From Lewes Delaware, I had to drive north again on Saturday morning to the final venue of my 2021 American adventures, the headquarters of my American agents Byers’ Choice,
The drive was scheduled to be about 2 hours, 30, and as I would driving around Wilmington, I wanted to be on the road early so as to avoid potential traffic delays and that meant getting into the breakfast room as soon as it opened at 7.30. I was first down and helped myself to some cereal, piled high with fruit, and a couple of pastries. I must say it looked most colourful and healthy.
I was back in my room by 8, closing my fully packed suitcase and getting ready to leave. The latest action from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend was just starting, so I listened on headphones as I pulled my cases back to the car, and then linked up my phone to the audio system, so that I could follow the action as I drove. It was an overcast day, and occasionally rain fell.
As I continued to listen to the Formula One qualifying session, I drove passed one of the centres of the NACAR world – the colluseum-like the Dover Motor Speedway, huge grandstands and floodlights surrounding a mile long oval. It must be amazing to spectate at a NASCAR race in such a couldron, and I’d love to do it one day.
Although the route was basically the reverse of the one I had driven the day before, it seemed a much quicker journey and in no time, I was crossing one of the bridges that span the Christina River in Wilmington. As I looked down at the waters beneath, and then to the city skyline beyond, I recalled an occasion many years ago when I was due to perform at a festival in the city. My entrance was to be a grand one, and I was taken downstream where I boarded a fireboat in the company of Santa Clause and we steamed towards a convention centre, where the crowd would be waiting to greet us. During the first part of the journey, we had nobody to wave at, so Santa and I sat in the back of the boat, enjoying the view and chatting. You may be as surprised, as I was on that day, to learn that Santa actually doubled as a private detective! What a perfect disguise, and I remember him telling me that one Christmas he was performing both roles at the same time and a gentleman whom he was tailing actually lifted a child onto his lap for a photograph.
I drove on and passed the intersection for Claymont, and more memories flooded back, for it is in that suburb of Wilmington that the artist Felix Darley lived. Darley was one of Dickens’ American illustrators and Charles stayed with him when he was touring in 1867. When I visited, my performances were organised by a gentleman called Ray Hestor, who then owned the Darley House, and ran it as a B&B. On my first visit I flew into Wilmington airport and as I came off the plane I was serenaded by a group of Victorian-costumed carol singers, led by Ray. In those days, pre-9-11, anyone could come to the gates at the airport. Simpler times!
On I drove, into Pennsylvania, and as I had made good time, I decided to drop into a branch of Kohl’s clothing store, as I had no clean black socks for the next two days, and anyway the ones that I do have were getting rather old, so a new sock stock would be a good thing. I made my purchase and got into the car to complete the final part of the journey to Byers’ Choice and as I turned from the parking lot and onto the road, my mind went back maybe four years, when I had driven to this neighbourhood to do some laundry. At the time I had been listening to the audiobook of ‘His Dark Materials’ and now the exact passage of the book returned to me (the first time that Lyra met the armoured bear, Iorek Byrnison). It is amazing how a seemingly insignificant stimulus can open such detailed memories.
I arrived at the Byers’ Choice HQ and visitor centre at around 11.30, and as soon as I walked into the offices Bob and Pam, with their Boston Terrier, Calvin, greeted me. I hadn’t seen either of them since we said goodbye on the streets of Philadelphia after we had all seen Hamilton, and a lot had happened since then. Not only had their sister-in-law Dawn passed away, but a day or two before that Pam’s mother had unexpectedly died. It has been a terrible time for the Byers family. Having greeted each other, I went to the ‘theatre’ (it had been the production floor just a day before) to do a sound check with Dave, who looks after all of the technical details of my show. We have worked together for 17 years, and he probably knows the show as well as I do now. As I walked in, the first person I saw was Jeff Byers, Dawn’s husband, ready to play his part in making the afternoon a success, whilst dealing with his grief. I offered my condolences and put an arm around his shoulder for a moment, but it seemed a small and helpless gesture.
We were all there to work, however, and the moment passed as we got on with what we had to do, which for me was to prepare the stage for the show. When I had arranged the furniture as I wanted it, and David checked that his lighting rig was correctly focussed, we started the sound check. Normally, I would just start the show from the beginning, but being conscious that Jeff and his son Jake were still at the back of the room it didn’t seem sensitive to be saying ‘Marley was dead…’, ‘There is no doubt that Marley was dead…’, ‘as dead as a doornail….’, etc, so instead I skipped to the scene with the nephew Fred and then to the charity collector. When I had finished my checks, I went to the large boardroom which doubles as my dressing room, and started to lay the costumes out, and while I was doing that Bob appeared with the glad tidings that we had almost sold out of the signed copies of Dickens and Staplehurst, although it was thought that there may be some more copies somewhere. In the meantime, the stock of other books was selling fast too, and various members of The Byers’ Choice staff would occasionally appear with another pile to be signed.
