Bah Humbug! - Part I

I'm sure you all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, the grouchy old accountant who lost the true meaning of Christmas. I know the story well. I've been going to see a live performance of A Christmas Carol every holiday season since 2008. It was a tradition I started for myself after being refreshingly inspired when a few friends invited me to join them for a show. Ever since, I (and Rizzo since 2009) have made it a point to see the show live and onstage. The show has provided a nice excuse to travel to some fun locations around the country and serves as an annual reminder that it is always better to give than to receive. As the holiday season approaches, here is a recap of A Christmas Carol trips past. 

2008 - Staunton, VA

During the winter of 2008 I was living alone (well, I was living with Pigface) in Charlottesville, VA. It was a somewhat depressing time in my life (I won't get into that but those that know me best know what I mean) and I was excited when my friends Ken and Jami invited me to drive over the mountain to the booming metropolis of Staunton, VA to partake in the holiday classic A Christmas Carol. It was to be a live performance at the Blackfriars Playhouse. The Blackfriars Playhouse is the home of the American Shakespeare Center and is described on the website as "This stunning re-creation of the first indoor theatre in the English-speaking world, which William Shakespeare and his colleagues built on part of London's Blackfriars, in itself, a reason to visit Staunton."

I’m sure I had seen A Christmas Carol before in movies. I generally knew the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his journey to rediscover the meaning of Christmas. I was probably most familiar with the Disney version with Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchet and I was sure I had seen the updated version, Scrooged, starring Bill Murray, but I had never seen the show live.

I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy the live performance. I was in a pretty deep funk and wasn’t much of a theatre goer in the first place (something that has hence changed). Not only that, I had learned that the performances at the Blackfriars Playhouse were a bit on the minimalistic side. They had to be based upon the performance space. The 300-seat Blackfriars Playhouse, just like the theatre in the day of William Shakespeare, is quite small. The stage is perhaps 5 or 6 steps up from the seats and is, and this is a total guess, 20-25 feet deep and 40-50 feet wide. It may seem big but when you are trying to put on an entire performance with a full cast the stage can get filled up quickly.

Keep in mind that I’m writing this blog 7 years after the show so my memory may be a bit hazy but I remember sitting nearly at center stage maybe 14 of 15 rows back. The show started with minstrels singing Christmas carols out amongst the crowd. The minstrels made their way to the stage for the show to start. There wasn’t much scenery due to the size of the stage, simply a big bed and a few desks that were used to relay all the various locations that are in the story.

It must have been the acting and the story that drew me in immediately. At this time in my life my mindset was very much like Scrooge at the beginning of the story; no need for friends and family, just focusing on work to get through the days. I felt like the ghosts of past, present, and future where not only showing Scrooge what would happen if he continued down his current path; the ghosts were showing me what would happen if I continued down my path. One month later I adopted Pigface, six months later I moved out of my lonely home to my apartment in Stafford, and nine months later I would meet Rizzo. The rest, as they say, is history.

I remember walking out the doors of the theatre making the decision to see a stage production A Christmas Carol every year. I wanted to make sure to remember this feeling and to make sure that I have a reminder that no matter how bad something gets it could always be worse. I wanted to have an annual event to make me know that family and friends will always be there for me and I was going to be there for them.

Now that you have an insight to the inspiration of my desire to see A Christmas Carol on stage each year the remaining recap probably won’t be as substantial but it was important to me to share this first story. Not to say there won’t be some other stories to share during A Christmas Carol travels but they probably won’t all take a page and a half to relay.

2009 – Washington, D.C.

Ford’s Theatre isn’t just the place where Abraham Lincoln bit the bullet (too soon?) but is a working theatre in downtown Washington, D.C. Ford’s Theatre has an annual performance of A Christmas Carol with an amazing acting troupe, including Edward Gero as Ebenezer Scrooge. I had met and started dating Rizzo in either September or October of 2009 (it all depends on which date Rizzo chooses to use when you ask her on any given day) so she agreed to join me on this theatre adventure.

My good friends Andrew and Anna Grossnickle graciously joined us on this trip to the theatre. We started our double date with a visit to Chef Geoff’s downtown location (a fine dining establishment if you ever have the chance) before walking over to Ford’s Theatre. There are two things I remember most about this particular show.

1.      The jacket worn by Abraham Lincoln the day he was shot is hanging in the theatre. This isn’t unexpected considering the history associated with the theatre. What surprised me the most was that the jacket was a Brooks Brothers overcoat. I’ll never forget that because I was happy/surprised to learn that Brooks Brothers had been making suits for that long. I also happened to be wearing a Brooks Brothers suit on the day we went to the show so I somehow felt connected to honest Abe.

2.      Since this theatre is old there are lots of seats with an obstructed view. Our seat happened to be near the back with a few pillars in the way, making it impossible to see the entire stage. I seem to recall that Rizzo, knowing that this was my “thing”, gave me the better seat (she is a good egg), but the better seat didn’t exactly mean a good seat. I also remember the seats feeling small. I was much fatter back then so it could have just been me or it could be that the seats were constructed for hobbits.

