After three days of fun and success in the Kansas City area, Sunday morning marked the time to move on. I woke early, completed my daily blog duties, and went to the lobby for my final Hilton Garden Inn breakfast. Although it was only 6am, lobby cafe was surprisingly busy. I stopped by the desk to0 say hello to my old friend Squire, one of the night managers at the hotel and we chatted for a while. On my recommendation he had read Great Expectations since my last visit and was now keen on starting another Dickens novel. We chatted for a while, and then I grabbed myself a bowl of porridge and sat as I sat a table to eat another gentleman joined me. ‘I am sorry,’ he said, ‘but I couldn’t help overhearing that you are from England. I worked in Wales for two years, and I just had to tell you what an amazing country you live in, so much history.’ It was a really nice moment, he had no idea who I was or why I was in town, he just recognised an English accent and wanted to share his passion for my home country and its history.
As I continued my breakfast, the couple at the table next to me struck up a conversation with one of the hotel employees about a forthcoming football match (football as in the American football), and it suddenly struck me that I had no understanding of a single word they were saying – they could have been having a conversation in Urdu for all the sense it made to me! I suppose if they travelled to England and overheard me talking to a friend about the latest cricket match, they would feel the same: ‘Did you see the googly he bowled? The batsman went back and was trapped, but he had given him the flipper the ball before, so it’s understandable, I suppose, and placing the fielder at silly mid-off was a masterstroke!’ You get my point.
I had the car loaded by 8.30 and was soon on the road, surrounded by the beginnings of a beautiful sunny day. The traffic was not too heavy, being a Sunday and in no time I was passing the Kansas City airport and on to the North towards Omaha, Nebraska.
The road was gruesomely littered with roadkill, various deer corpses in various states of mutilation lay at the roadside. At one point I noticed a movement to my left, something out of the ordinary, and saw to my horror a teenage girl clambering over the central reservation of the freeway, having already crossed one half of the road. I sped by, but watched transfixed in my mirror as she started to walk into the northbound carriageway. The road at this point began to descend a slight slope, and the last I saw of her was as she suddenly broke into a run, presumably to get across the road before another vehicle, unseen by me, arrived. I have no idea what happened in my wake, but there had been a horrible sense of inevitability about the whole scene, and it took a long time to shake the horror of what might have happened behind me from my mind.
The journey from Kansas City to Omaha is not an interesting one, it must be said. The journey lasts three hours and involves one long and very flat road, with little scenery of interest to break the monotony. For company I was listening to Bill Bryson’s book ‘Notes From a Big Country’, which offered plenty of laughs to keep me going, and the huge sky provided a beautiful canvas for swirling cloud formations that streaked the blue.
I could feel that I was getting tired, so decided to stop briefly to stretch my legs and to buy a cup of coffee and some sugary confectionary to keep me going. As I switched the engine off in my lovely Toyota, so the driver’s seat automatically slid back a few inches to give me extra space to leave the vehicle comfortably, and of course when I got back in and started the engine, so the seat whirred back into its previous position – all very James Bond and maybe not necessary but great fun, nonetheless.
The second half of the journey passed in much the same way as the first. I crossed the state line into Iowa and was greeted by a large sign telling me that the Iowa Welcome Center was CLOSED, which didn’t seem to be very welcoming at all. Fortunately, my time in that state would be measured in minutes, as I was headed to Nebraska which I knew would be much more welcoming.
Eventually the skyline of Omaha appeared and in no time I was pulling into parking garage at the Elements hotel in the city – a very familiar hotel to me, as I have been coming to Omaha for eleven years now. It was only 11am but the team at the Douglas County Historical Society, led by Kathy Aultz, had actually booked the room from the previous night so that it would be ready when I arrived. I pulled into the hotel’s parking garage and lugged my cases into the hotel lobby where I was greeted by the young clerk at the desk. As we exchanged pleasantries, I felt a hand on my shoulder and a voice saying ‘Gerald! have you only just arrived? Wow, I thought I was picking you up at 11!’ I turned to see the familiar figure of Kathy’s husband Frank, and having exchanged brief greetings, we tried to work out what the situation was. I checked my recent emails from Kathy and saw what had happened: in my final message I had said ‘Great, I will see Frank at 1!’ and she had mistakenly read the exclamation mark as another 1 and dispatched Frank to collect me at 11am. I did have a little down time, after all.
I checked in and went up to my room, sorted out costumes for the afternoon, and then watched some TV for the two hours until I was due to meet Frank once more. We were to go to the Omaha Field Club, a very nice golf club, where the main performance of my Omaha stay is always staged. Frank dropped me off at the front door and I walked up the short flight of white steps, lavishly decorated with pumpkins and corn cobs into the club, where the team from the Douglas County Historical Society were hard at work setting up event, with guest registration and merchandise tables prominently placed in the club’s lobby.
