Williamsburg

This morning we bid farewell to a constant companion on this trip, for I will be loading my final load of washing into a coin operated machine.  Naturally the process does not run smoothly as the dispenser of detergent is empty, thereby necessitating an extra trip to the front desk and back to the 2nd floor again, where I discover that I have left my key card inside the laundry room, thereby necessitating yet another trip to the front desk and back to the 2nd floor again.

 

20171212_080018

The last load of shirts

 

With my white shirts carelessly tumbling in the machine I eat breakfast and spend time in my room doing the sort of things that I do when I have time to kill, until I can finally pack my case and check out of the Hampton Inn at around 10 o’clock.  The packing of the case is another ‘last’, as next time I have to get all of my costumes, hat and cane in there as well for it will be back to flying on Thursday.

I re-join the i95 and start a 2 hour drive towards the opulent luxury of the Williamsburg Inn.  The road is straight and for the most part rather dull, taking me past the military strongholds of Quantico and West Point, and signs to the Norfolk where much of the US Navy is moored.  With the Pentagon just up the road this must be one of biggest targets in America, and therefore probably one of the most protected patches of land in the country: I’m not sure I feel reassured by that or not.

I am feeling very tired today and I think that I am starting to dip into my reserve tank of energy. The road being monotonous and slightly claustrophobic thanks to the heavily wooded central reservation, I can feel myself struggling to stay awake, so I pull into a McDonalds for an early lunch and a chance to stretch my legs, and gulp some fresh air into my lungs, before pushing on to Williamsburg.

Like so many venues on this years’ tour, Williamsburg is an old friend to me as I have been coming to perform here for heaven knows how long.  Within the last twelve months the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (which overseas all of the properties and tourist sites in the city) has been taken over and massive changes have been predicted, so I am anxious to explore the Inn and find out what has happened here, for better or for worse.

I pull up in the car park and walk through the beautifully polished brass handled doors.  The main hallway allays any fears that I may have, as the décor is just as plush and understated as ever it was.  I am welcomed with due deference into the reception lounge (nothing as sordid as a simple check in desk here), and am offered a glass of champagne, ‘or perhaps sir would prefer a spiced cider?’ as my check in is sorted out.  I decline both as I have a show to perform fairly soon.  Unfortunately my room is not quite ready, so I stroll towards the Regency Dining Room where all of my shows will be held.  The Regency Room used to be the hotel’s signature restaurant and harked back to another age when gentlemen wore jackets and ties to dine, but sadly that age is passing (maybe it has already passed) and the modern clientele want to spend their money in a more relaxed setting, so now the room lays dormant except for special banqueting events such as mine.

Chase and Donald, the AV guys, have already set up the sound system so I do a quick sound check, and then sit on the set and watch the bustling preparations for the sumptuous tea that is due to be served in an hours time.  A call is put out for more chairs, which requires Chase to slowly descend to the store room which is under the room.  A whole patch of floor is in fact a lift and in past times a band would slowly emerge to the delight of the diners and dancers who flocked to the Inn.  Wouldn’t it be great if Marley could make his first appearance on this device?

20171212_123729

Another addition is a long fire pit on the terrace outside the window, meaning that my performance will have the flames licking behind me.  There is another wonderful item on my wish list – how about if we could control the height of the flames, so that as Scrooge is shown his own grave we turn them up as if the gates of Hell are opening for him!

I pop back to reception to see if my room is ready, and while I am there am greeted by my dearest friend here, Ryan Fletcher who always introduces my shows.  We exchange a hug of greeting and then walk back to the Regency Room together to go over the timing of the afternoon’s event with the banquet staff.  Guests will be seated at 2.30, and tea will be served.  As soon as the plates are down Ryan will get the signal and introduce me.  I will perform the show up to the end of the Ghost of Christmas Past when we have a short break so that teacups can be replenished before I finish the story.  It is all pretty simple, and a well tried programme.

20171212_131509

Ryan

The audience are already waiting at the door, so I go back to the desk, get my room keys and finally am able to enjoy the beautiful room in which I am to be based for the next two days.  I have a quick shower to clear away the journey and get into costume before returning to the dining room and watch as the guests are seated.  Many exchange greetings and shake my hand as they arrive and the whole scene is very festive with red Christmas sweaters predominating; there is even a Santa hat (has the Regency Room ever seen such a thing before?)

The service seems to take a while, but Ryan and I are reassured that everything is running to time.  We stand at the back of the room and chat and Ryan fills me in with goings on elsewhere in the Williamsburg operation.  A lot of staff have been laid off from the shops and venues on the tourist side and Ryan, who appeared as storekeeper Mr Greenhow, no longer works for the Foundation (although he retired, rather than was let go).

And suddenly we are given the nod, and Ryan makes a typically generous and eloquent introduction before I start the performance.  I don’t have a stage to perform on here, I have a dancefloor and as I am almost performing in the round I need to use all of the space available to me to make sure everyone enjoys the show.  Being a tea event means that I can roam among the tables and include members of the audience in the plot (one man becomes Scrooge, another Fezziwig.  Someone ‘trips’ me up as I am rushing through the city streets, but is forgiven for ‘it is a shame to quarrel on Christmas Day’).  As Scrooge falls asleep after being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past I say ‘..and dreamed of servers replenishing cups of tea’ and we are into the intermission.  When everyone has been served and the necessary restroom breaks have been complete, the plot begins once more and builds to the rousing end.

It is always hot and energetic work here, as I have a lot of ground to cover but the rewards are immense for maybe here, more than at any other venue, the audience and I travel through the story together.

I take the applause and bow to each corner of the room, and then make my exit leaving an excited babble of conversation behind me.  My room, although on the same floor, is quite a way away so I run down the corridors in order to get changed as soon as possible so as not to keep the people waiting in line for too long.  This year I am signing in a little room that used to be a back office to the front desk (the title of ‘Executive Board Room’ is rather more grand than it deserves to be), but it takes us away from the hubbub of the lobby and ensures that people arriving for the second show don’t gate crash the party!  The great advantage of the board room is that it has two entrances making ingress and egress very easy.

People congratulate me on the show and a lot talk about my blog and ask about various adventures (my geranium cufflinks seem to have taken on star status this year).  It is always nice to know that people enjoy my rather mundane diaries and it makes an even closer connection between me and the audiences around the country.

When the signing is finished I have only about an hour to relax before it is time to prepare for dinner, so I run myself a hot bath and disappear beneath the bubbles.

But time and bubbles wait for no man, and before I know it, it is time to get ready again.  I get into costume and carefully lay out the replacement shirt, waistcoat and frock coat on my bed so that the after-show change can be a quick one. As I walk through the lobby the crowd is massing, and once again I am greeted by people who come to the show every year – ‘This is our 5th!’;  ‘Hey Mr Dickens great to have you back, this is our 8th time!’; ‘Gerald!  is Liz with you?  Oh, what a shame, we miss her!’, and so on.  Before taking my place in the restaurant I go outside to admire the hotel at night, one of the changes this year has been the building of a reflecting pool which reflects the thousands of white lights spectacularly.

20171212_184140

 

As I am admiring the view a couple of guests come up to me and ask if they can have a picture taken?  ‘Of course!’ and as I am getting ready to pose with them, they hand me their phone  and stand arm and arm waiting for me to take the photograph.  It is good to be reminded that not everything is about me!

For the dinner show I sit at a table with Ryan and some other guests, and enjoy the delicious meal before performing after desert.  This year we are sat with Rick and Carol, who are celebrating their anniversary, as well as other guests who cant quite believe that they have been seated with the ‘talent’.  In the early years of my Williamsburg appearances I would inevitably be sat with hotel management or board members, but Ryan and I love the new style and always enjoy chatting, although I have to be careful not to overdo the anecdotes as I need my voice to be in fine fettle.  As we eat, snow begins to fall outside which brings an even greater festive feel to the proceedings.

The dinner is superb, and just after 8 Ryan makes his introductory remarks before he leaves to go to a concert at the Bruton Parish Church where he is due to sing.  The energy in the room is even greater than this afternoon, and people become completely engaged in the story, which in turn leads me to work even harder.  It is a wonderful show and I feel truly energised by it as I take my bows.  Once more I run back to my room only to discover that the Williamsburg housekeeping team have turned down my bed, and carefully hung all of my clothes up meaning that my quick change plan doesn’t work quite as well as it should!

One of the first parties in the line hands me a gift bag and says ‘This is for Liz, we so enjoyed talking to her when we were in the lobby last year, and she is so sweet.  So please say hi from us!’  Once again I am open mouthed at people’s thoughtfulness and generosity.

Eventually the line dwindles down to nothing, and my energy levels are doing the same.  I retreat to the bar (new wallpaper: not sure about it) and have a drink with some old friends from the hotel, but soon I have to get back to my room and sleep.  I move the little cushion with the porcelain tray and the miniature bottle of peach liqueur to the antique table at the side of my bed, slip between the Egyptian cotton sheets and let my eyes close upon the instant.

20171213_093007

 

 

 

Advertisements

Living It

In my anonymous hotel somewhere in Delaware I wake up at an annoyingly familiar early hour, which gives me time to write and catch up with the news from home, where the first snow of winter is wreaking havoc on the roads, and also allowing Liz a day off.

When breakfast time comes around I go down to the lobby Bistro and order two eggs, over-easy, along with some bacon and toast. My table is a little booth, with its own TV set into the wall: it is a little breakfast-pod, designed to prevent any interaction with anyone else who are also hidden in their own little pods.

At 9 o’clock, having given the worst of the rush hour traffic a chance to clear, I take my case back to the car and get on the road to continue my journey to the little riverside town of Occoquan in Virginia.  It will be a drive of just over two hours, and I settle down with Mr Bond as the countryside of Delaware, Maryland and then Virginia passes by outside.

I am driving down the i95, a road that has featured so much in my various travels on this trip, and soon I am crossing the Millard E Tydings Memorial Bridge, which takes me over the mighty Susquehanna river, that I admired so much when I drove to Lewisburg a week ago.  Here the river is bloated and swollen, preparing to empty its contents into Chesapeake bay, which in turn will flow into the Atlantic.