The matinee was due to begin at 1pm, so I was in costume by 12.30 and making all of the pre-show checks to ensure that nothing untoward would happen. At 12.50 I made my way to the hall, where I stood at the back with Dave at his tech console and watched the very large audience gather who were listening to a high school choir singing carols. Watching Jeff and Jake cheerfully greet the audience members and make sure they were seated, as Dawn had done so energetically in previous years, was a very emotional thing to see, and proved what an incredibly strong and impressive family they are.
At 1 o’clock Bob joined Dave and me and, having given the signal to the choir master to wind up, we went together through the large warehouse and waited behind the door next to the stage.
If you have ever been to a Byers’ Choice show you may wonder why after the choir leaves the stage there is a bit of delay before Bob appears to make his introductory remarks, well it is because we both like to spend a few minutes thanking the students and congratulating them on their efforts.
When the singers disappeared to the store to collect their gift cards, a token of Byers’ Choice gratitude, Bob opened the door and we slipped into the darkened room. Seeing us, the audience applauded, and when Bob took to the stage, they applauded again. When he said, ‘welcome back, it is SO good to see you all’ there was more applause and when Bob greeted me there was yet more applause! This was definitely an audience of applauders.
There is nothing like being under bright stage lights, knowing that a large crowd is fully involved with every move and word, and I was fortunate to have that experience on Saturday afternoon. There were a few niggly moments during the show: I had decided to experiment on a slight tweak to the moves and pick up my little candlestick when Scrooge was making his way upstairs, and then leave it on the stool at the front of the stage. Unfortunately, I did that without thinking that Scrooge’s ‘former self’ would need needed to sit on the stool later on. I had planned to move the candle during the clearing away scene at Fezziwig’s without remembering the school scene. I managed to get the candlestick back to the table, but it was a clumsy moment, and I won’t be repeating it for a while. I also stumbled a bit as I stepped up onto the chair, in the guise of Fezziwig’s fiddle player, and during a particularly energetic moment some of the Byers’ Choice carollers fell off the table at the back of the set, although I could clear them up very easily, for it was just before mention of the room with the large and boisterous family, which gave me a good excuse to tidy up. Despite these tiny distractions, the show was an amazing one, and the audience were very active and engaged right to the end. The ovation was incredible and when I joined Bob on stage for the question-and-answer session (for such a large audience, questions had been submitted before the show, responding to a notice at the entrance: AGA – Ask Gerald Anything!), every answer was greeted with a fresh round of applause.
It was around 3.30 when I came off stage and so I had two hours to relax before the evening show. I returned back to the dressing room and Pam brought me a salmon salad and a cup of chicken noodle soup, which was a perfect repast.
In the store still the books sold, and still any copy of anything that could be found was brought to me to sign, as stocks ran out. At one point there was a knock on the door and Pam reappeared, not with books, but bearing a gift from a regular Byers’ Choice audience member, on unwrapping the package I discovered a hand-stitched mask, featuring the original John Leech illustrations from A Christmas Carol – what an imaginative and beautiful thought!
As the time moved on, I readied myself for the evening show. As I only had one set of braces now, I needed to unbutton them from the trousers that I had used for the matinee and fit them to the dry ones that I would now be using. Once again Pam appeared, this time bearing a piece of artwork created by another regular audience member – people really are so creative and generous.
My preparations completed I once again joined Dave with around 5 minutes to go before the show. The evening audience was a smaller one, and noticeably quieter, and when Bob made his introduction, the response wasn’t nearly as excitable as the matinee group, but they were an excellent crowd as far as the show itself was concerned.
The question-and-answer session was fun again and concluded with an anonymous questioner asking what I felt to be the pivotal moment in the story. I answered that I always think that the moment Scrooge remembers the carol signer, when he is with the Ghost of Christmas Past, and says that ‘I wish that I had given him a little something’, is a vital moment, for the reformation begins there.
We wrapped up, and once I’d changed, I drove to my hotel a mile away, and got checked in before meeting Bob and Pam in the lobby, for they had very kindly offered to take me to dinner in their hoem town of Doylestown. It was a lovely way to bring the day to a close. During our conversation Pam confessed to being the anonymous questioner! We talked about the tour and the possibilities for future ones, and as we chatted the most torrential rainstorm raged outside. We had some desert, and the little bit of time spent ordering, being served and eating it allowed the storm to pass through, meaning that we could return to the car in relative dryness. Bob and Pam dropped me back to my hotel and the last full day of the tour came to an end.
I had two worries in my mind as I prepared to sleep: 1) My Covid test result had yet to come through and I would not be allowed to return to the UK without it, and 2) The TV in my room wasn’t working properly and as the final race of the GP season, at which one of the closest Championships in history would be resolved, would be showing the next morning, I needed to find a way to watch it.
But that was for Sunday, for now it was time to sleep.