As I greeted and chatted to old friends, the main door opened and in came Susie Phillips – my dearest friend in Omaha, and the reason that I came to the city in the first place. Susie, and her husband Lee, saw me perform in Williamsburg many years ago, and convinced Kathy to bring me to Omaha. We have become very good friends over the years, and they have even stayed in our home when they took a trip to England a few years ago. The past year has not been a kind one for Susie, for she is undergoing a rigorous course of chemotherapy, but her smile, her indomitable spirit, her sense of humour is still just as strong as ever, and it was lovely to catch up.
Getting back to work, I took my costumes and bags into the locker room and laid them on the bench where I always change by Lee’s locker, he being a member at the club. Next, I made my way into the large ballroom, already laid out with tables for the lavish tea service which precedes my performances at The Field Club, and laid out my various props on the stage, which was already set with a chair, stool, table and fireplace. My sound cues were being operated by Elise and we spent a little time going through each one, and discussing the timings etc, until we were both quite satisfied.
Preparations complete I returned to the lobby where guests were beginning to arrive, so I took myself to the dining room and ordered a simple avocado and chicken salad, which I ate with Lee, as we caught up with each other’s news.
In the dining room the tea service was due to start at 2, so the guests were all in their seats, but I had another hour to wait until showtime, so I paced around the lobby, read some books, and chatted to anyone who happened to pass by. Eventually showtime approached, and I put my top hat and scarf on and slipped into the back of the dining room as Kathy gathered the guests to order and introduced me. Elise started the opening sound cue, and I slowly walked through the audience and onto the stage.
The performances at The Field Club are fun, because the stage is low enough, and the guests near enough, to include them in the story. The traditional fourth wall of a theatre can be broken in such a setting, and I can involve members of the audience in the storytelling, which is always great fun. I was relieved to discover that my voice that had been scratchy and tired in Kansas City, seemed to have recovered, and I could give each character their own personality without it being tainted by my own vocal shortcomings.
The show was lovely, with lots of laughter and passion. At the end, as Scrooge makes his way through the streets wishing ‘A Merry Christmas!’ to all and sundry, I made a big fuss of Suzy, sitting a one of the front tables, by kissing her hand and saying ‘Enchante, Mademoiselle’ before moving on,
The response to the show was wonderful, with a long and loud standing ovation. It is traditional in Omaha that I do a short Q&A session after the performances, so I spent 5 or 10 minutes answering questions from the floor, including one from Suzy – ‘what is your favourite venue to perform in?’ Whatever else may be going on, she hasn’t lost her wicked sense of humour, for how can I answer anything other than Omaha?
When the questions were answered (most diplomatically, I may say), I went back to the locker room to change into my dry costume, and then returned to the lobby to sign and chat and pose for photographs. One gentleman presents a very early edition of A Christmas Carol with the original hand-coloured engravings, and it is a real pleasure to hold and see – he wouldn’t notice if I create a diversion and slip it into my pocket, would he?
Soon the signing was over, Frank and Lee had packed all of my things into the car, so I went back to the hotel in costume, where I had just over an hour to relax before it was time to leave for my evening show, which was my annual appearance at the General Crook House at Fort Omaha, also the HQ of the Douglas County Historical Society. The house is a wonderful Victorian property and at this time of day is lavishly decorated for Christmas. The dining room is cleared of its furniture and turned into a small theatre, with a capacity of 40, whilst the Parlour is turned into a dining room, serving a sumptuous, elegant and delicious buffet.
Frank and I arrived at about 6.30, and the guests were also tucking in and enjoying the fine fare. There were many familiar faces there, including Suzy and Lee, and we chatted until the time for my presentation arrived.
Kathy stood on the small stage and introduced me and then it was time for me to begin. I had decided to give the reading that I performed in Rochester in June, based on the meeting between Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens in 1870. I wasn’t at all sure how well it would be received, as it is not a performance I have given since I premiered it during the late Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations but actually it was really well received. The story of their relationship is a fascinating one and may form the basis for a future book.
When I had finished, we had some more questions, before moving into the parlour and gathering around the table to have a champagne toast, which was written and proposed by Suzy, who presented it with her customary aplomb.
The day, that had started in Kansas City and had involved a three-hour drive and two performances, was coming to an end and I was grateful to get back to the Element and my room. Chef Mario had plated up the best bits from his buffet and I sat in my room watching tv and enjoying the delicious food. It had been a long and busy day, but a very satisfying and successful one, but soon sleep overwhelmed me and it was time to switch the television off retire for the night.