I drive on, passing the skyline of Baltimore where I say a silent ‘hello’ to David and Theresa who live here, and continue towards Washington DC.  My first glimpse of the city seems almost accidental and apologetic – it is not like driving towards New York City where the Manhattan skyline is visible from miles around – DC is a low level city, as no building is allowed to be taller than the Washington Monument, and the first time I realise I am actually here is when I get a glimpse of the Capitol Building’s dome between a couple of run-down tenement blocks.  Further on and there is the Washington Monument too and for a while I am driving parallel to the magnificent Mall, before curving away to the left and over the Potomac River.  I drive past the Pentagon, low and squat, and then the three-pronged Air Force Monument which is shining bright in the sunlight.

And almost as quickly as DC presents itself to me, it is gone again and I am driving past Ikea stores and car dealerships which fill the southern suburbs.

Occoquan is only about twenty minutes south of DC and it is a road I have driven many times.  I do not actually have an address for my hotel, but as I have stayed here so often  can navigate myself without electronic assistance.  Well, almost.  As I near the hotel I realise that I am in the wrong lane, and that I am about to curve right back onto the 95, I glance in my mirror and see a car coming VERY fast on my left, so I brake to let him fly by before moving over into the left lane.  Unfortunately just as I start brake, he also realises that he is in the incorrect lane and swerves to the right bringing him right behind me, on a collision course.  He must be doing eighty and I am still braking hard.  Fortunately I glimpse his sudden lane change and I am able to swing the car to the left seconds before what would have been a major and catastrophic collision.  He races by me on the right and away.  Wow, that was close.

I navigate to the Hampton Inn, and am soon checked in, giving me an hour or so of rest before I need to be at The Golden Goose Christmas store in Occoquan itself.

I open up the laptop to check emails and discover that I have one from Ian Fleming Publications.  After I had written my Bond spoof a few weeks ago, I thought I would send the link to the publishers, just for fun.  I am amazed to see that they have replied and for a moment allow myself to be seduced by the images of  headlines announcing a lucrative new book deal – ‘DICKENS TO WRITE BOND’.  My dreams are crushed in two lines:

Dear Gerald. Thank you for sharing this with us. We hope you continue to enjoy the Bond novels.

It was very nice of them to reply at all though!

The next thing to do is ring home, as I know that Liz is not working today, and will be at home.  We chat for a long time, and it is so lovely to hear her voice.  In a week’s time I will be getting ready to fly home and neither of us can wait to see each other again.

All too soon it is time to get ready for the day’s events, so we say our goodbyes and continue with our respective Mondays, which for me involves having a quick shower and driving to The Ebenezer Chapel, in Occoquan.  It is 1 O’clock, an hour before show time, and yet the sweet little wooden church is filling up already.  LaVerne, one of the owners of the Golden Goose store, is manning the door and confirms that people have been milling around since 10!

 

20171211_130537

The Ebenezer Chapel

 

I rearrange the furniture at the front of the room, and exchange greetings with many audience members who have been coming to this event for as many years as I have – 23 or something like that, which is amazing.

Having set up (no sound check here as the hall is too small to merit a microphone, and there is no equipment to play my CD sound effect on), I walk to the store itself and greet the other owner, Pat, and the rest of the staff, including Brittney who acts as my ‘minder’.

The routine is a familiar one and I change in the little rest room that doubles as a stock room, before I am ready to be escorted back to Ebenezer.  There really is no need for Brittney to accompany me, but it is nice to catch up with her news: she is just about to finish university and will soon be on that great job market treadmill.

The audience is packed in and when I arrive LaVerne walks to the front of the hall and begins one of her carefully researched and beautifully delivered introductions, but as she starts so a car alarm begins to sound outside, and this will be a constant companion all the way through my show – 90 minutes, which leads one to question the value of such a device in that nobody takes any notice of it.

The show is a complete contrast to that of yesterday at Byers’ Choice when I had so much space to roam and move.  The hall at Ebenezer is intimate and there is only a very narrow piece of floor for me to do my stuff on.  I feel a little heavy of limb as I move around, but the audience are always amazing here and its a pleasure to perform for them.  I try a little adlib about the constant car alarm when Scrooge sends the boy off to collect the turkey, but it doesn’t work and falls flat.

It doesn’t matter though for the show is very well received one again, and I bow to cheers and whoops.  As the audience leaves I stand at the door with Lavern and shake everybody’s hand, wishing them a Merry Christmas, in my best vicar’s voice.  As ine gentleman shakes my hand he says ‘that wasn’t acting, that was living it!’

When everyone has left I stride back to the Golden Goose, change into my dry costume and then go to the signing table where Brittney is on duty once more to control the queue in the cramped space of the store and to take photographs which she does with the enthusiasm of a professional, getting all sorts of artistic close ups of my signature, as well as the more formal posed shots.

The signing comes to an end, and my luggage will be heavier to the tune of a charming children’s Christmas book, beautifully wrapped complete with a Christmas cracker, and a Victorian ha’penny from 1870, the year of Dickens’s death.  People are just so very very generous.

20171211_163057

I go back to the stock room and change before walking to the Secret Garden restaurant where I dine with Jean, Peter and Joe – another wonderful Occoquan tradition. WE always come to the same restaurant and sit at the same table, and to some degree have the same conversation.  It is wonderful and relaxing, but we all miss Liz, who is usually here with us.

I have a delicious pasta dish, topped with salmon, but our time together is all too short, and I have to absent myself from the table to go and change once more, ready for the 6 O’clock performance.  The chapel is filled again, and once more LaVerne makes her welcoming speech and I walk through the audience to the front of the hall.

Whilst I was eating dinner, and again while I was changing, I was worried that my throat was tightening up, but as I start the show there is no evidence of it and it is in pretty good shape considering the length of the tour.  It is an energetic performance, considering the small space, and the audience are fully engaged, especially a younger group who obviously know the show well and are laughing at almost every line.  One girl, maybe in her early twenties, particularly is enjoying it, and I just know that she will want to be involved….Topper, do your worst!  Sure enough as the flirtatious friend of Fred makes his move, she blushes just as deeply as the text suggests she should!  The rest of the family love it.

The performance comes to another rousing end and the audience welcome me back on their feet, before we all traipse back to the store for the evening signing session, which is slightly shorter as some of this audience had their books signed this afternoon.

Before I can change Brittney has me sign a few pieces for the staff in the store, and as I am signing the collection of badges and playbills LaVerne asks about the significance of my little red flower pin and cufflinks, I explain that they represent the scarlet geranium that was Dickens’ favourite flower.  ‘Oh!’ exclaims Pat, ‘That is the town flower, LaVerne made it our flower when she was the mayor.’

‘Yes,’ confirms LeVerne modestly, ‘I had such power then!’

I finish signing, and although it is only around 8.15 it feels so much later.  I collect all of my things up from the store room and the office and say good bye to all of the team at the Golden Goose, giving special warm hugs to Pat and Laverne, and thanking them for providing me with such a fun place to perform.

I finish the evening in Madigan’s Bar, where I order a piece of Apple Tart, which never arrives, but I have a lovely conversation with some locals, one of whom had seen the afternoon’s show.  Hardly anyone in the town knows about the event as The Golden Goose markets it to their customer base and it sells out instantly, meaning that further publicity is not necessary.  However, my praises are sung by the lady who had seen it and other customers in the bar are intrigued and want to know more!

Eventually I say my goodbyes, collect my car from the Ebenezer Chapel and drive back to the hotel.  I eat a few biscuits (the remains of a gift earlier in the trip) in lieu of the apple pie that never was (but for which I was not charged), and then get ready for my bed.

 

 

 

 

 

To the Right, Opening In

I wake in the Ambler Inn with a nice long morning of nothing laid out before me.  A glance outside reveals a beautiful morning of blue skies and bright sun, making the snow sparkle and glisten in the low, golden light.

20171210_080452

I write my blog and then head to the restaurant for breakfast where the remnants of a major wedding party are spread around the tables in various states of delicate repose.  Some are being very quiet, others are cheerful and brash.  From the snippets of conversation that I overhear it was obviously quite a night.

When I have finished breakfast I decide to move my car closer to the room, so that I will not have to drag my case across the snow.  When I came back last night the car park was absolutely packed with wedding revellers’ vehicles, and I was lucky to find one space right in the far corner of the property.  This morning the Hyundai looks rather lonely.

20171210_083605

Back in my room I need to pack, as I shall be driving south straight after my afternoon show, but the fact is that I have nothing to pack – my case is empty as Pam still has the large majority of my clothes.

20171210_084237

I watch some TV, play some backgammon on my phone, and generally waste time until 11 o’clock ticks around.  I check out of Ambler and drive to Byer’s Choice where I spend time chatting to Wendy in the store, and Dave in his office.  I go to the main auditorium to make sure everything is where it should be on the stage, and bump into Bob.  We talk about the programmes and how well they sold, and were sold, yesterday, and herein lies our great frustration.  Bob tells me that the $20 price tag was difficult for this particular crowd (not being the theatre-going demographic who would happily pay that amount for a well-produced glossy programme such as we offer), but still, through hard selling and marketing, we sold a goodly amount .  If only we could convince other venues to do the same, the situation would be very different.  OK, some places such as libraries and churches are not geared up for selling, but many of the sponsors are retailers in their own right and should really have done a better job.

As we talk Pam arrives laden down with two huge bags containing my clothes, she has been so generous with her time, and takes the bags to my dressing room.

There is now an hour to go and I start to get ready as the audience is let in to the hall to take their seats.  Today is going to be a massive crowd; many people were worried about the falling snow yesterday and swapped their tickets for today’s show.  I don’t know the number, but it must be pushing towards 800, and every chair in the building is sourced to accommodate everyone.  I am standing at Dave’s sound desk watching the crowd grow when a familiar smiling face comes up to me: Lisa!  Lisa Porter used to work at Byers’ Choice and for many years operated my tour – It was Lisa who negotiated with all of the venues, and arranged my travel and accommodation.  It was Lisa who was always on the end of the phone when I had left my watch, my pen, my cufflinks, my hat and countless other things in hotels or on stages around the country.  It was Lisa who worked hard to re-book flights when one was cancelled, and it was Lisa who drove Liz from airports to venues when she came to join me.  Lisa was the forerunner of Pam, in short.

