The Saturday after Thanksgiving has traditionally marked the start of my second block of performances in America and so it was last Saturday. I woke early but tried to get back to sleep, a struggle I eventually gave up on and instead made myself some coffee as I wrote my blog and caught up with some emails etc, waiting for the clock to tick around to the weekend breakfast hour of 7.30.
My first active mission of the day was a hunt. When I had left my Jeep the night before I suddenly realised that I didn’t have a key fob and so couldn’t lock the car. The Jeep had a keyless start system that simply required the press of a button to fire up the engine and it was not until I was ready to go into the hotel on Friday night that the thought occurred to me that I had never picked up a key. I knew I had one somewhere because the engine had run smoothly but I couldn’t find it and eventually left the car unlocked and ready to be driven.
So on a bitingly clear and cold Saturday morning before breakfast I returned to the Jeep once more and searched everywhere, every pocket, sunglass holder and glove compartment but still no key presented itself.
I tried to start the engine again and was successful: there WAS a key somewhere! Eventually I took a picture of the licence plate with a view to phoning Hertz in Boston and asking them where they usually hid keys, as well as taking the owner’s manual as if that was likely to help, and went back to the hotel.
The manual told me what I knew: that the car came complete with a keyless entry fob.
I went outside again and starting searching anew, this time with the tenacity of an FBI agent and eventually I was successful: I was on my knees in the rear footwell of the car and there a long way under the front passenger seat was the black key, cunningly camouflaged against the black carpet. At last I could lock the car.
Back in the hotel I ordered a large breakfast, as I would probably skip lunch, and when I had finished returned to my room just in time to watch the coverage of qualifying from the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix.
I had the morning to myself and it wasn’t until 11.15 that I packed all of my costumes up and returned to the Jeep which I proudly unlocked.
I was driving to the headquarters of Vaillancourt Folk Art in nearby Sutton, which is where Judi, Gary and Luke Vaillancourt run their amazing business creating and selling plaster Father Christmas figures, each of which is hand painted. Judi is the creative force, designing each piece, Gary has the entrepreneurial drive which made the company grow and now their son Luke looks after the marketing and online sales with great flair.
The car journey was about twenty minutes and I listened to my Christmas playlist and came up with a new game for this trip, a game you are welcome to play too: each day I will choose one of the songs that I think suits a particular part of A Christmas Carol, almost as if I were selecting music to underscore the story. I would love to hear your suggestions too….but that will come at the end of each post, for now back to my journey.
I left Worcester behind me and drove passed many familiar landmarks, such as the sectcularly named Purgatory Chasm. I arrived at the Manchaug Mills complex in which Vaillancourt Folk Art is based on the dot of 12. Having unloaded the car I was soon in the spectacularly decorated store that is the public face of the business, and was being welcomed back by the Vaillancourt family as well as their loyal and hard working team of staff.
My first priority was to get things set for the show, so I went to the large warehouse at the back of the mill which each Thanksgiving weekend is converted into a beautiful theatre.
Darren the sound man was waiting for me and we did a sound check with one of those head mics which I detest so much but which sound engineers love. This one felt a bit loose, but I decided to stick with it. Once the stage was set I went back to the store and sat down with Gary for a catch up chat.
The big news from Vaillancourts this year was that Gary had written a book called ‘It’s Hard To Tell When A Tradition Begins’, which is an account of the remarkable story of the company. I was overwhelmed and moved to discover that there was actually a chapter dedicated to my visits and shows.
The other topic of conversation was the probable snow storm due to arrive in the Boston area on the Sunday afternoon which may not only disrupt our evening show but might make getting to Virginia on Monday morning a bit of an adventure too.
Time moved on and the audience started to fill the store, so I made my way to my little dressing room and began to prepare. As I put the microphone on it sort of collapsed and dangled uselessly around my neck. I went to see Darren who taped things up and fixed it back to my head, but it didn’t feel secure. That should have been the time to make more of a fuss but the audience were already being seated and we assumed everything would be alright.
At 2 o’clock the hall was full, with the exception of a row of about 10 seats right in the front that shone irritatingly white, mocking me with their emptiness. The seats had been booked and paid for so where were the individuals who should have sat in them? I wondered if they had thought they’d booked tickets for Sunday’s show, not Saturday’s, which meant there may be some trouble brewing on the following afternoon.
