As the final ‘Bonus Blog’ of this part of tour I would like to address a question that came up at every venue during my time with the Mid Continent Public Library System, ‘Why do you come to the Kansas City area?’ The answer dates not only back to the very start of my USA touring in 1995 (although from one conversation yesterday I now think it may have even been 1994), but in fact even further back to 1974 when the first seeds for my attachment to Kansas City were sewn.
The story starts in Galveston Texas where members of the Galveston Historical Foundation, an organisation dedicated to the preservation and regeneration of the historic downtown area of the island city situated in the Gulf of Mexico a little south of Houston, decided to stage a Christmas festival to raise funds and awareness. Feeling that the festival should have a theme the Foundation decided to utilize the name of the main thoroughfare The Strand, which took its name from the street in London. So, a Christmas festival with an attachment to London led to the marketing team tapping into America’s love affair with Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol, the festival would be Christened Dickens on the Strand, even though Charles never wrote about, or visited Texas. The temperatures in Galveston in December are warm and pleasant so it was decided to make ‘Dickens’ an open air event, with the city sealing off a large area to traffic. Vendors would be able to rent space and booths to hawk their wares, whilst a number of stages were erected so that there could be a constant programme of music and entertainment throughout the fair. Actors in exquisite Victorian costumes were booked to walk the streets and a Grand Parade would be held with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at its head.
Visitors to the festival would have to pay an entrance fee to attend, but the board took an inspired decision to give a 50% discount for anyone wearing Victorian costume. Everyone likes a bargain, so it was assured that the streets would be filled with young urchins in caps and tatty waistcoats and pretty maidens in recycled bridesmaid’s dresses. Back in 1974 My father’s cousin and Charles’ great grand daughter Monica Dickens was living on Cape Cod and accepted an invitation to attend the inaugural festival thereby beginning the tradition of there being a member of the Dickens family at every event. After Monica the ebullient Cedric Dickens took over for a few years after which he passed the baton on to my father, David who attended with my mother at his side. During his tenure Dad presided over a great banquet during which he would regale the guests with readings from A Christmas Carol. My parents also took pride of place in the Grand Parade, siting in a horse drawn coach waving to the cheering crowds. Mum and dad loved their time at Galvaston and embraced the America zeal to do things on a giant scale with relish.
During his time at Galvaston Dad met with some folk either came from Kansas City or had relatives there, I don’t recall which, but who were keen to stage a similar event there. Of course the December weather in Missouri is not quite as reliable as that on the Gulf coast, so the new event would be held indoors, with the large downtown Convention Center being picked as s suitable venue. To ensure a suitably Victorian atmosphere the Missouri Rep theatre company where brought on board to build huge sets representing London street scenes, as well as costumes for Dickensian characters. Dad was invited to be a consultant on all things Dickensian and through himself into the project. The Dickens Holiday Fair launched in 1993 and Mum and Dad were there, at the centre of everything, signing, reading, parading.
In that same winter, back in England, I was making my first steps into the world of performing the works of Charles Dickens as I gave a single reading to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of A Christmas Carol. I so enjoyed the project and received praise for it, that I looked at reprising the event the following year. My father was excited and proud that I was beginning to show some interest in our illustrious forbear and kept a close eye on my progress. Little did I know that he had an ulterior motive, for he and my mother had decided that their international travelling days were over and he was keen to promote my new show to both festivals. During the summer one of the senior board members from Gaveston was visiting England and Dad invited her to lunch. When the date was fixed he asked if I could arrange a performance of my show somewhere as a sort of audition. I found a venue, a private room above a pub, and a goodly crowd attended. I obviously did a decent job for I was invited to attend the next Galvaston Festival and on the back of that The Holiday Fair in KC also came on board. Details were sorted out by a good friend of mine, Paul Standen, who acted as manager to this fledgling performer, and soon I was boarding an American Airlines flight to Houston.
As this is not a story of Galveston I will simply say that I thoroughly enjoyed that festival and when it was all over I flew from Houston to Kansas City for the second leg of my adventure. Although I arrived on Sunday the Holiday Fair was not due to to open until the following Friday meaning that I had four unfilled days. There was a certain amount of media work to do but the organisers of the Holiday Fair rather wanted me out in the community spreading the word, rather than lounging in a hotel suite doing nothing, so they contacted the board of the Mid Continent Public Library and suggested that I make appearances in a couple of branches. I could do a reading as well as talking about the weekend’s event and try to encourage guests to visit.
My first evening’s commitment was at Raytown Library and I remember it vividly for there was an awful ice storm that night. I had never seen anything like that before and across the city fires were breaking out as power cables came down under the weight of ice. I seem to remember that we did a bit of Q&A on that occasion too and the same question that inspired this blog post was asked – ‘why did you come to Raytown? I answered: ‘The weather!’ The marketing team at Mid Continent had done a good job and there was a reporter and photographer at the library and the next Morning at breakfast my phot dominated the front page of the Kansas City Star’s arts section.
And that is how I came to perform in the Kansas City area and specifically for MCPL. Sadly the Holiday Fair didn’t survive and folded a year or two later, but I still kept coming back to Missouri and Mid Continent Public Library service is now my longest running venue.
I wrote the first half of this post at KC airport and then put the laptop away for my flight and as we soared towards our cruising altitude we passed over the top of the Convention Center, with its distinctive four towers, where it all began for me.