It is wonderful to see her again and she is looking well and enjoying her new work (she left Byers’ Choice a few years ago now).  She asks me if I wouldn’t mind signing a book for her grandson who is just a year old, which of course I am more than happy to do.

Some eagle-eyed opportunistic members of the audience spot me signing Lisa’s book, and soon people are coming from here and there clutching a programmes or volumes of A Christmas Carol: ‘I know it is an imposition, but would you mind just….’

Fortunately the CB West choir launch into We Wish You A Merry Christmas and that is Bob’s and my cue to make our way backstage and begin the festivities.

The show and the response to it is very like yesterdays, and it is great fun to perform for such a huge group of people.  One thing has been nagging me throughout the tour, and I really want to settle it firmly in my mind, and that is the question: which way does Scrooge’s door open?  In the first scene Bob Cratchit, and Ebenezer himself, go to an imaginary door stage left and at various points open it or slam it shut.  Of course Scrooge returns to his office the next morning, and unlocks the door, before entering it and closing it behind him.  All of this is mimed, but during the tour I have realised that I am not being consistent with the door: are the hinges on the left or the right as I look at it?  Does it open inwards or outwards?  Is the door to Scrooge’s apartment the same or opposite?  This has become one of those issues that takes on huge importance in my mind and I want to get it right.  So today I make a decision, that the hinges are on the right (as I look from the ‘room’), and it opens inward.

The show goes on and we have lots of fun with Mrs Cratchit, and Old Joe, but unbeknown to me I am fast approaching a momentous moment in this years’ tour:  ‘Scrooge got dressed all in his best…’ up goes the top hat spinning over and over, only to fall squarely and comfortably straight onto my head!  This is only the second time that I have ever achieved this and there is a huge cheer from the crowd!

Of course such a large crowd brings a long signing line, but they are a cheerful and remarkably patient bunch of people.  Most who wait behind have seen the show multiple times and some have books that I have signed every year – space is becoming a little limited in those volumes now.

Pam hovers, and takes photographs, and moves people on well, until the last people leave clutching their books and it is time for me to get changed again.  As usual I have completely taken over the boardroom, with various items of costume hung over separate chairs to air individually.  I make my way round the room making sure that everything is packed up, and then get ready to leave.

I go back to my ‘theatre’ only to discover that it has almost been completely transformed back into a factory floor, with work stations replacing the rows of white seats.  Dave has taken the all of the lights down, and one solitary painting hangs on the wall above the now absent stage.

 

20171210_155548

The small painting in the centre if the image is where the stage once was

 

Bob is controlling the operation, but breaks off to hug a goodbye.  It has been another great time at Byers’ Choice and as ever I am sorry to leave ‘Mr Fezziwig’ as he puts the warehouse back together after the Christmas party.

Pam very kindly helps me take all of my belongings, not to mention the two bags of laundry, to my car, and we have our own goodbye hug, before I set the SatNav and start to drive south.

Tomorrow I have to be in Occoquan, Virginia, which can be quite a long drive from Pennsylvania, so Bob and Pam decided  that it would be a good idea to make part of the journey this afternoon and have booked me into a hotel near Wilmington, Delaware tonight, which will just break the journey nicely.

Diamonds are Forever, read by Damien Lewis, accompanies my travels and I am so relieved that someone has at last got Felix Leiter’s Texan accent correct (I’m sorry to say that Rory Kinnear’s effort in Live and Let Die was not impressive.)  The character of Felix is one of Fleming’s best creations and he has been badly served in all of the films – so I am delighted to hear Lewis’s drawling and laconic accent.

After an hour’s driving I pull into the Courtyard by Marriott just outside Wilmington, and it is a very strange feeling to check into a hotel that has nothing to do with an event, there is an extraordinary feeling of anonymity about it.  I watch a bit of television and converse via Facebook’s messenger service with my son Cameron, who has just been involved in a car crash on the ice in England. He and his girlfriend are quite unharmed, but the car is a bit of a mess apparently.  It is a frightening thought, but I am so relived that they are OK.

After a little bit of online research I find that there is a good looking restaurant nearby and soon I am sitting in a very dark booth, struggling to read the grey print of the menu. Eventually I squintingly order the grilled salmon, grilled vegetables and mashed potatoes.  The meal comes and it is delicious, and just the right portion size, which is rare in American restaurants.

I go back to the hotel and have an early night.  Tomorrow takes me into Virginia, which really marks the last leg of the US tour, but I cannot relax yet, for there are another eight shows to be done here, and three more in England, so I must keep on top of my game for a while yet.

Sleep is coming.  What is it that I must remember?  Oh, yes. Hinges to the right, opening inwards.  Hinges…..to the right….opening in….hinges….hinges…hinges….zzzzzzzzzz

 

Snow, Snow, Snow, Snow, Snow

Last night at Gloria Dei Susan had told me that snow was on the way and hoped that it would hold off until after her evening show.  I saw no flurries on my drive back, but this morning I wake up with the excited anticipation of  a child and run to the windows.  I would fling the curtains open, but the Ambler Inn has venetian blinds which do not have the same sense of excitement to them.  What an anti-climax, for there is nothing on the ground – no mantel of white or any other real life recreation of any of the lyrics from my Christmas playlist.

The excitable child has just discovered that his Christmas stocking is hanging empty at the end of his bed.  It will just be another day.

I write my blog, and when I have finished I walk from my building to the main restaurant of the Ambler to grab two cups of coffee to take back to my room.  Today sees the launch of the new season of Grand Tour and as I have a while to wait before breakfast is served, I settle back to watch.  The new series is much more like the old Top Gear, without all of the silly experimental stuff that spoiled series 1, and there is a feeling of reassuring familiarity to it.  I watch half of the show then go to breakfast, where I am aware of a new nudges and whispers.  Sure enough as I leave two ladies ask if they can have a picture with me.  I am looking a bit dishevelled, but duly smile and pose with them.

Back in the room I resume the programme and as I watch I suddenly become aware of a movement outside the window, and the first flurries begin to fall from the grey sky.  The Christmas stocking is slowly being filled after all!

24774955_10154877019131300_5245971602787064390_n

Throughout the morning the snow continues to fall and the trees and grass begin to turn white, although it looks as if the road surfaces have been well treated, meaning there should be minimal interruptions to my day.

I finish watching Grand Tour and then make sure that I have everything for my shows today (including two bulging bags of laundry for Pam), before crunching to my car, and starting the engine to clear the screens while I brush the loose snow from the windows.

The drive from The Ambler Inn to Byers’ Choice is little more than ten minutes and as I suspected the roads are fine, although this amount of snowfall in the UK would bring the country to a grinding halt!

I pull into the magnificent complex that is the Byers’ Choice HQ, where all of the caroller figurines are created, and find a parking space near to the main administrative entrance.  I load myself up with two costumes, my top hat and cane, two bags of laundry, and somehow balance it all on my little roller case and leave a set of footsteps that will soon disappear, for the snow is coming down much heavier now.

In the building I am greeted by all the staff I know so well, for I have been coming here for around twelve years and feel like one of the family now.  I dump my belongings in the huge boardroom that doubles as my dressing room, before going to the theatre space to meet with Dave, who looks after all of the technical aspects of my performing.

The Byers’ Choice shows are the largest on tour and over the next two days I am due to perform three shows, each with audiences of over 600, the seats have been carefully laid out and look rather intimidating.

20171209_113722

Dave loves the show and is always thinking of ways to tweak and add to it, which I am happy for him to do.  A few years ago he managed to find a lighting effect that projects a stained glass window onto the back wall, to use when Scrooge goes to Church.  Last year Dave discovered some sound effects, so now the show comes complete with ringing bells and street sounds as well.

20171209_112700

We complete our sound check, and I return to the boardroom, where Pam brings me a bowl of soup, which is very welcome.

With about an hour to go I sign a few books that have been ordered from previous venues, and a whole stack of our programmes to offer to people who do not want to stand in line later.

The snow is still falling, and however pretty it looks, it is causing problems in the various car parks, so everyone is mobilised to help get the audience settled before showtime.  I get into my costume, making sure that I have the Victorian penny in the pocket of my waistcoat, and with twenty minutes to go I walk to the back of the hall to watch the crowd grow.

Usually I stand with Dave by the sound and lighting desks, but today he is strolling through the audience selling the programmes – Byers’ Choice are making a big effort to sell them properly here, rather than simply placing them on a merchandise table as has been the case at many venues.

On the stage the choir from the CB High School East entertain the crowd with Christmas Carols and the whole scene is very festive.  Amazingly the whole crowd is seated pretty well on time and Bob goes to the stage to introduce me, and soon after I walk into an atmospheric pool of deep blue sombre light (Dave is playing!)

The show is, of course, big, there are a lot of people to include, but everything here is proportionally in scale, so the stage is high and there is plenty of room for me to move.  This is the wonderful thing about my tour – just twenty four hours ago I was performing to around thirty people, and now almost 700.  This is why the shows never become routine for there is always a new set of challenges to overcome.

The audience at Byers’ Choice are a loyal bunch and it is always a pleasure to perform to them.  The show is an adrenaline filled adventure and I work very hard, trying to bear in mind that I have another show in just a couple of hours’ time.

When we get to the church visit and Dave very slowly brings up the stained glass window effect there is an audible reaction from the audience, which is very satisfying.  I bring the show to a close and receive another amazing Byers’ Choice ovation.

As I leave the stage there begins the most exhausting part of the day – as Bob makes a few closing comments on the stage I have to run the entire length of the factory, so that I can get back to the board room before the mass exodus begins.  I achieve my goal and start to slowly change into my spare costume, letting my heart rate come down, and controlling my breathing.

I take my time, but I know that there will be a massive line waiting for me, so I tie my cravat, pick up my fountain pen, and make my way into the Visitor Centre, where Pam is waiting for me in the Nativity room.  As I arrive she starts a round of applause which is taken up by the patiently waiting fans.

The signing lasts for around an hour, with Pam managing it very efficiently, making sure that books are open to the correct pages, and mastering a wide variety of photographic devices, as she moves the line on quickly, but without diminishing the personal touch.

