Despite the long travel day yesterday my body clock stubbornly refuses to admit that I may be tired and I wake, according to the bedside clock, at around 5. Unfortunately, briefly unbeknown to me, in the USA the clocks went back this morning so it is in fact around 4.
I read a bit, write my blog, and eventually make some coffee as the minutes, and eventually hours, drift slowly by. But being five hours behind the UK means that Liz and the girls will be up and about, so for the first time on this trip I take advantage of WatsApp and send a few messages home, which leads to a video call and thanks to the wonders of modern technology I am stood in my hotel room watching the girls on a blustery hill as they have a Sunday morning walk together.
It is so good to talk, and hear their news, whilst I can take them on a brief tour of the hotel room, showing off the beautifully lit Christmas decorations, and the view out of my window as dawn breaks over the Smoky Mountains. The call is very special and makes me feel very happy.
One of the books I am reading at the moment is ‘Rocket Men’ about the early days of the space race and specifically the Apollo missions, and I say a silent ‘thank you’ to the intrepid astronauts whose bravery meant that I can stand in a Tennessee hotel and be in direct contact with my family thousands of miles away.
Morning breaks, and it is a beautiful day, with a clear sky over the mountains which are still tinged in magnificent fall colours.
I gradually get ready for the first day of the tour. I hang my costumes up in the wardrobe and unpack a few things from my suitcase before having a shower and generally joining the human race. I am aware that I have a bit of a cold, probably not helped by my day in a pressurised cabin, but I hope that it doesn’t effect my performances later today.
Breakfast at The Inn at Christmas Place is a large, noisy buffet and even though I am early there are platy of people already tucking into large omelettes, pancakes, waffles, cereals and fruit. Among them are many familiar faces of old friends who have been coming to see my shows here over multiple years. There is a particular and unique atmosphere at The Inn which I experience nowhere else – an atmosphere of companionship and conviviality.
My breakfast is satisfying, if not altogether healthy, and I have an extra cup of coffee to finish, whilst thinking about my unofficial ‘breakfast of the tour’ award, which is seriously up for grabs this year. In the past the top spot has been a battle between the sumptuous offerings of Williamsburg or Hershey, but as I am not visiting either this year, the field is wide open!
Although I have no commitments until 3 pm, I have decided to have a very quiet and lazy day in my room, and hope to catch up on a bit of sleep, if possible, but the first thing to do is to rehearse.
I move furniture in the room so that there is rough approximation of the set, and get my top hat, scarf and cane ready. I place the red cloth, which is my new addition for this year, on the chair and even use the CD player on the bedside table to play my intro music.
Although it is useful to go through the lines, the real point of this rehearsal is to see how I can use the cloth throughout the show. The main point is to have it next to Tiny Tim’s stool during the passage I am introducing this year, but there may be opportunities to use it at other moments too.
My first inclination is to use the cloth far too much: it becomes Scrooge’s bedspread, then a sort of puppetry Ghost of Christmas Past floating all over the place, then a shawl for young Belle, which old Scrooge picks up sorrowfully as she leaves his younger self. The cloth then reverts to the bedspread before becoming a representation of Tiny Tim being carried by Bob, and then the Cratchit’s table cloth. On into the future and it becomes bed curtains and, at last, the frail figure of Tiny Tim, gently held and kissed by his father.
I have always prided myself in ‘less is more’ when it comes to props, and it quickly becomes apparent that I am attempting far too much with my new toy, and it will become completely confusing to an audience as to what it represents, so I go back and try it again, this time restricting myself to using it as bedcovers and Tim, which seems to work much more successfully.
I rest a little and at 12 go out for lunch, knowing that I have two full shows before I can eat a proper meal tonight, so it is important to get properly fuelled. There is an Italian restaurant next door to the hotel, and it is quiet today. I order a small bowl of Minestrone soup and a grilled salmon with roasted vegetables for my entrée: a perfect show day meal.
Back at the hotel it is time to start getting ready. I check my costumes and find that the new trousers could do with a press, so I liberate a pillow case and wet it to use as a pressing cloth (goodness knows what housekeeping must think). I trim my beard, shave, and shower to freshen up and stimulate some energy. My cold is feeling heavy, which is frustrating, but there’s nothing I can do other than trust to Doctor Theatre (or his colleague Dr. Footlights) to get me through.
