Saturday, December 15, 2012

My Own Magical Mystery Tour
“Dying To Take You Away”

             It’s Friday night, December 14. I’ve just watched the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour on WHRO public television here in Norfolk, reminding me of Christmas in 1967 when the album was released in the U.S. We pressed our ears to the stereo, intent to decipher the hidden meanings our psychedelic gurus were broadcasting to us co-conspirators around the world.
            I thought surely I had seen the film before, but I must have been mistaken. I saw still shots, maybe some random clips over the years, but not the whole thing. Critics panned it so bad it never got shown widely in the U.S. After the Christmas Day broadcast on BBC which outraged all but the most mod among the young, it was pretty much confined to its can even in England.
            But to this old hippy in 2012, the Magical Mystery Tour is delightful—and not so hard to understand. It’s about inclusion. It’s about all of us. No exceptions. It says, with another iconic English voice, “God bless us, every one.”
            For me, watching the film on this Friday night was one of those coincidences that makes you think there are no coincidences.
            I’d just finished two weeks of playing my own role in a kind of magical mystery tour, traveling about the Hampton Roads area with “The Concise Dickens’ Christmas Carol.” Since last Saturday I’ve had a show every day—seven in a row. I haven’t done a tour this intense since children’s theater in 1985.
            On my tours I mostly play at retirement communities and rehab centers but sometimes at private parties or at benefits for charitable causes. I’m in my seventh year, so, as someone said recently, I must be doing something right.
            The mystery and the magic in my tour comes from my interactions with the people I’ve seen and met and spoken with in places remote from the glare of public recognition. Though some have lived extraordinary lives, all are now retired and living, essentially, on a bus together. And I am among those who attempt to make their journey brighter and more fun.
            I try to bring to my audiences a spirit of Christmas as embodied in the classic Dickens’ tale. I know I’m being successful when I see smiles beginning on their faces and their eyes lighting up. Christmas is about remembering what’s important, and almost everyone remembers Scrooge and his Christmas conversion. It’s part of what’s important at Christmas.
            But not all my audiences are easy customers. Many sit quiet, expressionless, or simply asleep, their heads hanging down to their chests. Nevertheless, I plunge on. If the magic isn’t happening, I pretend it is. It’s what I’ve learned to do, and it keeps me in practice.
            In one facility I played in a long dining hall, with people sitting at tables down either side of the room. There were about ten feet of open floor between the tables. This space between the two halves of the audience became my stage. I pretended I was entertaining guests in a European court, retelling a mythic tale.
            At another place I played in the corner of a small sitting room with a half dozen ladies in easy chairs gathered close around me. I pretended I was doing a program for a literary salon.
            In a small clubhouse I played in front of the kitchen door by the food bar, with a center aisle about three feet wide between several rows of audience in folding chairs. It was a little freaky that I could sometimes see myself in a mirror hanging on the back wall of the room. Through the sweat in my eyes I thought I saw chains on my Marley.
           And today, Friday, I played to about 30, most of them in wheel chairs in a long room with low ceilings and unaccommodating acoustics. No acting-method mumbling would do here. I had to be my own microphone. I learned that sustained vocal energy strengthens the heart.
            Now I have Saturday off  before my next gig on Sunday. On Tuesday I begin a six-show run that ends over the weekend back home at The Venue on 35th where it all began with the first two shows on Nov. 30-Dec. 1. When it’s over, I’ll have done eighteen shows in all.
            I can’t say it’s been easy. I’m a senior myself. I’ve had a lot of fears about whether I can sustain the energy it takes to repeat this show day after day. But by doing it I’ve overcome most of those fears. More difficult is dispelling the shadows I often see clouding the faces of those who watch me.
            There are few people who have never been old who can truly understand what it’s like to get old. I read recently that, just as life expectancy in our culture has lengthened, so elderly disability from illness has increased. We’re not getting a good quality of life in return for staying on the planet longer. Is it worth it?
            Something about A Christmas Carol—its spirits, perhaps—gives people a lift at this darkest time of the year. That’s magic, and it’s a mystery, and it comes down on the side that says yes, it is worth it. We can change. The future can be different.
            Is there an eighth season for me in the offing? I can’t say. But someone should do it. People all over really seem to like it.
            You can catch my version next weekend, Dec. 21-23, at The Venue on 35th, 631 W. 35th St., Norfolk. Friday and Saturday shows are at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $12. Call 757-469-0337 for reservations.


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