As soon as the last guest leaves Bob and Pam take me back to the little kitchen, give me a ham sandwich to eat, and leave me alone to relax.  I eat the sandwich and then get down to making repairs to my second pair of trousers, with the broken expandable waist, which I haven’t been able to use for a few days.  The repair isn’t pretty but should be effective for the rest of the tour I think.

Before the audience arrives I need to collect my woollen scarf from the set and move Bob Cratchit’s stool to the correct position for the opening of the second show.  The theatre is deserted, except for one figure, busily putting reserved signs on a number of seats in the front row.  Dawn Byers is the wife of Jeff (Bob’s brother), and always helps with seating the audience – she is energetic, strong and sparky.  Her Facebook feed has always been full of exciting adventures, with skiing featuring prominently, at least it was until June.

Completely out of the blue Dawn was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer, and through the second half of this year has been undergoing major Chemo treatment.  Dawn being Dawn has tackled the issue head on and continually posts amazing video updates of her treatment and progress – not just lovely, fluffy, positive ones, but telling it as it is, sharing her downs as well as her ups.

She is approaching the end of the current course of chemo, and is hoping to be put on a trail programme for an amazing sounding drug.  Always looking forward, never feeling sorry for herself and her situation, she is a beacon of positivity.

We chat for a few minutes, and she is amazing.  I know that I speak for all of my blog readers in wishing Dawn continued success in her ongoing treatment, and thank her for all she is doing to raise awareness.

The audience numbers will be slightly down tonight some folk have cancelled do to the snow, but it will still be a crowd of over 600.  I get changed and return to my post at the back of the hall, and watch the ‘other’ high school, CB West, sing.  West is an incredible choir, that regularly performs at the Whitehouse and at other major national events.  Most of the programme is made up from traditional Christmas songs and carols,  but as the session nears its end  they begin their rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus.  Now of course it is traditional for audiences to stand when the piece is performed, but I don’t think anyone expected that from the huge audience gathering to watch A Christmas Carol, but there, on the factory floor of Byers’ Choice, the audience begins to get to their feet and humbly listen.  It is an incredibly moving moment, started by a few people in the middle, but gradually spreading throughout the room.

Quite the warm-up act!

The second show is just as energetic and good as the first, and the audience are just as fun and responsive.  As I leave the stage I once more make my sprint to the dressing room, ready for the signing session.  The line is not quite as long this time, as a few people have left straight away, for the snow has continued to fall all day and they want to get off the roads as early as they can.  Hopefully they have all availed themselves of those pre-signed programmes.  However I am still sat at my desk for a good long time, and the smile starts to get a little more forced, and the conversation a little more brief.

At the end of the one of the most exhausting days of the tour, I wearily change into street clothes, leaving the costume in the boardroom, as I will be back tomorrow, and go to my car, which looks like a cup cake with white icing poured over it.

20171209_201425

I clear the snow and scrape the ice (this is the first time on the tour that I have had to wear my gloves), and drive back to the Ambler Inn.  At last my insistence of a 4 wheel drive vehicle has paid off.

20171209_201242

Back at the Inn I order a ribeye steak, and then go back to my room. I switch on the TV and am delighted to discover that It’s a Wonderful Life is playing – my favourite Christmas film.  I settle down and wallow in the gentle nostalgia of Jimmy Stewart doing his thing.

But the day has been about one thing: to take the opening lyric from another of my Christmas songs ‘Snow, snow, snow, snow, snow.’

Happy Birthday to my wonderful sister Nicky! Have a great day

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Seems Much Closer

I seem to be getting into a routine of waking very early again, which is rather frustrating.  I sit in the curtained bed (old Joe and Mrs Dilber would approve), and dispatch my previous days’ experiences to the cyber world.  Eventually 8 O’clock approaches and it is time for breakfast.

The Fairville Inn is very busy this morning and when I go into the little dining room there is already a party of four waiting to be served.  The server is a young girl and one of the group barks at her ‘what is the situation here?  How do we order breakfast?  Is there a menu or what?’  The girl says that she was waiting for the rest of the party to arrive before explaining the choices.  The bark comes again ‘tell us now, and I can explain it to the others when they arrive.’  The girl then patiently runs through the menu choices, pours coffee and leaves the man to talk to his group in a loud, brash voice.

She comes to my table and asks if I need to hear the menu and I say no, it is fine, and choose Rick’s amazing Blueberry French Toast Soufflé, with home made raspberry sauce.  As I sip my coffee and drink my orange juice the rest of the large party arrive and the alpha male begins to tell them what is on offer:  ‘There is some egg thing, and some kind of pancake, or waffle, cant remember, there may have been some sort of omelette.  I don’t know what the hell there is, HEY!’ and he once more calls the server who patiently goes through the whole menu once again, for the benefit of the entire group, as she wanted to do in the first place.

I eat my breakfast quietly, and chat to Rick, Laura and the rest of the team as they come in and out of the restaurant.  The soufflé is delicious, and Laura explains that Rick grows the raspberries for the sauce in the yard, and makes huge batches of it.  To accompany all of this is the soundtrack of our loud friend’s life and career.

Before returning to my room I stop by the Christmas tree to admire the Vaillancourt ornament that now hangs in pride of place.

I am moving on today but don’t have to be on the road until around ten, so I take the opportunity to empty my suitcase and re-pack it, as its become a bit of a mess over the last few days.  Another massive amount of laundry has built up, but I am saving it until I see Pam on Saturday, as she rather foolishly offered to take some loads in for me.

I fold everything that needs folding, and discard various things that are superfluous to my needs, before closing up and humping the heavy case down the narrow staircase of Spring Cottage and into my car.

Back in the main building I remember to hand my key in and say my goodbyes for another year.

 

20171208_102448

With Laura

 

My venue today is in the small Pennsylvanian community of Huntingdon Valley, and my SatNav tells me that it is a drive of just over an hour, so I have plenty of time in hand.  But when I come to join the i276 I come to a grinding halt, as there has been some kind of crash or break down up ahead.  I sit staring at the back of a DHL van for about thirty minutes: 11.30 (my supposed arrival time) comes and goes.  Thanks to Pam’s comprehensive handbook that accompanies my tour (my ‘Bible’) I am able to call Susan at the Gloria Dei Church and explain that I am on my way and not to panic.  She sounds very calm, and panic seems to be the very last emotion that she would have!

In fact almost as soon as I finish the call, the traffic starts to move on again and my journey is back on track.  The little computer screen is counting down the miles to my destination, but suddenly I am aware that I have not seen any signs to Huntingdon Valley – lots for Doylestown, and I begin to panic that maybe I set the SatNav incorrectly and I am miles away from where I should be.  However soon I see signs for the Gloria Dei Church and I pull into the parking lot.

The Church is an impressive sprawling complex with lots of offices, and meeting rooms as well as the main sanctuary.  I am greeted by Susan, who is just as calm as I imagined, and she shows me the lay of the land (I hope she will be on hand throughout the day, as the building is quite a warren and I could easily find myself performing to a pre-school group of 3 year olds, rather than my intended audience.)  I mention the lack of road signs and Susan rolls her eyes, and explains Huntingdon Valley is a hidden away little secret and very few people know that it actually exists

As I am running late the first thing is to get the sound check done before the audience arrive.  The main sanctuary is an amazing long room, with high vaulted ceiling made of dark wood.  At the far end is a raised area, which will be my stage, and overlooking it is a huge wooden carved statue of Christ the Redeemer.

20171208_144718

Susan introduces me to the Reverend Jim, one of the pastors here, and he hands me the microphone, so that I can try a few lines.  The sound system is a good one and I have no worries about it, at all.  Jim is an open, very jolly sort of pastor, whose face falls naturally into a smile; I could cast him as a young Mr Fezziwig.  His shirt is a loud one made up of broad green and red stripes, and this adds to his festive appearance.

My changing room is in the music directors office, and apart from the usual desk, which is covered with sheet music, there is also a toddler’s cot, which doubles as very useful hanging space for my costumes (and maybe I can have a nap between shows!)

20171208_123731

Just before 1 Susan arrives to lead me back to the chapel, where a very small audience, maybe 30 or so, appear lost in the cavernous space.  Fortunately Susan and the team have roped off the back pews so that the audience are at least gathered at the front.  Jim explains that this is the first time that they have ever tried anything like this in the church, so do not know what to expect.

AS soon as I start the show I realise that this is going to be a completely different kind of performance to that which I have been giving on stage so far.  The audience are silent, and do not react to anything.  Not a laugh, not a titter. Nothing.  However I do get a feeling of support and enjoyment from them – they are not a sullen crowd at all, just different.

I adapt the show so that I don’t indulge in any of the audience participation stuff, and do not pause at lines where laughter usually follows; it becomes a much more literary show (maybe more in the way that Dickens performed it) and it is fun to do it that way.

One remarkable moment occurs during the future scene when Bob Cratchit holds up Tiny Tim’s ‘crutch’ to the Heavens.  I play the scene centrally on the stage so that the figure of Christ is over me, and as I hold my wooden cane aloft the perspective of my view sees it seem to settle into Jesus’s outstretched hands.

20171208_144744

I finish the show and the quiet audience stand to applaud me, which is rather nice.  I go and change and then join them in the Church’s library lounge, where we drink punch and eat cookies together, as we chat.  One gentleman says that ‘this morning Christmas seemed a long way away, but now after that, it feels so much closer’.  What a lovely review!

Of course our meet and greet session does not last long, and I return to my office to change.  There is another 3 and a half hours before my evening show, so I decide to drive to my hotel in North Wales (I know, it seems to be a bit of a hike from PA, but actually only thirty minutes away), to check in to The Joseph Ambler Inn, where I will be staying for two nights.

I stop briefly to buy a burger for a quick lunch, but soon am pulling in among the various historic stone farm buildings that go to make up the Inn.  I always stay here when I perform at Byers’ Choice and it has such a lovely welcoming feel to it.  By the time I have checked in and got to my room I have just over an hour to rest, which is perfect.