Compared to the show in Staunton this was a massive performance. The show included full, moving set pieces that could be changed so the entire stage would transform from Scrooge’s office to Old Fezziwig’s shop to Scrooge’s apartment. The production was full of music with the entire cast singing Christmas carols throughout the show. This production refilled the tank, provided the inspiration I needed, and confirmed my desire to keep seeking out the show for years to come.

2010 - Cleveland, OH

Rizzo has a goal. Her goal is to visit 49 states by the time she is 49. Then, for her 50th birthday, take a trip to the tropical state of Hawaii to celebrate 50 years of life with 50 states. I have a goal. My goal is to see a live production of A Christmas Carol every year. By the end of 2010, Rizzo and I had been dating hot and heavy (oohh la la!) for over a year so we decided to combine our two goals. “Why not visit a new state to see A Christmas Carol?” we never specifically said but pondered to ourselves. It seemed like a perfect idea so Rizzo hopped onto the interwebs in search of theatres around this great country of ours (isn’t the interwebs grand).

After much (not really) discussion we settled on a trip to Cleveland, OH. How did we settle on Cleveland you ask (I’m sure you didn’t). The answer is that they had a production of the show available on the dates we could go and the tickets were available on Ticketmaster. That made it a pretty easy decision and the fact that we could visit the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame during our stay didn’t hurt either.

Rizzo is a little weird and loves to take pictures of stuff that is just slightly different from where she lives. For example, when we took a trip to England in 2012, one of the first pictures Rizzo took was a sign telling here were to find the “lift” because it was different than the word she is used to (elevator). On this particular trip, the first thing we see upon exiting the plane is a giant guitar saying Cleveland. Rizzo had to have her picture taken with it. This is just the first of many pictures Rizzo is to take with oversized objects.

The beginning of a tradition of her own.

The beginning of a tradition of her own.

We spent the Saturday of the trip at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, which is a cool place to visit with lots of memorabilia. There are no pictures allowed but at this time I had just started walking around with a Smart Phone so I stole a picture of John Lennon’s guitar. I have sense lost the picture but I’m sure I put it up on Facebook so maybe I’ll try to go back and find it.

After the museum tour we did some exploring of bars in Cleveland and discovered my favorite beer of all time, Great Lakes Christmas Ale. Rizzo and I were not quite deep into the craft beer scene but we did know we liked trying good beer. We went to a bar called the Winking Lizard and it happened to be specialty beer and shot day. We each had a few beers and a few shots (something neither one of us ever do) and had a good old time. So much so that both of us were a little tipsy by the time we went to the show.

I remember the show being another big performance, similar to the Ford’s Theatre production. The distinct feature of the show was the method used to move the story along. In this production, a mother was reading the story to her children. To the left of the stage the mother and three children were sitting, still dressed in the period costumes, relaying the story as it transpired on stage. Of course, most of the story was told in the standard theatre format but I did like this way of moving the show along.

As I mentioned, Rizzo and I were both tipsy (it happens) so we were both sipping on bottles of water. Once I had finished my water I sat the bottle on the floor, as one is apt to do. I guess it was about half way through the second act at a moment of complete silence on stage that I happened to, ever so slightly, tap the bottle moving it off its base and sending it rolling underneath the seats. We were probably 20 or 25 rows from the stage and I would have thought that the bottle would have hit someone’s foot or another seat but there was a constant sound of the bottle rolling and rolling. I never thought a plastic bottle would make that much noise but it filled the entire theatre. I’m sure no one knew it was me but to anyone that was in the theatre that night, I’m so terribly sorry.

A Bit dark

A Bit dark

The following day we had some time to kill before our flight back to DC and Rizzo had one last thing she had to do before leaving. It turns out that the house from the movie A Christmas Story was located in Cleveland, was turned into an attraction, and Rizzo had to go! Now, even as much as I love Christmas, I hate this movie. I find it utterly boring and the fact that it is played for 24 hours straight on Christmas day is a travesty. However, Rizzo loves the movie and we had the time so off we went.

The house wasn’t anything exciting. It was made up to look just like the house from the movie, as one might imagine. We took the requisite picture of us next to the leg lamp. Interestingly enough, one of the actors from the movie (the kid that played the youngest son) happened to be at the house that day. He was selling autographed headshots and pictures to help him pay for college. Make of that what you will.

All in all it was another successful trip. I loved the city of Cleveland.

2011 - Rochester, MI

As 2011 rolled around we were again given the conundrum of where to see A Christmas Carol. The problem was easily solved by Rizzo using the “states to visit test”. Rizzo had never been to the wonderful state of Michigan. It was also helpful that her cousin and his girlfriend (now husband and wife so I’m just going to call them both cousins) resided in Michigan so off we went.

