A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Carol film, Amish, Astor, Downton Abbey, Gap PA, HF DuPont, Highclere Castle, Intercourse PA, Netflix, Queen Elizabeth II, Rockerfeller, The Crown, Vanderbildt, Winterthur
In a normal year I would be reaching the last few venues of my tour and over the decades these have tumbled around the schedule in various orders, giving me plenty of choice as to which one to choose from my online memory feed. Today it is Winterthur in the tiny state of Delaware.
The Winterthur estate was originally built by HF DuPont, whose family owned most of Delaware thanks to the fortune amassed through, firstly, gunpowder and then latterly petrochemicals. Nowadays visitors flock to the property and take tours of the house, wondering at the magnificence of life in an age that boasted the Rockerfellers, the Vanderbilts and the Astors, as well as the DuPonts atop the rich lists.
Such is the popularity of Winterthur that it was necessary to build a visitor centre a short distance from the mansion to meet, greet and feed the thousands of guests who flocked there, and it is this building that becomes my home during two days each December. Like so many of my venues I have been visiting Winterthur for many years and have a close relationship with the excellent team there – Ellen, who runs my shows and Barbara, who is in charge of the well stocked shop and whose office I use as a changing room. That office is a real highlight of being at Winterthur as Barbara has the walls covered in little cartoons which always make me laugh.
A visit to Winterthur doesn’t start when I leave the car in the huge parking lot and make my way to the visitor centre, it begins early in the morning, usually in darkness, often in sleet, rain or snow, when I leave my previous venue which has tended to be The Country Cupboard in Lewisburg during recent years. I make my way back along the Susquehanna towards Harrisburg and from there towards Lancaster and into Amish country where rumbling trucks are replaced by fragile looking gigs pulled by ponies.
The icy crags of the Susquehanna valley give way to gently undulating fields studded with silos as I pass through the suggestively named Intercourse (the name most likely came from the fact that the village sits at a cross roads and was therefore a site for meeting and discussions – I was going to write ‘debate’ but feared I would mire myself even deeper into innuendo), and on towards Gap with its quirky lighthouse-shaped clock tower. It is always a happy drive and one that is invariably accompanied by my Christmas playlist.
I drive through Chad’s Ford and passed the Fairville Inn guest house, which is my extremely homely and comfortable lodgings, before crossing the line from Pennsylvania into Delaware and turn off the road to make my way along the serpentine driveway which leads me ‘home’.
The actual venue for my shows is the Copeland Lecture Theatre, attached to the visitor centre, and which is one of the most remarkable rooms I have ever had the pleasure of performing in. It doesn’t have an impressive stage for it is very definitely a lecture theatre, it has some lighting but nothing really theatrical, it doesn’t have a balcony so the auditorium is very long. The hall has no particular history, and Charles Dickens never visited this area, so what makes the venue so special to me? A carefully designed and shaped ceiling, that’s what. The acoustics of The Copeland Lecture Theatre, created purely by the shape of the room, are beyond compare and I can speak in my normal voice from the stage and know that the people sat in the furthest reaches of the room can hear me quite clearly. It took me many years to have confidence in the room and many was the time that I would walk onto the stage and look at the sea of faces diminishing towards a far distant vanishing point and doubt that I could do the show without electronic aids, but I always can.
Of course a perfect hall is nothing without an enthusiastic audience, and the people who come to Winterthur in their Christmas sweaters and warm scarves are always a lively and fun bunch who join in loudly and applaud long.
One particular pleasure of my visits to the Winterthur estate has been the opportunity to view two amazing exhibitions of costumes. During the years that Downton Abbey was popular, Winterthur forged close ties with Highclere Castle (where I also perform), and welcomed Lady Carnarvon on a number of occasions to speak about ‘The Real Downton Abbey’. In 2014 a major exhibition of costumes from the series was opened and early one morning I was able to have a special tour. It was a brilliantly curated exhibit displaying each costume in front of still photography, copies of scripts and video clips. With the ending of Downton so Winterthur turned its attentions to the next big British drama and mounted another exhibition, this time featuring The Crown, Netflix’s drama based on the life of Queen Elizabeth II. Once again I was snuck in before opening and marvelled at the craftsmanship and accuracy of the beautiful creations, ranging from the coronation regalia to Princess Margaret’s swinging 60s dresses.
Maybe one day they will mount an exhibition of costumes from my show, although I do admit they will only need a very small room! At least in my film version of A Christmas Carol I wear two different waistcoats and two different cravats, but I grant you it may not be the most thrilling experience. Perhaps I should just stick to performing in The Copeland Hall where I hope to be in 2021.
To rent my film and to view BOTH costumes, go to: http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html