Yesterday’s alert on my phone reminded me that two years ago I was being driven through very heavy snow towards Lincoln, Nebraska from the city of Omaha where I was performing at various venues on behalf of The Douglas County Historical Society, as I had done for many years before that.
My chauffeur on that day, as on so many in Omaha, was Lee Phillips and it was he and his wife Suzy who were responsible for taking me to the most central spot in the USA where sea and shining sea are as far away as it is possible for them to be.
Susie and Lee had seen me perform in Williamsburg, Virginia (no doubt the subject of a future post if my Samsung decides to remind me of times there), and as she was on the board at the Historical Society thought that a fundraiser featuring my shows would be a good idea. As soon as she could she marched into the office of the Society’s Executive Director, Kathy Aultz, and told her that ‘we MUST have Gerald Dickens perform’. Now, if Kathy had known Susie well, known her single-minded attitude, known how once she had an idea nothing would stand in her way, she may have simply said ‘alright let me know what we need to do’, but at that moment Kathy was new to the role and was trying to pick her way through all sorts of budgets, procedures, lists of employees, board members, volunteers. Her desk was covered and her mind was whirling, when suddenly in came this woman demanding that they all go on a road trip to the Kansas City area to watch a distant relative of a dead British guy performing A Christmas Carol. Kathy gave in and agreed to this hair-brained scheme. It is a story that both Kathy and Susie tell now with a great deal of humour and affection.
So, having seen me perform and understanding the possibilities, the Douglas County Historical Society put things in place to bring me to Omaha.
Over the years I have performed in many venues around the city but the two constants have been the General Crook House, a wonderfully atmospheric old property which is open for the public to tour, as well as being the HQ of the Society, and the Field Club – a stylish golf course where Lee just happens to be a member. The latter location hosts the largest audiences of my Omaha visits as we take over a spacious function room for an afternoon tea performance. The room is packed with tables as a large audience of locals and bus tour passengers crowd in to begin their Christmas celebrations.
While the audience is having their tea I have plenty of time to sit and relax, maybe chat to some of the volunteers or watch golf on tv in the wonderfully named ‘cry room’, a small bar where disconsolate golfers drown their sorrows after a frustrating round.
When the tea is finished and cleared Kathy welcomes the guests and introduces me.
Now, up to a few years ago I would walk up onto the stage, take the applause, say a few words of introduction and then start the show, but in recent years I have created a more theatrical opening to the performance: after the introductions, music fills the hall (the melancholic, atmospheric opening bars to the Trans Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas Eve/Sarajevo classic which is based on ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, the only carol mentioned by name in A Christmas Carol’). When the music dies away it is replaced by a church bell tolling as the hunched figure of Ebenezer Scrooge slowly walks to an imaginary graveside.
The idea works well so long as there is the equipment to play the sound effect as in most venues there is and you would expect a large function room to have the facility to play music, wouldn’t you? Ah, how dull my tours would be if everything was so simple!
At the Field Club the music for the entire facility used to be generated from an audio system tucked away in a tiny little cupboard near the admin offices, but nowhere near the stage area. To play the music cue it was necessary to plug my phone into the system and at the appropriate moment press ‘play’.
However…. Kathy was giving the cue on stage and I was at the back of the room ready to enter through the audience, so we had to engage someone to operate the phone (complete with my access code in case it locked), but as they were stuck in the little cupboard there had to be yet another person in the long corridor waiting to relay the signal. This is how it worked: Kathy said ‘and so please welcome Gerald Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol’, I waved to whoever was in the corridor, they waved to whoever was in the cupboard, they hit play and hopefully the sound effect filled the room. To allow for the inevitable delay, I would start the process a little early so that the music started at the perfect moment, however there were a few occasions when Kathy would be on the point of finishing but just as I was giving the signal she would remember something else she needed to say, and there would be a flurry of hand signals to stop the process!
Last year the Field Club had invested in a new system which allowed the music to be played from within the room itself and although it made for a much simpler and more relaxing start to the show, I did rather miss our adventurous Heath Robinson style set up of years past!
The other venue, the Crook House, is a perfect setting for Victorian story telling. The dining room is cleared and a small stage set up in a large bay window, more of an alcove really. Due to the lack of space I am not able to do my larger theatrical-style shows there, so I usually turn to my smaller repertoire: Doctor Marigold, The Signalman, Sikes and Nancy and A Tale of Two Cities among others. The audience numbers around 40 and such is the intimacy of the setting we have all become good friends over the years.
Actually I have a permanent presence at The Crook House, for a few years ago Kathy arranged to have a life sized carboard cut out of me made to help promote my visits: my alter ego stands quietly in an office and has been christened ‘Flat Gerald’
Of course every venue has its own eccentricities, and The Crook House is no exception to that. One year, I think when I getting all dramatic in the middle of Sikes and Nancy, there was suddenly the sound of a buzzer sounding sporadically. Eventually both I and Kathy realised that the sound coincided with one audience member stretching his legs. I was continuing the show almost on auto pilot, transfixed by this gent’s ability to buzz at will, whilst Kathy quickly realised what was actually happening. The room, having been the house’s formal dining room, had a little bell push under the carpet near to the spot where the hostess would have been seated, so that she could surreptitiously call for the servants to attend and clear the table. Our poor audience member was completely unaware that his foot was activating the hidden switch every time he stretched his leg out.
There have been plenty of other venues in and around Omaha – book shops, high schools (including one performance in the cavernous surroundings of a basketball court!), and more recently senior living communities, but every event is organised by the small and dedicated staff at The Douglas County Historical Society and at every performance Kathy and Susie are there overseeing every detail. As with so many people that I have worked with they have become close friends and valued colleagues.
The Historical Society were one of the prime movers in requesting that I make a video of my show to distribute to their regular audience members and so began the process that will come to fruition on November 26 when my film will be released.