Boston, Charles Dickens, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Maine, Massachusetts, Portland, Portland Press and Herald, Press Hotel, Santa Claus, Vaillancourt Folk Art
It has been a week or since last I reminisced on my American adventures as prompted by my phone and Facebook, because this has coincided with a period when traditionally I could spend a few days at home with Liz and my family.
But now the great memory generators have cranked back into life again and provided me with a series of images from Massachusetts and Maine. For the last 12 or so years the second part of my tour has begun in Sutton Mass. at the wonderful premises of Vaillancourt Folk Art where the senses are assaulted by Christmas! As you walk into the store every inch is utilised to display a variety of Christmas gifts but mainly the beautifully hand-painted chalkware Santa Claus figures which are cast from antique chocolate moulds.
The company was formed by Judi and Gary Vaillancourt in 1984. Originally based in their house, the demand for the collectables soon outstripped the confines of a kitchen, dining room and bedrooms and over the following years the business expanded until it eventually landed in its present home the Manchaug Mills in Sutton. The buildings date back to 1826 and are a perfect venue for the Vaillancourt family to promote tradition.
Gary and Judi are justifiably proud that they are one of a very few Christmas businesses which are truly American, and it was their connection with Byers’ Choice, another genuinely American Christmas company (it feels so right to be writing about both businesses on Thanksgiving Day), which led to my performing in the mill.
For my first visit The Vaillancourts made an arrangement with the owners of the mill to convert an empty space next to the store into a theatre, which they named Blaxton Hall. With Judi’s artistic flare a stage set was created surrounded by 200 seats, and over the years my performances of A Christmas Carol have become as much a Christmas tradition for me as they have for the audiences who return every year.
I always have a wonderful time with the Vaillancourts and we have had our fair share of adventures over the years. On one occasion my flight from Philadelphia was delayed by thick fog and it quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t get to the store in time for the show. After a flurry of panic, phone calls and emails were exchanged and a plan was hatched: Luke Vaillancourt (Gary and Judi’s son, now very much a part of the team) was dispatched to wait for my arrival at Logan airport ready to drive me back as fast as was legally possible, whilst his father-in-law Bob was placed on the Blaxton Hall stage with his guitar in hand to entertain the crowd until I could take over: that warm-up performance is still spoken of in Sutton to this day! When I eventually arrived and relieved Bob, whose repertoire was beginning to get rather stretched, the atmosphere in the room was fantastic: a real sense of camaraderie among friends, and when Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning and discovered that there was ‘no mist, no fog….’ there was a great ironic cheer.
Vaillancourt Folk Art is more than a venue to me, I count the family as close personal friends and it feels most odd not to see them this year.
The other memory that my phone provided me with this week was from Portland, Maine. Portland is a more recent addition to my tour but the city has a special resonance for me. Many years ago when my father David was the President of the International Dickens Fellowship organisation (a post that I was greatly honoured to hold a few years later and one that my brother Ian now undertakes with a great sense of duty, wit and professionalism), he asked me to perform with him a short story that he had discovered. The ‘show’ was based on a piece of writing titled ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ and recounted the childhood memories of Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. In 1868 Charles Dickens was touring America, performing his readings in cities along the Eastern seaboard. Most of the events were in Boston and New York but there were other venues too, one of which was in Portland. The young Kate, 10 years old at the time, was a huge fan of Dickens and devoured his works, even naming her pets and belongings after his characters – her dog was named Pip whilst her red sled was christened ‘The Artful Dodger.’
Dickens’ reading was one of the biggest events ever seen in the city and the tickets sold out in no time. Of course there was no possibility for a ten year old girl to attend and so Kate simply lingered outside the hall hoping to catch a glimpse of her hero. Sadly she did not.
The next day Kate and her mother were due to take the train to Boston and during the journey the little girl discovered that Charles Dickens was actually sitting in the next carriage and in a moment of Victorian infant chutzpah she plucked up courage to run up and sit down next to the great author! Once he overcame his surprise Dickens fell into conversation with Kate, asking her about her favourite books and characters. She told him that she’d read all of his books and he questioned her, ‘those great thick long books and you such a slip of a thing?’ She simply replied that she skipped the dull bits – ‘not the short dull bits, just the long ones!’
A Child’s Journey with Dickens is a charmingly beautiful account of the meeting and a visit to Portland always brings it to mind. When I was in the city I performed on behalf of the Maine Historical Society and as well as staging a lovely evening in a beautiful venue, they were extremely generous with their research resources and enabled me to build a complete picture of Charles’ visit.
As a final observation when last I was in Portland, two years ago, I stayed at The Press Hotel on Exchange Street which is housed in the old offices of The Portland Press and Herald (formally the largest newspaper in the State and mentioned by Kate in A Child’s Journey). The owners of The Press have honoured the newspaper trade in the décor and dressing of the rooms and it is a fabulous change to the many identikit boxes that proliferate.
My main memory however was the breakfast I ate there – a Fruit and Quinoa Bowl, which comprised of: Pineapple, Banana, Blueberry, Black Quinoa, Basil, Orange Blossom Ricotta and Local Honey. It was quite simply one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten and won my award for ‘Breakfast of the Tour’!
Back in England in 2020. 26 November has really felt like the beginning of Christmas. We have spent the day listening to Christmas songs and driving through neighbourhoods looking at Christmas lights. I even bought myself a Christmas sweater!
What else happened on 26th November? The film has finally been unleased upon the world!
Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers in America