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.
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?
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.
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.
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.