The official first day of the tour was due to begin at an early hour, but it might have been so much earlier. My two performances were for to be at separate communities belonging to The Immanuel group, one in Omaha and one in Lincoln. Although my performances in Omaha are under the management of The Douglas County Historical Society, for the last few years an increasingly traditional feature of my visit has been a day given to Immanuel and I have visited a good many of their communities over the years.
This year’s shows were originally due to begin in Lincoln, Nebraska at 10.30 in the morning and a second back in Omaha at 2.30, tis would have meant an early start and a rush-hour drive to get to Lincoln in time to perform which, after my long day of travelling the day before and my late night, would not have been wholly enjoyable. I had suggested that the two shows be reversed meaning that I didn’t have to begin my 2021 trip in such a sleepless whirlwind.
I, of course, woke rather early on my first morning, but the fact that I didn’t have to be up and ready in the lobby of the hotel at silly-o’clock meant that I could have quite a relaxing morning, laying in bed drinking coffee and muttering a few lines to myself. At 7 o’clock I went down to breakfast, once again masked up and was astounded to discover that no one else was wearing masks – not the guests or any of the staff at Element. It became obvious that attitudes to mask wearing in the US are different to that in the UK (although increasingly few people are wearing there too). I selected a table at a good distance from others and enjoyed a good hearty meal which involved granola and fresh fruit, as well as some bacon and scrambled eggs. A meal to set me up for the day.
I was due to be collected at 8.30 so I made sure that I had all of my costume requirements for 2 shows (I wouldn’t be returning to the hotel until the day was done) and took myself back to the lobby where Frank Aultz was waiting to chauffer me around the state. In past years I have always been driven by my very good friend Lee Phillips but over the past year Lee and his wife Susie have undergone a few medical adventures meaning that Lee would not be available. Frank is the husband of The Douglas County Historical Society director Kathy Aultz and we have worked together at many events over the years, so I was in familiar and safe hands. In the lobby Frank waited for me, fully masked, and soon we were in his big SUV growling towards the Pacific Springs Retirement Community in the west of the Omaha. As with any Midwestern car journey it was quite a long one and Frank and I had had plenty of time to catch up before pulling up under the large portico in front of the main building. Kathy was already waiting, as was Heather from the centre and also Cameo who works for Immanuel and arranges all of the programming for the residents across the whole group, and who has worked with Kathy over recent years to make these events happen.
We all made our greetings and shared brief anecdotes about life under lockdown, before I was shown to a small office had been designated as my dressing room. And so a routine that will last until 23 December began as I changed into costume, making sure that all of the details were in place: shoes double-knotted, Victorian penny in waistcoat pocket, fob watch set and wound, cravat correctly tied etc etc. Back in the room where I was to perform a small stage had been erected and I re-arranged the furniture a little, and draped the red shawl, that has become part of the show in recent years, over the chair. Another important moment was to place the two little toy mice on the set: The mice were bought with my two daughters three years ago and are always somewhere on the stage so that they can be close to me, watching, even if we are half a world apart.
Mice hidden and I was ready to go!
At 10.20, or so, the audience began to appear from around the centre, some in wheelchairs, some with strollers, one on a Ferrari red motor scooter, and as he wore a red jacket, red baseball cap and red mask (everyone was masked), he looked as if he was a star driver with the Scuderia! The room was soon full and it was time to start. Firstly Cameo welcomed the residents and introduced Kathy who in turn welcomed me, and in the words of legendary Formula One television commentator Murray Walker, the 2021 tour was ‘Go! Go! Go!’
Any sense of tiredness I felt was swept away by the adrenaline rush of performing and soon I was well into the show – everything was working well. Of course I had performed A Christmas Carol a few weeks before at the Alderwood School in England, so the movements and lines were not completely alien to me, but it was a relief that everything fell naturally into place and I could really concentrate on making the show as effective as possible, rather than simply delivering a competent performance.
At the end of the show as many residents as were able stood to applaud me and many came up to me to thank me and congratulate me, which was wonderful – this had been a very good way to get things going. After I had changed back into my regular clothes Cameo told Kathy, Frank and I that the centre would be giving us lunch and we could retreat to the conference room where we would be alone and could catch up. Of course we had two years of news to share, so the conversation was constant. Our lunch came and was delicious, but time was ticking on and we had to be in Lincoln for the second show so we made sure we had all of our belongings and got on the road.
Lincoln is Nebraska’s capital city and lies around 60 miles to the South West of Omaha, and we were due at the Grand Lodge community for a 2.30 performance. As we departed Omaha it was clear to see how the city is spreading outwards – as property prices get ever higher downtown, so new developments are being built on the fringes of the city, and in a Midwestern town the limits are, well, limitless. The problem is that each new neighbourhood needs new stores and libraries and schools and businesses to support it, meaning that the heart of the city is left empty like the husks of corn which give the state its nickname.
The drive was beautiful under a bright blue sky streaked with some extraordinary cloud formations created by the strong winds that whipped across the prairie land. The quality of the sunlight showed off the golden fall colours to their best advantage whilst the wind meant that the huge American flags, so beloved by the auto trade in particular, billowed from their staffs in all of their glory.
Unfortunately as we got closer to Lincoln the traffic became slower and slower and our progress was halted meaning that by the time we pulled up at Grand Lodge the clock was ticking inexorably on towards 2.30 – showtime. Indeed, as I entered the main door, the seats in the auditorium space were already filling up – there would be no time to relax and collect my thoughts in preparation. However in the potential rush there was a slight oasis of calm: a cup of tea. the pot nestling under For my many years working in Omaha the signature performance has been at a lavish elegant tea and for many years the service was under the instruction of Mona, a volunteer with the Historical Society, who has a passion for English tea. She would create special blends and insisted that everyone drank from antique china tea cups with matching saucers. For me there would be a single teapot filled with a perfectly brewed Earl Grey, and a cup waiting in my dressing room. Mona’s husband died a few years ago and she moved from Omaha to be near to her daughter, and now she is living in the Grand Lodge community – this was a complete coincidence but as soon as she knew that I would be visiting she made sure that she would be waiting for me and that in my dressing room would be a pot of my favourite Earl Grey, nestling beneath a British tea cosy embellished with lace work.
With all of the rush to get ready for the show the opportunity to step back and savour the tea was very very welcome, and it was delicious.
By the time I emerged from my dressing room, Cameo was already making welcomes to the residents and as I put the microphone pack on, and adjusted my costume, Kathy was called up to make her opening remarks. I just had time to carelessly throw the red shawl over the chair, before I was on. The start of the show was rather like I was standing in a roller coaster car, not fully strapped in, when the ride started – I felt a bit out of control, but following a clearly defined route. It was as if I was a passenger to the show rather than actually controlling it, and it took me quite a while to get myself back to a place of comfort. However it all went well and once again the residents of the centre thoroughly enjoyed it and came to to tell me so afterwards, many with tears in their eyes.
It had been a rather frantic afternoon, but I had completed my second show and now I could rest. This first day was always going to be a challenge, but I met it well and gave two strong performances, which was a great relief to me. I posed for some photographs with Mona and Cameo (who has grand plans for my return nest year) and once again changed back into my regular clothes. Frank had gathered up all of my props and soon we were headed back to Omaha among the flying golden leaves.
With no performance in the evening I could relax and after dining in the Leadbelly Pub near to the hotel, I was able to get an early night and regroup ready for another day’s performing for the Douglas County Historical Society.