With a glance back through a few historic posts on my phone this morning reminds me of some fun times that I have spent in California over the years, so for today’s reflections I thought I would return to The Golden State, shrug off a wet English winter and bask in the warm sunshine for a while.
My first connections with California date back to the very start of my touring years, when I was managed by an indominable lady named Caroline Jackson who originally hailed from Alabama – a real Steel Magnolia! Caroline had watched me perform at the ’95 Dickens on the Strand festival in Galveston and proposed that she instigate a performance tour for the following year. We would work together for around 13 years and I owe my much of my current success to Caroline’s foresight. We certainly had our difficulties and disagreements over the years, but Caroline opened many doors to me and I shall always be grateful to her for that.
Putting together the first your wasn’t easy for Caroline because there was no history or reputation to promote; the family connection was useful of course, but potential sponsors wanted to exactly what they would be getting for their money. Our big break was the forming of a connection with the Historical Hotels of America register, which promoted a collective of some of the most beautiful resorts in the country.
One hotel that liked the opportunity of hosting me was the Ojai Valley Inn nestling high in the mountains to the North West of Los Angeles and I travelled there for many years: it was like a Heavenly oasis.
One of the things that made my visits to Ojai so special was that I had to fly into the terrible sprawl of concrete and glass that makes up LAX airport, and then mercifully leave the city behind me. I would collect a rental car and then make my way through the the streets of LA (indeed my first ever experience of driving in America on ‘the wrong side of the road’ was during rush hour in LA – I decided then that if I could drive there I could drive anywhere!). As I hit the freeway towards Ventura County and rose towards the hills I could see a layer of smog behind me and by the time I arrived in Ojai (pronounced ‘Oh-Hai’) the only smell was of eucalyptus and the only sound was that of cicadas as the sun set turning the mountains pink. It is no coincidence that the resort became Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon movie.
The hotel itself is a 5 star spa resort with amazing facilities (I used to treat myself to a massage or a round of golf during my stay), and the suites are spread around the grounds in a collection of brightly tiled Spanish villas.
In those early years of performing my shows were often dinner theatre events, with me performing each chapter of A Christmas Carol between courses of a lavish meal. The format was a difficult one as the timings of the performances had to be in complete accord with the kitchens where various chefs turned the air blue because their beautifully created dishes sat unserved whilst I continued to prance around the dining room. At Ojai the dinner was served ‘family style’ with large platters of food being laid on the tables for the guests to help themselves: it worked superbly. I don’t remember the details of the menus there except for a delicious salad with persimmons, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
As we dined a troupe of madrigal singers would surround each circular table and sing carols and folk songs (‘The Boars’ Head Carol comes to mind) and the effect of the harmonies was exquisite.
Yes, the Ojai Valley Inn and Resort was a beautiful place to visit and for many years was my favourite venue on tour.
Also in California, to the east of Los Angeles, is the city of Riverside where each February a fabulous festival takes place to celebrate the life of Charles Dickens, who was born on the 7th of that month. I have visited Riverside on many occasions, sometimes for the festival and sometimes at Christmas to assist with their promotional activities and have always had great fun there but my most memorable moment came when I wasn’t even in the United States at all.
In 1996 I was due to appear at the February festival and give a speech entitled ‘Dickens the Businessman’, in which I would talk about Charles’ entrepreneurial nature as well as focussing on his rags-to-riches story of success, which appeals to a country built upon such dreams. However the previous December I had had a run-in with the charming officers of the INS. Through sheer ignorance and naivety I hadn’t appreciated that I would require a visa to perform in the USA and when I had arrived on American soil I was taken off to a small room and told in no uncertain terms that my presence in the country was not appreciated! Now, it so happened that my first performances on the trip were due to be in Canada, so the officer sent me on my way telling me to make sure that all of my papers were in order by the time I returned.
