John Ostrander: Scrooge Revisited

I love Christmas. It’s been my favorite time of the year as far back as I can remember – which, these days, may be last week. I think, in many ways, it was the run up to Christmas, also known as Advent, that I loved the most. It was the anticipation that made it special; what presents would we get, buying the present we would give, the Advent Wreath and the Advent Calendar. The day itself could be a bit of a let-down because it as never as good as the dream, the anticipation. How could it be? So long as it was a dream, it was perfect. The reality of something is always less than the dream of it.

While I was in grade school, each Christmas Eve I wound up at Midnight Mass (did I mention I was raised Roman Catholic?), singing in the Boy’s Choir. We practiced for weeks and that was also part of the anticipation.

At home, we also had a little ritual that my mother devised and that we dutifully performed/attended, although when we hit puberty it was only with protest. We marched down the stairs, the youngest carrying the Baby Jesus for the manger. We would read The Night Before Christmas (a.k.a. A Visit From Saint Nicholas) by Clement Clarke Moore.

A section of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, was also read. It was the Cratchit dinner scene in Stave Three of the story and it was from this that I began my life long fascination and affection for the story.

A Christmas Carol was written in 1843 and has never been out of print since. It spearheaded the revival of English Christmas customs, many of which survive to this day; it re-invigorated the celebration of the holiday. I have read the novella several times, I’ve watched many different versions of it on TV (and some I watch every year as part of my own personal Christmas tradition) and for several years I acted in it on stage at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, playing such vital parts as Mr. Round, Fred’s friend #3, Dancing Man, and Ensemble. A lot of my performance centered on my tearing off my clothes as soon as I got offstage, changing into others, and dashing to whatever part of the stage I was supposed to enter from next.

My great friend, William J. Norris, played Scrooge and he did it magnificently. One of my jobs, as I saw it, was to see if I could make him break up during the Fezziwig dance scene. I am not a trained dancer by any means and I would fly with my partner past Bill who was on the steps; I would be sweating and puffing and muttering, “Oh, I live to dance!” Yes, somewhat unprofessional, I know, but the only one who heard it was Bill and he giggled.

It was also during A Christmas Carol that I met Del Close, the fabled director, teacher, and actor at Second City and elsewhere, who played the Ghost of Christmas Present. He and I would later become writing partners on Munden’s Bar and Wasteland. Del, a pagan and witch, said his portrayal was based on Baccus; he also wore a pentangle under his costume, Del’s way of being subversive without being disruptive.

The production has become a yearly mainstay for the Goodman Theater, generating a lot of income that helps sustain it. But nobody knew that in its first year. As strange as it sounds now, it was a risky venture – a large cast, lots of costumes, fancy sets, and even special effects! If it didn’t come together, if it didn’t go over, the theater could be in trouble. As late as the final week before opening, the show still hadn’t jelled.

Opening night was magic. Everything worked and the audience was with us every step of the way. Just as the show ended, a light snow began falling outside. We all wondered how the Special Effects people had rigged that.

Most of all, the audience was drawn in to the story. It’s a brilliant concept – a ghost story set, not at Halloween, but Christmas. I have yet to see a play version or movie or television adaptation that emphasizes that. The ghost story aspects should, I think, be frightening. It’s what establishes what is at stake for Scrooge. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are powerful entities; if we only observe them and not feel them, Scrooge’s reformation is hard to fathom.

Also central to A Christmas Carol is its social conscience and message. This is often glossed over or omitted entirely and that’s a shame; it is the soul of the story. It is scary how much of that message is still relevant; Scrooge early on claims to be “a man of business”. He also famously says of the poor: “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” How prevalent that attitude seems today. One might wish it had become outdated; it seems stronger than ever.

So, part of my Christmas celebration will be to watch my favorite movie version, with Alastair Sim, on Christmas Eve, along with its American counterpart, it’s A Wonderful Life. And wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

God Bless Us, Everyone.

C’mon; you knew I was going to say that.

(Photo I.D. – Val Bettin, left, and William J. Norris in the Goodman Theater’s A Christmas Carol, from its first run in 1978)