Throughout this Christmas season I have been sharing some of my memories of Christmas Tours Past with you, being prompted by my phone’s ‘on this day’ function. I have told you about performing with the Vaillancourts in Massachusetts and at The Country Cupboard in Pennsylvania. I have described trips to Tennessee and to California, as well as the luxury of Williamsburg and the friendship at Winterthur. However there is one venue that I have not shared with you because I wanted to save it until Christmas and that is the headquarters and visitor centre of a company called Byers’ Choice.
Around 15 years or so ago, when I was represented in America by Caroline Jackson, a member of the Byers’ Choice team came to watch me in a show at Hershey PA, with a view to my performing for them the following year. Caroline told me about the Byers family and the company that they had created, she explained that they had a huge network of collectors across the country and to perform for them could be a major development – little did any of us know back then exactly how big. The lady that came to meet me in Hershey was Lisa Porter and obviously I made a positive impression for the following year Byers’ Choice appeared on my schedule. But things were about to change – my contract with Caroline Jackson was coming to an end and I had to make the decision as to whether I would renew it; she wanted a 5 year extension and I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit for that long. In the end I took the decision to retire from travelling to America and it seemed as if my relationship with Byers Choice, fun as it had been, was going to be a very short one.
At this point let me break the narrative a little by explaining who the Byers are and what they have achieved: In the 1960s Joyce Byers was a struggling student in fashion, and despairing at the over-priced and garish Christmas ornaments available at the time she decided to create some Christmas table decorations of her own made from scraps she found in the house. By twisting an old wire coat hanger into a basic skeleton she could created a body by wrapping soft tissue paper around it. Off-cuts of material from her studies became coats or dresses, and Joyce used modelling clay to form features on the figures’ face. To celebrate to joy of Christmas Joyce decided to pose her creations as if they were lustily singing carols, so pinched their mouths into a little ‘o’ shape and from that time the figures became Carollers.
In no time the Carollers attracted attention, friends wanted a set for their own tables and it became apparent that there may be a wider market for them. Towards the end of the decade Joyce’s husband Robert was finding that a downturn in the economy was hurting his construction business but his fine business brain could see that the Carollers had a future, if only he could have his dining room table back (it having become the centre of production each Christmas), and in 1978 the couple employed their first staff: the Byers’ Choice company was formed.
The new company rapidly grew thanks to the American public’s three passions: Christmas, collecting and products that are patriotically handmade on home soil, and soon there was a need to move into new surroundings. The dining table gave way to a barn which eventually was replaced by the magnificent visitor centre and production facility which sits in Chalfont, PA. Joyce still designed each Caroller, Bob still sat at the helm of the business and their two sons Bob Jnr and Jeff, came into the family firm to take it to even greater heights. Christmas was always the vortex around which Byers’ Choice swirled and at some point Joyce included characters from one of her favourite Christmas stories into the range. By manufacturing Scrooge, Marley, the three spirits and the Cratchit clan, the company put into motion the series of events that would lead to me working so closely with them.
Back in the early 2000s I had made the decision to retire from touring in America and when that first Christmas season came around it felt as if something was missing, and I wasn’t sure that I had made the correct choice. But I had made my bed and burnt my bridges, indeed, I had apparently mixed my last metaphor. The process of getting the correct visa had become increasingly difficult over the years, and required a great deal of expertise: nobody would want to take that job on just so I could get on stage again. But a year later I received an email from Bob Byers Jnr asking if I would like to return to America to perform at the company’s anniversary (30th, I think) celebrations. I reluctantly declined and explained that even to perform for a single event we needed to spend months, and a lot of money, preparing a visa application with no guarantee that it would even be approved. What would be the point for a single weekend? I don’t know if Bob Jnr is a fisherman but he should be, for he now gently played me like a salmon in a peaty Scottish river. Maybe we could look at a visa if I would return to perform a few dates the following Christmas season too, that would make it more worthwhile for us all….wouldn’t it? He landed his catch.
Back in Chalfont the production of the Carollers takes place in a huge warehouse, dotted with benches, the open expanse is divided into different areas so as you walk through you can see the wire frames padded with tissue awaiting heads which are being carefully individually painted at other benches. Miniature coats, cloaks, dresses and bonnets are sewn with the the precision and skill of a Saville Row tailor and the whole collection are brought together to produce another completely individual and therefore collectable piece.
But each Christmas when I arrive all of these benches are removed and the warehouse floor becomes a theatre of giant proportions. Bob Jnr loves to think of himself as Mr Fezziwig clearing the warehouse on Christmas Eve ready for the great party!
A large stage is erected at one end and David Daikeler leaves his normal job in sales to become the stage manager, rigging a superb theatrical lighting system and installing state of the art sound equipment. Joyce (still very hands on within the company that) dresses the stage with fine furniture, whilst hundreds of white seats are laid out – I think the largest audience we had in that room was around 900, but we are limited by parking space!
My dressing room is in a large conference room surrounded by fine American artwork, and I have plenty of space to spread out. The corridors of the office space are filled with plaques, certificates and awards which tell another story about Byers’ Choice: their philanthropy. In 1982 Bob Senior created The Byers Foundation which donates a large portion of the company profits to various charities, local, national and international. This was never a cynical business ploy, the donations are made because the Byers family are good, kind, caring people. I feel it a privilege to have met them and an even greater privilege to continue to work with them.
Bob Byer’s Jnr and his wife Pam construct and manage my tours, generously and thoughtfully, striking long and deep relationships with the various venues I have already written about.
This year of course it was Bob who initiated the idea of making a film and put the funding in place, alongside various other partners, to get it done. Even when orders for the Carollers went through the roof at the end of this year as people were desperate for some joy in 2020 he was always there at the end of a phone, answering questions, arranging the systems through which people around the globe could rent the movie and doing it all with the grace and care inherited from his parents.
I wanted this to be special celebratory Christmas tribute to my dear friends, Joyce, Bob Snr, Bob Jnr and Jeff, as well as all of the artisans who make the figurines, but this week brought sad tidings from Chalfont: Bob Byers senior passed away after a period of ill health. His family had been able to spend quality time with him through recent weeks and were at his side when died on 21st December, in the heart of season during which he had brought so much joy to so many people over the years. You can read the family’s tribute to Bob on the company website, I shall put the link at the end of this post, but I can only say that to me he was a great fun man to spend time with, his passions for fine red wines and vintage cars engaged us in long conversations as he proudly showed off his latest acquisition. During the days of my shows Bob would be running around the factory checking that there was a goodly supply of toilet roll in the bathrooms, and that everything was perfect. He was that kind of man – not expecting anyone else to do something if he could do it himself
I know the family will spend this Christmas mourning a great husband, father and grandfather, but oh what an impression he has left on this earth and what a fine legacy remains.
The Byers Family tribute to Bob can be read here: Bob Byers Sr (byerschoice.com)