It was no surprise that following the pictures from Omaha my phone should choose to then remind me of my times in the Kansas City area, for the two venues, being geographically close, inevitably have been paired on my tour during recent years.
The picture that my phone produced was from two years ago as I prepared to perform at the Woodneath Library in Liberty, Missouri, but my relationship with the Mid Continent Library Service, who own and manage Woodneath, is not a recent one – oh, no, I have been performing there for longer than any other venue on my tour. My first visit was in 1995.
My career as a performer of Charles Dickens’ work began in England in 1993. That year marked the 150th anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol and I, as an actor, had been approached by a local charity asking me to recreate one of my great great grandfather’s famous readings as a fundraiser. I reluctantly agreed, and that decision changed my life.
In 1994 I performed The Carol a few times in the UK and one show was watched by a representative from the Galveston Dickens Festival where my Dad had been appearing for the past three years. After the show we all chatted. My father didn’t wish to travel any more and was keen for me to take over the mantle, he had made the introduction with a view to making that happen.
And sure enough, when December ’95 came around I was on a plane heading to Texas. I spent a weekend becoming part of ‘Dickens on the Strand’ which was an amazing time, but when Sunday evening came I didn’t fly home to England, I boarded a flight for Kansas City, Missouri.
The superb festival in Galveston had inspired a similar event in Kansas City which was the brainchild of the Missouri Rep Theater Company and my father had worked closely with them over the previous two years as a consultant. He had attended the inaugural festival in ’94 and now I was stepping into his shoes to carry on the legacy.
But there was a timetabling problem: The Galveston festival finished on Sunday evening and the Kansas City one wouldn’t begin until the next Friday, leaving me doing nothing for four days in a rather luxurious hotel.
Enter the Mid Continent Library Service. The Charles Dickens Holiday Fair organisers thought it would be great publicity for their festival if I could get out and perform in front of as many people in as many areas around downtown Kansas City as I could, encouraging them to visit the Convention Center at the weekend. The library service, which is based in Independence, has branches all over the Kansas City region (thirty-five currently) and so presented the perfect solution.
During that first year I was conducted from venue to venue by a lady named Linda who was volunteer with the festival. I remember that she had a stylishly coiffured bob of platinum blonde hair and wore a large fur coat, so dark that it was almost black: she looked a bit like a walking pint of Guinness!
In those days I used to perform three times a day and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the performances were given as readings and were well received. The following year we repeated the exercise, but during that year the Holiday Fair went bust, meaning that there was no reason for me to return to the Kansas City region in ’97.
Except The Mid Continent Public Library Service had other ideas. The appearances had proved so popular that they wanted to continue the relationship and booked me to return to Missouri in 1997 and I have been going ever since, except for the years when I ‘retired’.
Memories? too many to mention! In the early days I used to be looked after by two librarians in the events and programmes team, Miriam and Marlena, and we would spend whole days driving from one branch of the library to another, each performance punctuated by a huge meal in various restaurants.
Performing in a library space was strange, for although the audiences were relatively small, the buildings themselves were built to soak up sound, meaning that projecting my voice was incredibly difficult and I would frequently end up very tired and hoarse after a day’s performing.
Mid Continent not only enjoyed the audiences that I drew but also the attendant publicity that came with my visits and we often had to find time for media events and interviews between the branch visits. On one occasion we were due to have a very early morning radio interview at a station who broadcast out of a small shack across the state line in Kansas. There was heavy snow on the ground and the air was filled with blizzard conditions as we crawled slowly on. I was in costume as we had to drive straight to a library branch as soon as the interview was done.
At one point of the journey we reached the bottom of a steep hill and the route up was slick and icy meaning that we couldn’t proceed. However Marlena noticed that the route DOWN the hill had been well used by various trucks meaning we would be able to get up the hill by driving on the wrong side of the road. Of course a problem would arise if a car should be legitimately driving only to be confronted with us squirming up the slope, so I rather gallantly, or foolishly, volunteered to walk ahead of Marlena’s car to warn any oncoming traffic. I wrapped my scarf around my neck and pulled my top hat low over my forehead and held my walking cane ahead of me to alert anyone who may be there. It was fortunate that I did, for indeed a pick-up truck driven by a bearded guy in a baseball cap did start the descent. I waved my cane high in the air, matching the movement with my other arm until he stopped and stared at me, mouth open.
To understand his shock you have to relive the scene from his viewpoint: He was driving into a whiteout, nothing to be seen, an alien landscape ahead of him. What was that? A shape, a shadow, a figure: out of the mist appeared a ghost, the ghost of a Victorian gentleman waving in tormented anguish. If the scene had been included in a 70’s movie our pick-up driver would have looked at a half emptied bottle in his hand and shaken his head, before tossing the liquor out of the car window!
On another occasion we had a little time before we needed to be at a venue so the M&Ms decided to take me to a baseball batting cage where I could try some hits. I was fitted with a helmet and gloves but other than that I was in full costume as the automatic pitching machine pelted balls at me.
It was during these early years that I performed at the Blue Springs branch where the head librarian was Kimberley Howard. During subsequent years Kimberley rose up the ranks and began to work on the programming team, initially alongside Miriam and Marlena and more latterly on her own. For the past goodness-knows-how many years Kimberley has been the one who has booked me and looked after me during my stays.
On her watch my performances have changed somewhat as the interest and audiences have grown. The smaller branches have not been able to accommodate the growing numbers and Kimberley has found other ways of presenting my shows to her patrons – the biggest being in a facility attached to a retirement community called the John Knox Pavilion where we pack around 900 people in, and the amazing thing about it is, that Mid Continent offer all of their programmes for free!
You can imagine therefore, given our history, that Kimberley and the team were very sad that I couldn’t travel in 2020 but as has been their way over the years they weren’t going to let a thing like a global pandemic get in the way of their programming.
Mid Continent Library Service have been instrumental in getting my new film made, and have assisted financially in the production, so our relationship which goes so far back is now even stronger and deeper than ever before.