At 2pm I take all of my costumes and props down to the ballroom where I meet Kristy, Dwight and Debbi for the first time this year. We have formed a brilliant team over the years and we have soon dropped into the same banter as ever, as if the last twelve months have never happened. But they have – and one of my commitments this year is to include the two little dolls representing our daughters on the set, so that they can feel part of the shows. Here there is a magnificent mantle piece with lanterns and a large clock, so the little bunny and mouse snuggle close together there.
Even though there is an hour to go before showtime there is a long queue building already, and soon Kristy and Dwight take the decision to open the doors, and allow the flood to pour in.
Soon there is a loud buzz in the room as people find seats and avail themselves of cookies, gingerbread men and hot cider. I don’t hide myself away here, but meet, greet, chat and pose as the audience grows ever larger. With about five minutes to go Kristy and Dwight take to the stage for the ceremony of presenting everyone who has booked a package at the hotel, with their books and ornaments: this is fun and I scurry from one side of the room to the other directed from the stage.
Gifts distributed, Dwight remains on the stage to make my formal introductions which he does with his silky, musical East Tennessee accent, and then the deep tones of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen are playing over the PA system and I am on stage uttering, for the first time, ‘Marley Was dead, to begin with’
The cold in my head (which according to the novel old Scrooge is also suffering with) is annoying and means that I cant give the vocal performance I want to, but everything runs smoothly. I resist the temptation to use the cloth all the time, and it works very well in its brief moments under the spotlight.
It is not a great show, but a perfectly good one, and the audience stand to applaud when I get to the end. I had suggested to Kristy earlier that it may be fun to do a quick bit of Q&A after the show, and as she needs to draw the door prizes I have time to change costume before returning to the stage. We have a fun few minutes talking about various aspects of the show, and in particular the creation of a Christmas Pudding and just why Mrs Cratchit gets so irate about hers. One gentleman asks me my age: I was hoping for a gasp of ‘no, you are not that old, you look so much younger’ but am greeted by general nodding of heads, as if to say ‘yup, that’s what we thought!’
We wrap up the session and then I lead the audience, Pied Piper style, out to the lobby where I sit behind a high desk in front of a lavishly decorated Christmas tree and sign books and pose for pictures, until the last of the group drifts away.
I have a little time to myself now, so return to the room and lay on the bed to rest before getting ready for the evening show. Kristy has asked me to be in the ballroom for 7.15 as she is expecting a television crew to turn up, but when I get there all is deserted (although once again there is a huge line forming as the evening audience jostle to get the best seat). I sit alone in the room looking at the set and reflecting on the afternoon’s show and thinking what could be done better, or differently, until my reverie is broken by Kristy and Dwight, bearing the news that the TV crew cant come after all.
In which case, it is showtime once more. The doors are opened and we go back into our meet and greet routine again, with a larger audience this time, most of who have booked packages with the hotel, making the distribution of gifts a very long affair, with lots of laughter and fun.
The show itself is a better version, although still somewhat restricted by a croaky throat and a heavy head, but the movement on stage is working better, as are the characterisations. The audience are lively and boisterous and join in willingly, which is always fun, and the time seems to rush by (even though by the clock the show is the same length as the earlier one).
The Q&A tonight lasts longer and with some great questions, and I get to talk quite a bit about how the show came into existence, which actually is very useful for me to remember. I talk about how I originally edited the script and how I have developed it over the years, and what my objectives were. I am asked which my favourite scenes are, and who my favourite characters are. Do I have a favourite film version? Which is my favourite novel? What did I think of ‘The Man who Invented Christmas’ and so on.
Eventually I bring the session to a close and then the signing starts, which is equally long – everybody wants to chat tonight which is a sure fire sign that things went well and everyone is happy. However, I am flagging and am rather glad when the line finally dwindles to an end.
I get back to my room, change into regular clothes, and head out to the only restaurant still serving food at this hour, and my regular post-show haunt, the Mellow Mushroom, where I have a delicious sausage Calzone for dinner.
The clear skies of the morning have given way to heavy rain, but it is cooling and refreshing as I walk to the bar.
It has been a good day, and nice to get things going so successfully. Hopefully I can shake off the cold quickly and really enjoy these first days of performing, before returning home briefly in a week’s time.