I am aware that I will be driving back in heavy rush hour traffic, so give myself plenty of time for the return journey, and indeed there is just one long crawl of traffic between the hotel and the Church.  Although frustrating there is a benefit to the congestion as it gives me time to admire the beautiful Christmas lights that bring the dullest neighbourhoods to life.

20171208_175057

I get to the church on the dot of 6, and return to my office/crèche where I put on my Christmas music playlist to put me in the mood as I change.  Somehow, however, it feels slightly irreverent to be singing along to Dominic the Italian Christmas Donkey in such a setting!

At 7 I return to the Church, and straight away I can tell that this is a more energetic and vocal crowd.  The buzz of expectant conversation fills the space, and when Jim gets up to make his remarks his jokes are greeted with laughter – I am back to my usual show tonight then!

My perceptions of the crowd prove to be correct and they are a very lively bunch.  Some have obviously seen me perform before, as I can hear chuckles before I say certain lines.

The show is more energetic and therefore more tiring than this afternoons and I work up quite a sweat, but it is very satisfying session and my efforts are greeted with a lovely standing ovation.

The meet and greet session is longer tonight, and lots of the audience have purchased the programme (ironically), so I sign, and chat and pose for quite a long time, until eventually they all drift away into the night, leaving me to change and collect my belongings.  I say goodnight to Susan, who seems to be very pleased with the day’s events, and get into my car to return to the Ambler Inn.

It is only 9.30 when I get back and the bar is still open, so I am able to order a plate of fish and chips, which I hungrily devour before returning to my lovely room and my large bed.

 

NB:  After yesterday’s post many of you have kindly asked how you can order one of the souvenir programmes.  They are available via the Byers’ Choice website at:

https://www.byerschoice.com/store/catalogsearch/result/?q=souvenir+programme&search-select=members&search-submit=&ACT=29&XID=0&RES=&meta=vme8gMECssmkWPafl7B5nELPCxmmiEQujxxCKk%2FpoXTSgXA7fOJ1XY94BGFtozFpqa6RYwuvrE%2F9o33HiIVN0flB1eIxT0S%2FoxD1tt4YmG%2Ft%2F%2FfGM%2F%2F%2BC0e0Qi39u41Fpq2k7SU1UdQV%2BlMips8X4ZSkvGScP740WvMfauDaQmldGPNffBA0PoEwt3rHrD%2BJ7CoDWC%2B1K29jYvR0hXc2FN%2Fq%2FnsI8Ai5ZFsgszBPnASzGudv%2B4wA3D3oBTPPtYZBk7GxQbw1ovifoiWRYD8ca6BNjJpSBwFeBJwE0NCVIFS%2FdyV%2BELMBYfgeYxCMf3LVcbEjCY1v67kXA8EeisoIpwEuABz9OG3NpAIWgOz%2FupDDIqPy7EmUODARd43qu0GTrdEFeaqwPy%2BJ%2FaI7X4AK3XjcQSvktX%2ByjuWV1CF%2BpcwdAilX7DnC7sVwphvJ3k5zj79DEKY1igjvt6pfEAUmEw%3D%3D&site_id=1

 

A Sad End to an Unexpectedly Short Story

I wake rather early in the lovely Fairville Inn, which sadly does not have any coffee making facilities in its rooms, so I will have to wait for my chosen breakfast time of 8am before I get my first shot of caffeine today.

I sit in bed writing the blog and catching up on the news from home, watching the daylight slowly overcome the dark outside the window.  I content myself with munching some of the biscuits that were given to me earlier in the tour – it feels rather louche.

As my breakfast appointment approaches I get up, shower and walk across the car park to the main house, stopping at my car on the way, for I have a very important package to deliver.  Way back in Sutton, Massachusetts Gary Vaillancort had given me a beautifully wrapped Christmas ornament to be given to the owners of the Fairville Laura and Rick.  Gary and Judi stay here when they visit Winterthur to do signing sessions, and Gary felt that the Christmas tree in the main hall needed livening up – hence the gift.

I go into the little dining room and greet Laura and Rick before presenting the box to them – the ornament is one of the Dickens range and depicts Mr and Mrs Fezziwig dancing, which is perfect.  They love it, and love the way it was delivered.

My breakfast is a wonderful plate of pecan-flavoured waffles and bacon, with a side order of freshly made scrambled eggs, which are so much better than the hardened cake that I have been used to at various hotel buffets.

I return to my room and fold three shirts for the day’s two events (one for the first show, a second for signing which is then used for the second show as well, and the third for the final signing session tonight)

I have to wait in my room until 10 O’clock when a call comes in from a Minnesota radio station to promote my final 2017 USA events next week.  We chat for a while and the presenter has made a point of reading A Christmas Carol as preparation for the chat,  It is nice to picture the city of Minneapolis that I know so well and to think that I will be back there soon.

With the interview finished I make sure that I have everything that I need for the day and set off back to Winterthur.  Ellen had asked if I would make a brief appearance at a brunch event that they are holding, so I get into costume as soon as I arrive and head for the cafeteria, where people are digging in to an impressive array of pastries, meats, cheeses, frittatas and eggs. Coffee, tea and Mimosas are being consumed and everyone is enjoying themselves.  So much so that they have not the slightest interest in talking to me!

I do a quick sweep of the room and exchange a few pleasantries, before going back to the stage.  There is no sign of Ellen yet and the ‘set’ is still in place from last night.  I had asked for everything to be removed except a stool, so that it looked less like a comfortable drawing room, and more like a sparse signal box.  As I have time on my hands I set to work getting the furniture back in place.  I remember that Ellen had mentioned the picture that sits on the mantelpiece and how she had disguised the rather in-Victorian figure by making sure a sprig of decoration from a Christmas garland was trained upright.  I try to re-create the effect and hope that she will approve.

 

20171207_113436

Before

 

20171207_113429

After

 

 

Set dressing completed I return to the brunch event where a few more people have gathered, and I chat to some, before returning to my dressing room again.  I sit and drink some tea with honey, and play backgammon on my phone.  Outside the door I can hear the audience begin to arrive, and become aware of a one name that is repeated: ‘Sadie’s group?  Are you with Sadie?  One of Sadie’s? Sadie, right?  In you go, Sadie’s group is already there.  Sadie……?’ and so it goes on and on and on.  I have to know more and  so I ask Ellen what is going on.  Sadie has bought a group of 39 guests to the brunch and to the show, but Sadie has all of the tickets and is nowhere to be found!  So the volunteers on the door have resorted to taking Sadie’s name as proof of purchase.  Apparently some quick thinking folk have realised what is going on, for Sadie’s group of 39 now numbers 45!

I stand at the back of the hall and watch the room fill up and the numbers are swelled by two large school groups today, which is a new development for Winterthur.  At 1 pm David makes his introductions and hands the room to me.

I am interested to see how the schools respond, and as far as I can see from the stage they are concentrating hard on the show, without a cell phone in sight.  I am much more confident with the acoustic now and am not straining at all, and the show moves on at a rapid pace.

At the end I get a good ovation and take my bows, before racing up the aisle to beat the audience to the back door, so that I can get changed ready for the signing.  Oh, there is a long line waiting for me, as both schools are there.  The High School wants a large group picture which takes some complicated choreography to get everyone in, but we achieve it eventually.  Next the middle school and they all have Winterthur brochures that they want signed.  Ellen goes along the line collecting all of the books and places them on the desk open to the title page, while I scrawl with my head down – not a very personal approach, but at least everyone leaves with a signed book.

Once I have finished with the schools it is time to turn my attention to the general audience and now the pace slows down a little, and I can spend a little more time chatting and posing.

I am feeling tired when I finish and Ellen notices it, offering a concerned ‘are you feeling all right?’  I change and decide to get away for a couple of hours, and go back to the Inn for an afternoon nap.

I open up the laptop and start to check emails, and so read some very depressing news:  the figures (real and predicted) for our 2017 souvenir programme are in and sadly they are not good.  In fact in all probability we will not even manage to cover the production costs let alone make any profit, leaving Byers’ Choice, Ian and I out of pocket.  I don’t know why the orders have been so low this year, it is a beautiful product and the audiences have loved it.  When I personally sold it at Hershey the demand was great, but elsewhere the demand has not been so good.

This unexpected failure is painful for Ian and me to take as we have both worked so hard at the concept and design, and have been proud at what we have produced.  Neither of us can understand what has happened.

We will study everything after the tour, and see if any changes can be made to our model but sadly this will likely sound the death knell for future programmes and a story that promised so much is coming to a premature end.

All I will say now is that if you have a chance to buy the programme later in the tour, snap it up, as it will have a rarity value!

I return to Winterthur in a rather low state and have to raise myself ready to perform again.  I go through lots of routines, drink lots of water and finally a mug of tea and honey.  The audience is another large one (Ellen has been so pleased with the numbers this year), and they have been lining up long before I arrived back.

At 7 it is time to start and I am really not in the right frame of mind,  my voice is a little raspy at first but actually starts to clear as I go on, which is a relief.  I start to clear my head and get on top of the show, but my concentration is rather dented by a lady with a blue cardigan in the front row who seems to be SO bored!  She sits slumped in her seat, arms folded, and chats to her companion constantly.  At one point she gets uncontrollable giggles (nothing to do with the show), and hides her face behind a handkerchief as her shoulders shake: all very off-putting, and causes me to surreptitiously check that my fly zip is done up!

The rest of the audience are very into the show, though and actually the performance becomes stronger as it goes on.  I am not even thrown off my stride when a cell phone goes off at the exact moment Scrooge returns to the Cratchit’s house and it is ‘Quiet.  Very quiet’ (according to David’s pre-show warnings, the individual responsible for this heinous crime should be at once removed to the catacombs)

I get to the end of my final show in Winterthur, and the audience all stands (yes, even my bored lady in blue), and I take the bows gratefully.

As I walk to the signing table I am waylaid by a family who comes to the show every year, the father of whom is a member of The Pickwick Club in Philadelphia and who knew my ‘uncle’ Cedric very well (I use inverted commas because Ceddy was in fact my father’s cousin but was generally known as Uncle Ceddy in the family).  I stop to chat, and he gives me a very very special gift indeed: a bottle of Sloe Gin that Ceddy had made in 2014, marked ‘number 2’.  He has kept ‘number 1’ but felt that this treasure should come back into the family.  It is an extraordinarily moving moment to see Ceddy’s handwriting on the label.

