Charles Dickens was the most popular novelist in the English language, in the 19th Century, and his name is frequently cited by academic authorities as belonging to the greatest novelist who ever wrote in our language.
Ironic, isn't it, that he is best known for a piece of writing which isn't a novel, but rather which is sometimes called a short story or a novella, and has been re-created nearly 100 different ways, including as more than 30 feature films. That is, of course, ''A Christmas Carol.''
Lucky people in our community are going to have the opportunity, next Saturday, to hear the author read and act out his beloved tale, on the stage of the Scharmann Theatre, on the campus of Jamestown Community College. Well...that's almost true. Since the good Mr. Dickens has been dead for well more than a century, it will have to be the next best thing.
A version of Dickens, performed by popular meteorologist and actor Mike Randall, will be on the stage at JCC, and based on the dozens of rave reviews he has received, his approach to Ebenezer Scrooge and his zany phantoms will come to life for his audience.
Let me begin by telling you the basic facts about the performance, then tell you something about Randall, and finally, something about Dickens and his famous tale of Christmas magic.
Two years ago, Mike Randall took to the stage of the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown, to perform his famous one-man representation of American legend Mark Twain. The performance was a benefit for Jamestown's James Prendergast Library.
The performance was such a success that the library has invited Randall to return next week, this time in costume as Charles Dickens.
Randall has given performances as Dickens, presenting ''A Christmas Carol'' more than 50 times, throughout Western New York, within the past three years, and it has been to thundering acclaim from both critics and audiences.
After one of the actor's performances in Buffalo, one critic raved, ''The characters came alive with color and flourish...we were transported to Dickens' England and didn't want to come back. The characters seemed life-like, as if Dickens himself were speaking of people who had just left the room.''
Another wrote, ''While Randall was the only person on stage, it seemed as though a rich cast was playing out the drama - an exquisite, moving performance of ''A Christmas Carol.''
Tickets to next Saturday's performance cost $20. Proceeds from the performance will benefit the James Prendergast Public Library. The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.
Purchase tickets at the Circulation Desk of the library. That's located directly inside the main entrance to the library. In the rare possibility that any tickets remain unsold on the evening of the performance, they will be sold at the door of the Scharmann Theater.
The performance is appropriate to the entire family which is mature enough to sit quietly, and attending is a win-win situation. You get to entertain your family with a first-rate performance, and you get to help one of our area's most necessary and important cultural agencies which is struggling mightily in the current economy.
There is plenty of free parking. If you have any questions, phone the library at 484-7135, and when the recorded announcement comes on, press 2-2-5. I'll hope to see you there.
A WORD ABOUT THE ACTOR
Mike Randall grew up in Western New York. In addition to his performances in costume as Charles Dickens and as Mark Twain, he is well known as the Meteorologist for Channel 7, WKBW-TV in Buffalo. He has substituted for Spencer Christian on the ABC network's ''Good Morning America.'' He even played the Burger King.
He attended Onondaga Community College, where he studied radio and television, and SUNY Geneseo, where he studied theater arts. He earned his Certificate in Broadcast Meteorology from Mississippi State University, and earned both the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Assn. Seals of Approval. He is the only area broadcaster to hold both seals.
WHAT THE DICKENS
It may surprise you to learn that our author's name has nothing to do with common expressions such as ''My, that child is a Dickens,'' or ''What the Dickens is going on here?''
His last name is the same in spelling and pronunciation with a common name from the Middle Ages, for the devil. People were saying it hundreds of years before he was born.
He was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1812, and given the impressive name Charles John Huffman Dickens. His family moved to London when he was three years old. He would later describe himself as ''a very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy.''
His father, John Dickens, was a pay clerk for the navy, which afforded the future author a few years of private education. Unfortunately his father was never careful about his personal spending. The senior Dickens would be immortalized in his son's autobiographical novel ''David Copperfield'' as the character Mr. Micawber, who was always in debt, but always counting on the possibility that ''Something will turn up.''
The senior Dickens was sent to prison for debt, a curious Victorian tradition which often turned into a life sentence, because the prisoner couldn't earn any money to repay his debts, since he was in jail. The entire family except Charles was forced to move into the prison and live there, for want of any income.
The future author was placed in a low-paying job in a factory which made shoe blacking. He pasted labels on the bottles. His workplace was located on the banks of the River Thames, and decades later, as a successful adult, Dickens would describe his memories of watching the rats swarming beneath the floor board and cringing in fear and disgust.
His disgust and shame for his poverty and low estate were such that he would become an avid reformer who devoted much of his writing to sympathy for the poor and certainly was at the root of his story's hard lessons for the Jacob Marleys and the Ebenezer Scrooges of the world of compassion and kindness.
Dickens was considered an immensely talented actor, and considered a career on the stage. However, when his great-grandmother died and left his family a small inheritance, which enabled his father to leave prison, he decided to devote himself to careers with a dependable income, so that he should never have to live in poverty again.
I found it interesting that the novelist's mother actually suggested that perhaps he should continue to work at the shoe blacking factory, so the family could enjoy his minimal wages. As a result, Dickens formed an opinion of women that they meant well, but had little understanding of the true natures of things, and that opinion is found many times in his voluminous writing.
He was able to take a course in shorthand, and that enabled him to get a job as a court reporter, taking down the testimony of witnesses and the addresses of the lawyers. For extra cash, he began writing serial novels. One section of each story would be published in a magazine, and readers would have to buy or borrow the next issue in order to find out what happened next.
While most writers would write the entire book before submitting it to be published, Dickens' need for money was such that as soon as a section was written, he would turn it over to be printed, never doubting that he would think up something juicy to happen next.
In 1843, at the age of 31, the author decided that there would be good money to be made by writing and selling a Christmas story. Christmas was then a fairly ''new'' holiday. At the time, even celebrating the season was banned in Puritan-controlled locations such as Boston.
England at the time was ruled by its young Queen Victoria. Her husband was Prince Albert, who came from Germany with a lot of new ideas which caught on and became all the rage. His new ideas included things such as Christmas trees and Christmas cards. People adopted the new ideas about Christmas so readily that Dickens was sure he could make cash on a holiday-related story, and have a platform for his beliefs about the treatment of the poor, at the same time.
Unfortunately, he believed that his story should be published on such good quality paper and with such expensive bindings, that while he sold many thousands of copies, he didn't earn much from the sales.
Since his earliest days, Dickens had been doing public readings of his successful writing. His reputation for being so exciting to watch and to hear was so great that he typically sold out theaters holding more than 3,000 listeners, in an age before amplification.Speculators often rushed in and bought up huge blocks of seats, then re-sold them to the public at a huge mark-up.
One writer claimed that the audience was often quarreling among themselves over how much they had paid and how they had come by their seats, to the point that the program had difficulty getting started.
In 1842, Dickens made a reading tour of the United States, including a stop in the thriving town of Buffalo, which sported a population of about 20,000. He said he went there because he had always wanted to see Niagara Falls.
When he returned to England, he wrote a book in which he told how rudely he had been treated in the States, with the result that he wasn't welcome to return for 26 years.
In 1868, although his health was failing and he would die in 1870, the author came back to our country, insisting that his bookers bring him to Buffalo. He just wanted to see those falls, one more time. He was astonished to learn that the city's population had grown by more than five times its earlier size, and it was now the 11th largest city in the nation.
Next week, you can see Mike Randall, in costume as Charles Dickens, and hear his now familiar story brought to raging life. You can help the library, at the same time. Sometimes, things just work out.
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