Gary made an introduction in his customary bonhomous style and having plugged his book (ever the salesman) he passed the afternoon over to me. I walked through the audience, in silence, for no sound effect played. I was committed to a long route to the stage so the audience were left confused as to why nothing was happening. Finally I reached my starting point and as soon as I spoke the microphone started banging and crackling and being very annoying. This was all very disruptive and I wasn’t really concentrating on the words or the performance. The microphone got worse and worse until eventually I stopped, broke character and said ‘lets abandon this’ and took the mic off. As I de-robed I discovered that Darren’s repair had not been effective and the unit hung in two pieces. I made a bit of a joke about the whole thing and ad-libbed some extra narrative describing how Scrooge undressed removed the microphone and got dressed again, all of which earned me a sympathetic round of applause, but didn’t do anything for the integrity of the show.
And so it went on, the show was full of niggles, annoying little things that just didn’t quite work. It was ok, and the audience enjoyed it and joined in, but it was just, I’ll use the word again, niggly: The rug on the stage was sliding about meaning I couldn’t really commit to my movements, when I reached for the penny in my waistcoat pocket it was caught behind the watch fob meaning I couldn’t pluck it out as if I were conjuror, when I rolled up the cloth to represent Tiny Tim on my shoulder it didn’t fold properly and looked like a cloth instead of a frail child, and so on and so forth.
In amongst all of that there was a decent performance and the audiences at Vaillancourts are so familliar with the show that they know exactly when and how to respond. No prompting needed on the ‘No Bob!’ lines, as they all shouted the line out before I even reached it. It is lovely to perform to such a crowd and it should have lifted me up, but when I came off stage at the end I was frustrated and a little angry with everything. As I changed into my dry costume ready to sign Gary shouted to me ‘another masterful show Mr Dickens!’ and I responded with a noise which sounded rather like ‘Bah!’
My mood lightened somewhat with the signing and it was lovely to catch up with many old friends who come to my shows year after year, most especially with George and Laura Wells who have been staunch and enthusiastic supporters for as long as I have been visiting Sutton.
Once the signing had finished I changed into regular clothes and joined Gary, Judi, Luke and the team for a delicious supper of chicken and vegetable pie and apple crumble (or apple crisp as it is known in America). Once more the conversation came back to the impending snow storm and once more I worried about the next leg of my tour.
With over an hour to go between supper and the second show I returned to my dressing room, curled up on a sofa and napped.
At 6.15 I woke and went to find Darren who had a new microphone unit which fitted much more snuggly than the first version had, and gave me much more confidence. Gary and I had removed the rug from the stage and all in all I had done everything I could to make the evening show a less worrisome one.
It was another full house, this time with no no-shows, and the room had a buzz and an atmosphere that filled me with confidence.
On cue the music started, and so did I.
I felt that I gave a much better performance on Saturday evening and this was borne out by the extra perspiration that I produced, always a reliable, if rather unpallatable, barometer as to my efforts. Darren’s music cues were perfect and everything worked well, all of which led to a huge ovation complete with shouting and stamping and whooping.
The signing line was much longer in the evening and one couple proudly showed me a very old edition of A Christmas Carol in a presentation box. A look at the title page and the blue printing thereon conformed that this was one of the 6000 first editions of the novel. It was amazing to hold it and look at the hand coloured illustrations which had retianed their vividness of colour remarkably. As I leafed through this incredibly valuable little volume the couple produced a second copy which was ALSO a first edition! I rather harboured secret hopes that they might say ‘this should be back with the family and we’d like to make a gift of it to you’, but as they must have invested upwards of £100,000 to own these two pieces of literary history I concede that it might have been an unlikely gesture and sure enough they carefully packed the books away before leaving.
I signed and posed for a while until everyone had left and then hung my costumes up in the dressing room ready for the next day’s shows. I drove back to my hotel where the Vaillancourt clan joined me for our traditional post show wind down of wine and dessert.
My first nomination for a Christmas song to represent a scene in a Christmas Carol is Lucy Rose signing Merry Christmas Everyone, to accompany this scene:
As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and stood upon an open country road, with fields on either hand. The city had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground….
….They walked along the road, Scrooge recognising every gate, and post, and tree; until a little market-town appeared in the distance, with its bridge, its church, and winding river. Some shaggy ponies now were seen trotting towards them with boys upon their backs, who called to other boys in country gigs and carts, driven by farmers. All these boys were in great spirits, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it.
‘These are but shadows of the things that have been,’ said the Ghost. ‘They have no consciousness of us.’
The jocund travellers came on; and as they came, Scrooge knew and named them every one. Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them? Why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past? Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them give each other Merry Christmas, as they parted at cross-roads and bye-ways, for their several homes? What was merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?