Having said my thank yous I hurry on to the signing table where there is another long line waiting.  Most people have seen me perform multiple times, and most are clutching the 2016 edition of our programme (Winterthur over-ordered last year, so decided to sell their remaining stock at a discount, rather than ordering any new ones).  It is with a bitter sweet feeling that I sign them.

When it is just Ellen, Rob and Barbara (who runs the store in the visitor center) left, I go to the office to collect all of my things together – not forgetting the scarf on stage and the CD in the technical box.  Soon everything is packed away and I am ready to leave.  Ellen and Barbara are taking me out to dinner, which will be a lovely way to wind down, and I am given directions to the BBC (Brandywine Brewery Company, and not the British Broadcasting Corporation), where we all three meet again.

I order a steak and it is delicious: we chat about lots of things, but mainly Downton Abbey and The Crown, both of which have been huge hits in America, and with the Winterthur faithful.  Ellen and Barbara are such easy company and this is a lovely way to bring my time in Winterthur to a close.

With dinner finished, I hug my goodbyes and drive back to the Inn, where after a long day sleep comes easily.

 

 

 

 

Someone Missing

Today I have to be on the road fairly early as I have a three hour drive to Delaware.  I get my things packed and take the costumes to the car, before going to breakfast where I sit alone with my cereal and coffee.  As I eat, another gentleman comes in and recognises me from one of the shows yesterday.  He compliments me warmly and generously.  The funny thing about him is that his voice sounds exactly like  Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon: it is as if I am receiving Presidential affirmation!

Once I have finished my breakfast I have to remember to go down one level to rescue all of my costume shirts which have been in the drier all night; It would be a disaster to drive away without them, and that really would top my league table of things left in hotels along the way.  I stuff the shirts rather unceremoniously back into the laundry bag and take them back to my room, where I finish packing.

I get everything into the car and am checked out by 7.45. The weather is grey, but it is not raining and I join a long line of cars the occupants of which are headed off to their various workplaces – an office, a store, a factory, a visitor centre at a grand stately home – we are all there.

The first part of the journey which takes me past the campus of Bucknell University, is on a 2 lane road, but at the head of the queue is a low-loader truck transporting a massive grain silo, which takes up both lanes: this could be a long journey.  I hope that the silo is not being delivered to Winterthur!

20171206_075806

Eventually I manage to find a way past and am released from the backlog of traffic and settle into the journey for real.

Today I am not accompanied by James Bond, or by my Christmas playlist for today’s journey is all about rehearsing.  Later this evening I will be performing The Signalman and Doctor Marigold at Winterthur, and I need to go over the lines especially of the former which I haven’t performed for some weeks.

It is unlike me to ignore the beauty of the river, but my mind is not on the banks of the Susquehanna but in a lonely signal box at the mouth of a dark tunnel.  The line learning goes well, and soon I am heading towards Lancaster and into Amish country.

At one point I am aware of flashing lights up ahead and the traffic slows to a crawl.  Inch by inch I edge my way past a multi car wreck – some cars have superficial scrapes and dents, one is facing the wrong way with the front completely smashed in.  Paramedics are on the scene as are police officers and firefighters.

Hmm, maybe that is a message to leave the rehearsal for a while and to give my undivided attention to the road – I really have no idea what has been happening for the last hour, and this scene of carnage is proof how a few seconds lapse in concentration can catch one out.

I drive on in a chastened state of mind.

The last part of my drive is across familiar territory, driving through the delightful hillside community of Gap, with its lighthouse-like clock tower.  On through Chatham and its mushroom farms and finally towards Winterthur in Delaware.

I have been performing in Winterthur for 6 years now and it is so nice to return to a venue where you know where to park, where to go, who to see, and the crew here are very welcoming and friendly.  Winterthur was the home of Henry Francis DuPont and is a glorious mansion which attracts thousands of visitors each year.

My journey has been good, despite the delay at the site of the wreck, and I have arrived very early.  With the glorious advantage of familiarity I take me costumes to the little office where I will change, and then go to the large cafeteria to have a coffee and a slice of cake which is very welcome.  As I munch and sip I see Ellen Taviano hurrying to meet me and we greet each other like old friends, before she goes off to prepare the stage and I return to my elevenses (oh, goodness, I haven’t used that word in decades!)

Coffee finished I join Ellen in the auditorium where I will be performing A Christmas Carol at 1 o’clock.  The bookings have been very strong this year and we should have almost capacity houses for all of the main performances, with inevitably less for the alternative show this evening.  Between us we get the stage set, and do a ‘sound check’ which involves Ellen saying ‘you don’t need a microphone do you?’ and me replying ‘no’.  The acoustics in this hall are remarkable and I have only used a mic once here, and that was the very first show – the electronic amplification added to the natural amplification was way too much and nobody could hear a thing!

To pass the time I wander around the gift shop and look at the merchandise on show.  Some audience members recognise me from years past and we chat for a while, which is nice.  Soon, however, I see two familiar faces and am able to greet my very dear friends David Keltz and his wife Theresa.  As regular readers will know David is a fellow-actor who performs as Edgar Allan Poe.  David and Theresa always try to come to one of my shows on tour and this year have driven from Baltimore to see both of my performances here.  We chat in the lobby and I am able to introduce them to Ellen, who is thinking about next year’s programming….I leave the trio networking and return to my little office  to get ready.

As the 1 o’clock start time nears I go and stand at the back of the auditorium to take a look at the audience, and to listen – there is an excited buzz of conversation in the hall which is a great sound for an actor to hear.

20171206_125654

On the dot of one David Roselle, the director of Winterthur gets onto the stage and makes his welcoming remarks (including his well-tried gag about cell phone infringements being punished by immediate removal to the catacombs)

I make my entrance from the back of the hall and start the show.  It is always tricky here to remember just how good the acoustics are, and it is only when I delve into the audience that I can hear the resonance of the room – the danger is to over commit and try too hard.  I keep a careful eye on three people who have chosen to sit in the very last row – they do not fidget or look at their phones, or move forward, so the sound must be carrying successfully, and I relax accordingly.

Whilst a little restrained the audience is very appreciative and it is a nicely paced show which relies on the prose rather than the pantomime.  The lighting is good, although I remember a couple of years ago that a lady told me that if I came too far downstage I got into shadow, so try to prevent myself from doing that too much.

The performance works towards its end and is very well received.  I take my bows and then leave the auditorium receiving many slaps on the back and handshakes.  As I change in the office I can hear the audience leaving and fortunately the comments are good!

Once in my costume I make my way through the crowd and head back to the cafeteria where the signing table is set up.  A long line of people are waiting and I enjoy chatting and posing with all of them.

When the line is finished I go back towards the dressing room, but am stopped by a young man who says ‘I love reading your blog, and wanted to give you this.’  I know what is in the bag before I even look.   I often quote from other books, but rarely do I quote myself, however on this occasion it is necessary.  This is from one of my performances in Missouri a few weeks ago:

One lady arrives at my table and presents me with a bunch of flowers!  She reads my blog daily, and had responded to my remark in Riverside that I had never received flowers after a performance!  How very, very thoughtful.  Now, I need to say here that I have never been presented with a Ferrari after a show……..the ball is in your court blog lovers!

And so here is my reward,  thank you Watt!

20171207_083429

When I am changed I meet with David and Theresa and we decide to go back to my hotel to chat and catch up.  The Fairville Inn is just a matter of minutes away and we decide to drive in convoy.  As I start the car I see another vehicle with two passengers leave – I assume that David and Theresa have gone on ahead of me (they said that they knew the B&B), so I set off in chase,  Of course it was not them and by the time I get to the Inn I have received a rather sad email saying ‘we are still in the parking lot – did we miss you?’

Anyway, all works well and they eventually arrive and we sit in the lounge area chatting about all sorts of things, whilst we sip on tea and eat cookies – most civilised!

The down time isn’t long and soon I have to absent myself from their company to prepare for the evening’s shows.

When I return to Winterthur a wave of melancholy comes over me:  for the past few years Liz has joined me for the last week or so of the tour and traditionally she has arrived here, between the shows and I have greeted her with a hug in the lobby.  This year she is unable to come due to work commitments and I miss her very much.

So tonight sees me performing The Signalman and Doctor Marigold to a small, but very loyal audience.  David and Theresa are there of course, but Bob and Pam Byers have also made the drive to come and watch, which is so nice of them.

The Signalman comes first and the atmosphere in the room is electric, the dark, claustrophobic nature of the story is more in David’s Poe line rather than mine, but it is a wonderful feeling to feel the tension hanging in the air, and the final revelation that Dickens died exactly 5 years after he was involved in a terrible train crash brings gasps from the crowd.

We break for twenty minutes and I change waistcoat, before chatting to some of the audience in the wonderfully informal atmosphere of this show.  When Ellen gives me the nod I return to the stage as Doctor Marigold and tell his delightful story, which is equally well received, complete with sobs when his granddaughter speaks his name for the first time.

We hadn’t planned to do a Q&A session, but from the stage it just seems a nice thing to do with an audience like this, so I take an executive decision and open the floor to questions.  One lady asks if I am married (I don’t think it was a proposition – just asking how my family copes when I am away so much) and of course that brings Liz to my mind once more.

After fifteen minutes or so I wrap up the session and leave the stage to more applause.  Ellen has loved the Q&A and would love to do more of the same in the future.

the ‘signing’ is very informal, really more of a chat in the gift shop.  Bob, Pam, David, Theresa, Ellen and I all chat before the first four have to say their goodbyes and head off to their respective homes.

I get changed and say farewell to Ellen before driving to Buckley’s Tavern where I realise I am famished, having not had lunch today.  I am waiting for a table when I am joined by Rob the Finance Director at Winterthur, so we dine together which is very nice.

But soon it is time to go back to the Inn.  It has been a lovely, friendly and successful day, but beneath everything else, there is someone missing…..

 

 

 

 

Charles, Are You Toying With Me?

