Welcome to another of my retrospective Blog posts in which we go back to 2001.
As I sat at Byers’ Choice this week signing copies of my new book my mind went back many years to another similar time, albeit on a rather larger scale.
In the early years of touring my former agent, Caroline Jackson, mainly sold my show as a dinner event, in which I would perform each chapter of A Christmas Carol between course of a fine festive feast. This format originated in a book published by my parents and my father’s cousin Cedric. Caroline, in her entrepreneurial way, had published am American edition of that little book and designed it to resemble the first edition of A Christmas Carol as published by Dickens in 1843. The volume not only contained the script for the readings but also recipes, serving ideas, traditions and games, all of which could be used to create a Christmas party with a difference.
Many of the venues at that time were hotels as Caroline had signed an agreement with The Historic Hotels of America register, and I got to visit and perform in some sumptuous surroundings. But in 2001 she pulled off a real coup by signing a contract with a large software company based in Dallas, Texas, for me to be the entertainment at their annual staff Christmas party. Not only would I be performing during dinner but every guest would be presented with a signed copy of Christmas With Dickens as a token of their employer’s generosity.
This was in Texas, Things are big in Texas. There would be 2,000 guests at the dinner.
In order to get all 2,000 copies of the book signed Caroline booked a motel room in Arlington, Virginia, close to where she lived, and for two or three days I sat in that small space scrawling ‘Gerald Charles Dickens’ over and over again. Sometimes it was GrldChsD, sometimes Charlesgeraldcharlesdickens, sometimes it bore no form at all! Caroline made occasional appearances to remove completed boxes of books away, only to replace them with others – it seemed to take forever.
The event in Dallas came somewhere towards the end of the trip so after I had signed the books I was on the road as usual but always hovering in the background was the prospect of performing for 2000 people. Eventually the great day arrived and before we went to the hotel where the dinner was to be held, the senior board members of the company hosted an exclusive meet and greet session over lunch – at Southfork Ranch! The CEO gave a speech during which he welcomed me in a typically Texan style and presented me with a souvenir Stetson. At he ended his remarks he signed off with a flourish declaring ‘Happy Yule Y’all!; I was sure that he was trying this line out on us, and having received a loud laugh I assumed that it would make a re-appearance at the evening’s event.
After lunch we drove to the hotel and for the first time I saw what 2000 seats looked like, The tables were already set with linen, silver and crystal and seemed to spread as far as the eye could see. In pride of place at every setting lay a signed copy of Christmas With Dickens. It was with a sigh of relief that I thought that I wouldn’t have to do a signing session that night – the hours in the Arlington motel would pay off now, I could just do the show and leave.
The huge ballroom had a stage along one wall, where I would be performing, and I climbed up to try and get an idea of what I would be dealing with.
The room was very wide but not very deep (I suppose I was going to be a landscape artiste, not a portrait one) and I was very aware that those people sitting at the far extremities of the room would struggle to see me. The organisers had thought of this and had mounted two huge screens on each side of the stage and a video camera immediately in front of me. The audio visual equipment were handled by a professional company and we spent a long time doing effective sound checks to make sure nothing was left to chance. When all the preparations were complete I went up to my room until it was time for dinner.
When I returned the ballroom was packed and noisy. Everyone was dressed in ridiculously expensive suits and dresses. Diamonds glistened, huge Rolex watches were conspicuously displayed. Hair, perfume, aftershave and make-up were perfect and cosmetic surgery of varying degrees was on bountiful display. Quite how everyone was called to order I don’t remember, but everyone dutifully took their seats and were welcomed by the CEO who sure enough wished everyone ‘Happy Yule Ya’ll’ and then he handed over to me to begin my first performance. It was a fascinating exercise for me, at first I wanted to be as inclusive as I could, so was making a real effort to perform to the very far extremities of the room, but in doing this I glanced the images of myself on the big screens and realised that the camera was only getting my profile and any facial expressions that I was making were completely lost. Therefore when I returned for the second and subsequent chapters I began to concentrate on the camera in front of me, and from being a HUGE performance it became a very small, intimate one. Ignoring 70% of the room seemed counter intuitive to me, but in doing so I was giving those folk a much more complete show as they watched the screens.
Much wine and many cocktails were consumed that night and by the time I got to Tiny Tim’s death scene there was much emotion in the room, and some high spirited, or highly spirited, revellers stood at the back and gently waved their cigarette lighters in the air as if they were at a rock concert. It was very late, maybe midnight, when the dinner finally ended and I took the applause. I had finished for the night and was looking forward to getting back to the solitude of my room, until the CEO returned to the stage and announced ‘You will see that you all have a signed copy of A Christmas Carol on your table and I am sure that if you want them personalised Gerald Charles will be happy to facilitate that’. And so the night was extended as a large proportion of the group gathered around me asking for books to be inscribed to ‘Jason J Jackson III’ or ‘Mary Lou’ or ‘Grandma and Gramps’. Some wanted me to write passionate declarations of love for a fiancé or significant other, whilst others managed to grab whole piles of apparently ignored, forgotten and abandoned books and wanted me to sign them all. It was a very very long night.
So, signing 150 copies of Dickens and Staplehurst during a quiet morning at Byers’ Choice wasn’t really a chore!