We found a performance that worked for us in the booming metropolis of Rochester, MI. We had to fly into Flint, MI and then drive a bit to get to our destination. The flight also required a layover in Cleveland (see above). Not wanting to ruin her tradition of taking a picture with oversized objects, Rizzo had me take a picture of her in front of another giant guitar. She just can’t keep from rocking hard no matter what!

Rizzo is always rocking.

Rizzo is always rocking.

If you have never been to Rochester I will tell you that it is a very small town. The first night we were in town we got in a little late but didn’t want to head right to bed (a practice that has since changed as we are old before our time and love climbing into bed by 9:30pm) so we went to the hotel bar for a drink. Luckily for us there was also a pool table in the bar. We spent the evening goofing off, shooting pool, and having a few drinks. It was a good night.

We had tickets for an early afternoon show on Saturday so we spent the morning exploring downtown Rochester which took nearly 15 minutes. The temperatures were well below freezing with a bit of a breeze which, it turns out, is quite common for Michigan in December. Rizzo was shivering and I loved every minute of it. I didn’t love that she was freezing but I loved the fact that I could walk around in a sweater and a coat like most fashionable people do in the winter without sweating like an animal.

Before the show we decided to grab some lunch in a local pub on Main Street. I don’t recall the name but I’m sure you can picture the type of place we were dining. It was a standard looking bar with a decent menu and a decent beer list. I recall it being a fine meal; nothing to write home about but definitely good. The best part of enjoying a relaxing lunch in this particular bar, better than the food and the beer, was the scenery. By scenery I mean the sight of a full bridal party enjoying some drinks. How do I know it was a full bridal party? Because there was a bride wearing her wedding dress, a groom in his tux, bridesmaids in their dresses, and groomsmen in their tuxes. It wasn’t as if they were in a separate room for a receiption or a group of people from a wedding stopping by for drinks after the event. This was only the bridal party, in the middle of the bar (no reservations or special events) just having a drink. It was awesome. I have a picture but I’ve decided to leave it out just in case someone from the picture happens to read this (not likely) but I couldn’t help but think that the guy who gets to marry a chick that is willing to go to a bar in a wedding dress and have a beer is a lucky guy. A few years letter I would be the lucky guy marrying the woman in a wedding dress drinking a beer, but that is a story for another time.

After some exploring and dining it was time to make our way to see A Christmas Carol. The production was being stages at the Meadow Brook Theatre on the campus of Oakland University (no, Oakland University is not in Oakland, CA). We were lucky to be seeing this particular year’s performance because 2011 was the 25th anniversary of Oakland University performing A Christmas Carol so a lot of care was put into the production. It also allowed me to get a pin marking the event that I still often wear on the lapel of my overcoat.

Meadow Brook Theatre.jpg

The production was, as expected, similar to the others with lots of singing of Christmas carols and grumpy statements from Ebenezer Scrooge. What I remember the most from this production was how Jacob Marley disappeared after the famous scene where Marley tells Scrooge he will be visited by three ghosts. In most productions, Marley will slowly walk off stage, or use some stage magic for him to return into the door, or sometimes even lowered through a trap door in the stage floor. In this production, and it is my favorite disappearing act, the stage flashed with smoke and light, and explosion went off right in front of Marley on the stage, and then he was gone. It was dramatic and magical. I felt like this is how a ghost trying to scare the hell out of someone would really disappear.

A bit fuzzy but these were our seats right on the front row.

A bit fuzzy but these were our seats right on the front row.

After the show, Rizzo and I were able to meet up with her cousins for dinner. We met at a nice little place in downtown Rochester. Like the pub it was nothing spectacular but it was a good meal. Now, my memory may be a bit fuzzy because it has been a few years, but I seem to recall that we went back to the pub or a different bar. I also seem to recall that we saw yet another bride in her dress out at the bar drinking. I don’t think this would be something that I made up because it seems too weird that we would see multiple brides in multiple bars on the same day, but I could be wrong. I like to remember that we did see multiple brides that day and that the pub in downtown Rochester was the hotspot for weddings in that area.

The Rochester trip ended with a drive back to Flint, MI and a delayed flight before returning home. I mention this at the conclusion of this trip because it was at this point that Rizzo and I both learned how spoiled we were to live in a big metropolitan area (even if some people I know think that anything outside of 495 is the “boonies”). While we were waiting for our flight we wanted to grab something to eat so we looked for dining options in the Flint airport.

Now, we typically fly out of Dulles International Airport that offers a plethora of dining options. At Dulles you can get a Chipotle burrito at 6am or sit down to a nice meal at any number of establishments in every terminal. Well, in Flint we looked for the dining options and saw a sign that said “Restaurant”. Yes, that is singular. There aren’t options for dining in the Flint airport, there is a “restaurant” that is really just a counter that sells prepackaged sandwiches. We laughed a bit about this and grabbed a sandwich before our flight home. It was a funny conclusion to a fun trip.

To be continued...

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