Today it is back to work, and the final run to the end of the tour begins.  I shower and begin to pack, before going down to the Circular Dining room where I enjoy another wonderful breakfast, being fussed over by one of the servers who has been here as long as I can remember.  I finish the meal with one of the softest and flakiest croissants I have ever had, which I eat completely inelegantly, spreading crumbs over an impossibly large radius.

When I get back to my room I finish the packing process, almost forgetting my costume shoes which are hiding in deep shadow at the foot of my bed.

 

20171205_072318

Hiding in the shadows

 

Satisfied that I have everything I zip up my case and get ready to leave, before realising that the shirt from my last show two days ago is still hanging in the wardrobe.  I open the case just enough to stuff the shirt in and close it up again.  I get ready to leave, before realising that I have left the car key on top of the unit where the TV is.  OK, this is going to be one of those mornings.  I delay my departure so that I can make a complete sweep of the room to ensure than nothing else is going to get left behind, and when I am completely confident I finally let the door of room 212 click shut with a satisfying finality.

At the front desk I wince at the size of the dry cleaning bill, but I suppose if I spread that charge out over seven weeks it is not too bad.  The weather is grey and misty as I load my cases into the car, and the view of the roller coasters and ferris wheels in Hershey Park is completely obscured by the low cloud.  I set the SatNav for Lewisburg, PA and leave the beautiful Hotel Hershey behind me once more.

The route is a familiar one to me and takes me towards Harrisburg before sending me north along the banks of the majestic Susquehanna River, which is one of my favourite drives in America.  Just after crossing the river I stop for fuel, and have to be very careful as to which pump I use: in England unleaded fuel is always pumped from the green nozzle, and Diesel from black, here in America it is the other way round and I check and re-check before finally letting the fuel flow.

The drive along the Susquehanna is a strange set of contrasts – the natural beauty of the river is rather offset by the seedy adult stores that line the route, presumably to satisfy the needs of the truckers who guide their beasts up this long road. On the wooded banks long neglected shacks and barns gently decay, their woodwork flaking and rotting, returning to nature.

At various points of the route the road almost touches the river and as I look at the forested banks opposite I realise for the first time that the scene is reminiscent of Lochs Ness or Lomond in my beloved Scotland.

I pause in the small community of Liverpool and take some pictures, although the low cloud and oncoming rain doesn’t make for great lighting today.  I get back into the car and drive the rest of the way to the Country Cupboard store on the outskirts of Lewisburg.

I have been coming to the Country Cupboard for seven years now and although I only perform here for a single day, the routine is well grooved.  I know that there will be a room waiting for me at the hotel, even though it is only 10am, and I even know which room it will be!  As I check in the receptionists welcomes me back and assumes that I will need quarters and detergent for the laundry, which I do.

I take my bags through the warren of corridors and settle into my mini suite, where a welcome bag of cookies and muffins is waiting for me – a gift from Missy over at the store.

At 11.30 I go to the function room where my shows are held and am delighted to see a completely new arrangement this year.  In the past guests have been seated at tables, where they have eaten lunch from the huge buffet in the store, before settling back to watch the show.  This year however, the guests are eating in the cafeteria before coming to the hall and then being sat theatre style.  This I am sure will suit the show and lead to far fewer distractions during it.

I hug Missy hello, and we do a sound and light check.  The Country Cupboard put on a series of events throughout the year and within the last twelve months the management have installed a system of LED theatre lights which cast an impressive glow over the impressive stage.

With the preparations complete I go back to my room and rest for awhile before getting into my costume: this is the smartest I have looked for the whole tour, as everything is neatly pressed, with crisp creases down the front of my trousers.

When I get to the room my old friend KJ is on the stage singing Christmas songs and delighting the large crowd with her infectious positivity.

As I wait at the back of the room an audience member comes up to me and asks if she can pose for a picture with me, then she shows me a collection of books that she brought with her – not for signing, just to show me.  One of the volumes is a paper back copy of Oliver Twist which I notice dates from 1963 – the same age as me, which I point out to her.  Soon though it is time for her, and the rest of the audience to be seated.  KJ winds up with ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ and Missy introduces me.

The afternoon crowd at The Country Cupboard are always an enthusiastic bunch, and today is no exception.  In fact I have to be careful how long I pause during the show, as they are starting to complete my lines for me!

As the Ghost of Christmas Present makes his entrance I have to think carefully how to strike the correct pose:  one thing that I try to achieve throughout my show is to recreate the John Leech images from the original novel (Scrooge squeezing the candle snuffer over Past’s head, Present holding the torch aloft with his hand outstretched, Future pointing down the grave etc), and I am worried that I have Present’s hands the wrong way round.  This doubt originates from a wonderful tableau that my brother Ian has created in his fireplace back in England: he emailed a picture this morning, and as I am standing on stage I am trying to remember it….I THINK I have it right, but need to check.

 

thumbnail_IMG_7799

Ian’s masterpiece

 

 

 

At some point during the show one of my braces pops off the belt of my trousers, and when I remove my frock coat I realise that somehow it has worked its way through the sleeve of my waistcoat and is flapping around like an extra, albeit withered, arm.  Not only that but the repair to my trousers (I had sewed the expandable waistband in place), cries enough.  The result being that the waistband expands fully, and there are no braces to hold the trousers up…..the result being that I shuffle my way through the end of the show, treading on the backs of my trouser legs and fearing that the audience will see more of Mr Dickens than they bargained for!

 

Fortunately I maintain my modesty and reach the end of the story without further cause for concern. The ovation is wonderful and the new theatre style format has really helped to create a fantastic atmosphere in the room.

I change as quickly as I can, before going into the store itself where I sign for quite a while, gulping lots of water when I can, as the show was quite a work out.

When the signing line is finished I go back to my hotel and change before meeting up with Missy and KJ for a late lunch (early supper?  It is 4pm).  I load my plate up with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and beans – I think I am going native – and we sit and chat, which is lovely.

20171205_163231

Time moves on, however, and the second audience are starting to arrive, so we pack up our things, and after our traditional photo on the stage, I go to get ready for round 2.

 

20171205_170400

On stage with KJ and Missy

 

Obviously I wear my other (non-expandable) trousers for the second show and make sure that the braces are firmly in place, before clipping the microphone on and making my way back to the store.  As I wait at the back watching KJ do her stuff, the lady with the books from the first show re-appears: she presents me with a gift bag and I know what is inside without even looking: she has made a gift of the 1963 copy of Oliver Twist!  How very thoughtful and kind of her – in a turbulent world people are still so generous at heart.

But now I have to concentrate on the next show.  The audience is slightly smaller, as is the way of it here, and it has been the case over the years that they have tended to be quieter and more reserved..  I have often struggled to get a reaction from the evening audiences and have frequently tried far too hard as a result.

If the second Country Cupboard audience are naturally reticent, then this group didn’t get the memo!  They are a fine bunch and respond actively and delightedly to the show, which in turn brings out the best in me.

My braces stay firmly in place, which is a relief, but this time a cufflink goes flying, meaning that this time it is a shirt sleeve that is flapping around.  I assume that the cufflink that I glued back together in Massachusetts has finally broken, but as it flies towards the front row of the audience, where it is dexterously fielded by a young boy, I can see that it is completely intact, but has somehow managed to work its way through four layers of fabric and make a bid for freedom.  It is on days like this that I wonder if Charles is toying with me from above!

The audience applaud every bit as rigorously as the afternoon bunch and I take my bows happily, and as I leave the stage the young lad politely returns my cufflink to me.

I go through the routine of changing and signing once more, watched over by Missy and the staff in the store, before scrawling my name for the final time.

I collect all of my belongings (scarf, hat cravat, damp costume etc etc) and go back to the hotel.  Now starts another well proven sequence of events:  Missy has arranged that I can go to Matty’s Sports Bar, which is nearby, and have supper.  On the way I take the large bag of my costume shirts to the laundry and set them going.  When I return from Matty’s (having devoured a burger and fries) I put the washing into the drier where it can stay overnight until I reclaim it in the morning.

Then back to my room and let some ancient episode of Chrisley Knows Best lull me to sleep.

 

 

 

 

The Day Off

And….reee-lax.  Today is my day off, and I get to spend it in the luxurious surroundings of the Hotel Hershey.  The most important job this morning is to get all of my costumes packed up and sent off to the dry cleaning service, as this is the only opportunity on tour to get them refreshed.  The other day on which I didn’t need them was Thanksgiving and naturally the hotel in Omaha was not offering a cleaning service then.  The result being that after goodness knows how many hot performances, the 2 frock coats, 2 waistcoats, 2 pairs of striped trousers and 2 cravats are in dire need of some TLC.

I bag everything up and fill in the slip as well as I can (although there doesn’t seem to be a section for Victorian clothing), and take the whole bundle, Santa like, down to the front desk were I hand it over, offering a silent prayer to the dry cleaning Gods that my clothes may be returned.

From the front desk I go to the magnificent Circular Dining Room, where the largest breakfast buffet of the tour is laid out.  I am shown to a table near the window and have a wonderfully warming bowl of porridge, before moving on to the eggs and bacon.  The breakfast at Hershey is one of the best on tour and I relish it.

When I return to my room I find that housekeeping have already moved in, so I grab my laptop and sit in the Fountain Lobby (now, of course, devoid of tables) to finish writing my blog, adding the photographs and posting it.

Now, what to do with my day?  In past years I have gone off to be a tourist, most memorably visiting the battlefield at Gettysburg, but today I don’t feel like driving too far afield, especially as I will be on the road again tomorrow.  The weather is clear, and if not balmy it is certainly not arctic – how about some golf?

I go to the Concierge’s desk and a single phone call confirms that one of the courses at The Hershey Country Club is open and there is a tee time available at 12, which is duly booked in my name.

I spend the rest of the morning reading emails and catching up on the news from home, as well as ordering a new charger for my toothbrush, which thanks to the wonders of Amazon Prime will be delivered to my hotel tomorrow.

I make sure that I am well wrapped up, and at 11.30 drive off to the Country Club for a day’s adventure.  In the pro shop I purchase a glove and some balls, and the pro arranges for some rental clubs to be fitted to a buggy (very luxurious, with leather seats don’t you know!)  Soon I am on the practice ground and try my first shots in over a month.  Naturally the first few swings are tense and the ball doesn’t travel very far at all, but soon the contact is clean, although there is a worrying slice going on.

