin With, for as well as Dennis, there is Bob who was the production designer of our second run, and Kasey who looked after the social media promotion as well as my wig (a strange combination of talents!). We all chat and catch up and pose on the stage and discuss the show.
Eventually it is time for everyone to leave, and I hug my goodbyes, before changing upstairs and gathering all of my belongings. I say goodbye to Jeff, who is very pleased with the event and would like to expand it to more nights next year, and make the Aster my new home in the Twin Cities.
I drive back to the hotel where the bar is STILL full of Vikings fans. There is a guard at the lifts making sure that no non-guests make it up to the bedroom floors, and I have a great deal of trouble finding my room key whilst balancing two costumes, a top hat, a cane and various gifts, not to mention the little roller case. Eventually I prove that I am indeed a resident at the hotel and not some suspicious stalker, and get back to my room on the 11th floor where I hang my costumes and shirts up to air for the last time.
I go back to the bar where I look incongruous among the Vikings. I order a dessert and a glass of wine and congratulate myself on a job well done.
As I sit alone on my bar stool a sad little footnote to the tour pops up onto my Facebook feed: Pat and LaVerne from the Golden Goose in Occoquan have decided to retire and close the store in February. I have had such happy times in that little shop and shared such close friendship with them. I send a message wishing them a happy retirement and thanking them for all of the great opportunities that they have given me to perform in the little Ebenezer Chapel.
I return to my room and know that I will sleep very well tonight.
NB: Two of the most ardent followers of this blog back in the UK are Liz’s colleague Penny Durant and her husband Jon. Please share my congratulations with them for the birth of little Beatrice Esme. I look forward to meeting her soon.