During my few days in the land of the maple leaf, representations were made and meetings arranged with the result that by the time I returned to America I had been given a temporary ‘once in a lifetime’ pass, in lieu of a visa. But I was told that I must have applied and been approved for the appropriate visa (a P3, to be precise) before I tried to work in America again.
I now faced a problem because the whole process of being granted a visa is a very long drawn out one that requires months to complete, and I was due to perform at the Riverside Festival in just a few weeks time. My agent Caroline and I made a decision, to preserve good will I would attend the festival as a guest, taking no payment for my time, so as far as the INS were concerned I would not be working . But when I arrived in early February I was once again carted off to a private interview room, where my suitcases were opened and my costumes and props revealed. The officers picked each item out with the latex-gloved hands as if they were hard drugs and laid them on the table and asked me to explain. With sweat beading I stammered that I was due to appear at the festival, that I was giving a speech, doing some shows but I wasn’t working, I wasn’t being paid…the officers had all of the information about my trip on their computers: they knew I was going to Riverside, they showed me web pages advertising my visit. They were expecting me. Questioning continued and they elicited from me that I would be staying at the beautiful Mission Inn Hotel in downtown Riverside. Who would be paying for the room? Who had paid for my flight? And that is what sealed my fate because it was the festival who had bought my ticket and who would accommodate me during my stay, and that, proudly announced the officer, was payment!
I was placed on the next flight home and refused entry to the United States of America.
In Riverside I was due to give my speech the next day to an audience of wealthy and successful business folk from the city (many of whom were festival sponsors, therefore important to please), and I wasn’t even there, in fact the only thing that had made it to Riverside was my top hat which had been purchased in America (from a company called Hats in the Belfry) and shipped to the venue. And so it was my first performance in Riverside was delivered by phone from my front room in England with a cup of cocoa to hand, whilst the audience sipped champagne in the elegant surroundings of the Mission Inn. My top hat was placed on the lectern to give them something to look at!
It is strange to think that now the World is in such a place that speeches and even performances are being delivered remotely via Zoom or Teams every day. Back then, however, it was a new phenomenon.
I was fortunate to visit Riverside on many occasions after that first attempt and have always had a brilliant time there.
In more recent years I have been attending a new Californian venue and that is at Rogers Gardens in Corona del Mar, close to the affluent and beautiful beachside resort of Newport Beach. Rogers Gardens is a large garden centre and nursery and during the Christmas season have impressive displays of decorations and ornaments. In the heart of the centre there is an open air amphitheatre, originally built so that horticultural demonstrations could be given, but a few years ago it was decided to try and use it for open air theatre (which when you are in Southern California is a safe option!).
I was asked to perform twice on each day I was there, once in the afternoon and once at night, and a local tech company was engaged to rig up theatre lights and a sound system.
I used to do a lot of outdoor theatre in England, mainly at tourist attractions, but this was a new experience for me on tour and an exciting one. The first performance was in the blazing heat of the afternoon and whilst the audience were shaded by huge parasols I was alone and exposed! In my heavy frock coat I was sweltering and sweating profusely, and my forehead was getting redder and redder as the show went on. I performed as much as possible without the coat but the heat was still unbearable and I was heartily relieved when I finally said ‘God Bless Us Every One!’ For the next day I made sure I had plenty of sun block on and although that protected me from sunburn it also streamed into my eyes stinging to such an extent that I couldn’t open them, meaning I gave most of the show blind! All new challenges, that was certain.
Even in the short time that I have been visiting Rogers, three years I think, I have built up quite a following, with a loyal and appreciative audience. Rogers Gardens is an amazing and unique venue and I very much hope to return soon.
Whenever I have visited California, flying in or out of Los Angeles, I look across to the Hollywood sign on the distant hills – and dream of being in movies. And now in my own small way I am close to joining the ranks of film makers.
Today the trailer for my forthcoming is released on my website prior to the film’s release on November 26th. Watch the trailer and spread the word!