Well, here goes nuthin’.  I drive to the first tee and put the first two balls straight into a lake on the right of the fairway!  It is going to be one of those days…

Actually I play quite well for a few holes (especially my short game, which comes to the rescue on a few occasions), but soon I catch up with a four ball, who are stuck behind a very slow moving group and the whole round begins to grind to a halt.  I lose concentration and my game goes to pieces, which is very frustrating.  I don’t get angry though, I remind myself that this is a relaxing day and I am here for fun.  I start to run through some lines of The Signalman, which I am performing later in the week, but then stop myself: no work today!

The second 9 is much better, and I finish off with a beautiful 5 wood shot from the fairway at the 18th which clears the huge lake and lands just short of the green.  All of the earlier frustrations are worth it for that one shot alone.

It is cold now, and I have had my top zipped high to protect my throat.  I hope that I haven’t been stupid and given myself a chill, but it has been so good to be out in the fresh air and away from the hotel, which represents work.

I return the buggy and my clubs, and keep a sleeve of balls which have the Hershey Country Club monogram as a souvenir before driving back to the hotel where I further treat myself to a wonderful hot bath.

The rest of the afternoon is spent watching tv, before I start making preparations for my departure  tomorrow.  I take a few things to the car, and thankfully retrieve my dry cleaning from the front desk, before making an early reservation for supper in The Harvester Restaurant.

Whilst the hotel itself boasts the high end Circular Dining Room, the Harvester is a more rustic venue situated behind the main building.  I walk through the formal gardens and am soon being served with one of the largest pork chops I have ever seen: it is delicious, and in no time the plate is clean.

 

20171204_192917

Before…

 

20171204_194633

…and after

 

 

Tomorrow I drive on to Lewisburg, PA and will now be on the road until the very end of the tour on 17 December, so today has been a lovely break and a much needed rest.

 

20171204_201914

The Hotel Hershey at Night

 

 

 

In Memory of Frank

I wake knowing that I have slept well and for a few seconds have no idea where I am, but the extremely comfortable pillows, the high bed (requiring a little set of steps to get safely to the floor) and stylish, non-corporate furnishings remind me that I am still at Bob and Pam’s house.

Soon I can hear bustling downstairs, so get the blog finished and go down.  Pam is busy rustling up mushroom omelettes (no cheese, as I am performing later) this morning, and a huge plate of fresh fruit has been cut.  It is 7.30 on Sunday morning and poor Bob and Pam really shouldn’t have to up this early, but as I said yesterday they are generous hosts.

The omelettes are delicious, but soon the conversation turns to next year’s tour and we become involved in a  full-scale breakfast meeting as we discuss how to structure things, what can we do better, various issues good and bad that have arisen so far during this tour.  It is a very productive talk and sets us off on a good footing for 2018.

The time flies by and very soon I have to absent myself from the table and get packed up for my drive to Hershey, PA.

As I go to brush my teeth I notice that the light on the electric brush is blinking red and then discover that somewhere along the way I have left the charger in a bathroom.  I will have to see if I can buy a replacement, or a simple old-fashioned brush along the way.  This is the first article that I have lost on the tour (there have been some near misses, mind), and it is rather annoying: I was doing so well!  Incidentally, you may remember back in Sutton Mass. that my geranium cufflink broke?  Well I managed to find some extremely strong glue and the bond has held as good as  a weald ever since.

I sadly leave my lovely room, and say good bye to Bob and Pam, not to mention Buddha the bunny, before reversing the Tucson out of their driveway and hitting the open road once more.

The drive to Hershey will take about 2 hours and once again the weather is glorious.  As I fly along the freeways I notice a huge advertising billboard selling itself: ‘Rent this billboard for $18 per day!’  That seems like a very good deal, maybe I will part with $36 and take 2 days….now, what could I say on it?  My plans are disabused when I pass another board with the same message, only to see the small print: ‘*based on 6 month agreement’.  What a shame.

When I am 30 minutes away from my destination I see the first sign with the legend ‘Hershey. The Sweetest Place on Earth’ and I leave the main road and join route 22, passing the huge terraced automobile graveyard, which is one of the saddest places I know, and start the final part of the drive through idyllic pastoral Pennsylvanian fields.

Huge grain silos are dotted across the landscape, and it is as if two unseen giants are reaching the end of a gigantic chess match, played out on the chequerboard of the different farms

In no time I pull the car into the driveway leading up to the magnificent Hotel Hershey and I park it next to three Corvettes, including a beautiful classic.

20171203_120243

I haul all of my cases and costumes to the lobby, which is filled with people checking out.  The hotel is always ready for me and despite the early hour I am soon in my room on the second floor where I can relax for a while.

I settle myself in, and then go for a wander around the hotel.  My first port of call is the gift shop, as I want to familiarise myself with how guests can buy our souvenir programme, but to my surprise none are being offered for sale.  I return to my room and check the spreadsheet of orders and discover that Hershey haven’t ordered any this year.  It is time to make a decision: I have a box of programmes in the car, and I will mention during my shows that I have a few and they are available for cash sale only.  I send a quick email to Bob and he replies with the same suggestion, so that is a go then.

I go to the car to collect the box of programmes and as I am walking I meet up with maybe the most generous and thoughtful fans on my tour.  In years past a young boy named Derek has come to the show with his grandparents and they have always been kind enough to give me a gift (bottles of beer to represent Fezziwig’s party, and the Mr Magoo version of A Christmas Carol on DVD), but this year it is granddaughter Morgan who holds a huge gift-wrapped box.  We agree to meet before the tea and the formal presentation will take place there.  I am intrigued, what could it be?

Weighed down by the box of books I pop into the little café and buy a grilled vegetable panini and crisps which I take my room, before going to the Fountain Lobby for a sound check.  I perform twice at Hershey and both events revolve around a meal service, the first being a luxurious tea.  I meet up with Kristy the banquet captain who runs the tea, and Travis from AV and together we do a quick sound check, whilst I try to work out possible routes for my movements between the tables which are arranged around the huge central fountain – there is no stage here and I have to keep on the move to ensure that everyone has an equal share of the show.  I also ask Kristy about the programme sales and she says that will be fine, go ahead.

When the preparations have been completed I go back to my room and change – I have quite a wait as once the guests are seated they will be served the various courses if their tea before I am unleashed on them at around 3.45.

20171203_152907

I return to the lobby at 3.30 and watch the guests enjoying the sandwiches and cakes, whilst sipping a cup of black tea and honey and while I wait Morgan and her grandmother come to give me my present.  But this isn’t a present for me, it is a present for Liz!  The family have been worried about her at home alone, and want her to know that people over here are thinking about her and are grateful to her for what she gives up at this time of the year.  I unwrap the box and the gift within is a t shirt printed with the entire text of  A Christmas Carol, a gap in the tiny printing forming the shape of old Ebenezer!  It is so thoughtful and I thank Morgan on behalf of us both.

Soon I get the nod from Kristy and walk among the tables to begin the programme.  I start by mentioning the souvenir programmes, displaying a copy for all to see, and then start the shortened version of A Christmas Carol which is adapted specifically for this one event.  I keep on the move, pausing by certain individuals who take on various characters in the story, but never waiting for too long, as I have to be aware that there will always be a certain number of guests who will not be able to see me.

The story is completed within an hour and I am surprised when the audience stand to applaud – that doesn’t often happen at the tea event.  I go to the little desk that Kristy has prepared and the demand for the programmes is great – I am astounded how many people still have cash these days, and I sign plenty of the slim red volumes.

The signing lasts for quite a while and I have very little time before I have to meet up with Travis again for another sound check.  I take the remainder of the books to the Castilian room where the dinner event is held, and go back to my room where I just have time to change into my second costume before starting to prepare for the evening.

20171203_182258

The Castilian room is looking wonderful and it seems as if we have a big crowd in tonight.  I meet up with Owen, the banquet captain, and go through the order of events – I will be performing each chapter between the five courses of dinner from a stage set in the middle of the room.  Once more it is essential that I make sure that everyone feels included in the show here.  The servers (most of whom have been here for as long as I have been coming, which is around 20 years) are busy making final preparations and the banter between them is great to hear.

I ask Owen where I am to be seated tonight.  In past years I have been the guest of John Weikoff, who always entertains a large group of his friends and colleagues, but this year he is not here for a very sad reason:  from the very first year that I have attended the event I have been sat next to Frank Gilbert, the manager of the Hotel Hershey’s sister hotel the Hershey Lodge.  It is with great sadness that I learn from Owen that Frank died from Cancer just a few months ago and Mr Weikoff understandably didn’t feel that he wanted to host the dinner under such sad circumstances.  Frank was a quiet man and a good man: I enjoyed his company greatly and the world is a poorer place for his passing.

As for dinner arrangements I suggest that I do not eat in the dining room tonight, but will have something in the bar later.  This will actually make the evening much easier from my point of view, as it is difficult to perform and then return to the table and pick up conversation, eat, and then go back to the stage again.

The guests are clamouring at the door so the decision is made to seat them a little early and get the show in the road as soon as we can.  Soon I am on the stage welcoming everyone, promoting the souvenir programme and explaining the format for the evening.

The show at dinner is a lot more playful than a theatre-style one, and there is lots of silliness involved, again using members of the audiences where possible.  Before the Ghost of Christmas Present makes his appearance a huge turkey is paraded around the room to huge applause from the diners.

The evening plays out to its conclusion and I finally say God Bless Us Every One at around 9.30.  When the applause has died down I offer a toast to ‘the Spirit of Christmas’ and then sit on the stage to sell my programmes and pose for photographs.  Actually this method of selling works very well and by the end of the evening we have shifted quite a few, and my top hat is filled with $20 bills.

 

20171204_093554

A Victorian Cash Register

 

Finally it is time to say thank you to Owen and his staff before going to my room, changing and then heading to the bar for something to eat, which is very much needed.  A few audience members are also there and come by to offer their congratulations, but then politely leave me in peace.

I finish my supper and return to my room.  Tomorrow is a completely free day – no travel, no commitments and I go to sleep with an immense feeling of freedom upon me!