Dickens Christmas Celebrates 15th Anniversary
It began as a simple thank-you from village merchants to the Skaneateles community. Now, 15 years later, Dickens Christmas provides cherished holiday memories for thousands of families regionally and nationally.
Dickens Christmas—which opens the Friday after Thanksgiving and runs noon to 4 p.m. every weekend until Christmas—is improvisational street theater. Costumed Victorian characters wander the village streets, interacting with each other and with the public.
Horse-drawn carriage rides, carolers, concerts, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, refreshments, children’s activities, free costume rentals, locals night—all were there from the start and continue, in expanded form, as attractions today.
Dickens Christmas was the brainchild of Karen Foltz, owner of Pomodoro and Pomodoro Too, who had seen a similar production in Minnesota and—as a board member of the Skaneateles Area Chamber of Commerce—was looking for ways to boost business. “A lot of people now bring their family and friends—it’s a highlight of their holidays,” says Foltz, who serves as co-chair of the Dickens Christmas Committee. She notes the program began as “a fun little thing to do.”
Dickens Christmas was launched in 1993 under the direction of two area event planners—Lorraine Smoral and Gloria Romeo. They were followed by Skaneateles resident Ted Davenport, who was followed by Wrynkle in Time Productions, of Rochester. Since 2001, the program has been produced by Scarlett Rat Entertainment, under the direction of Jim Greene (a.k.a. Mr. Dickens), of Dryden, N.Y.
With Scarlett Rat came the premise for the production: In 1842, Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria visit Skaneateles. Based on the characters they meet on village streets—Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Jacob Marley—Dickens writes “A Christmas Carol” upon his return to London.
Over the years, the cast has grown from about 30 to 50 (more than half of whom are professional, paid actors), and the level of professionalism has greatly increased, as has the number of musical and theatrical offerings. The number of local residents participating remains an important part of the show.
Greene jokes that, as producer, he hires talented people and takes all the credit. But he says much of the program’s current success is due to the work of artistic director Maria Wechsler, whom he describes as “brilliant,” and musical director Kelly Stallard, who “has a gift for empowering everyone to sing with their own voice.”
Many of the professional actors are affiliated with the Sterling Renaissance Festival, which is where Greene was working in 1999 when he first took part in Dickens Christmas (playing Emerson Wales, the Rat Catcher). About 90 percent of the cast returns each year. “There’s a lot of love there,” says Greene, whose wife and children have all been a part of the production. “It’s a wonderful way to share the holiday season.”
One constant over the years has been Onondaga Hill resident Bob Krigbaum in the role of Scrooge.
“People get a kick out of my asking the shopkeepers for rent,” Krigbaum says. “I have a ball with it. Once I go into a store, it’s like magnetism. I have them laughing out loud.
“To be Scrooge, you have to be mean. It’s tough to be mean,” he says. “You learn to think real quick, to have an answer for whatever comes your way. Sometimes, people’s reactions are different than what you’d expect.”
Even after 15 years, Krigbaum has no difficulty keeping the character fresh. “The people you interact with help you do that,” he says. “Every time I come out here, it’s the first time.”
Krigbaum’s portrayal of Scrooge is drawn from three movies: “A Christmas Carol” (1951), “Scrooge” (1970) and “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992). According to Krigbaum, that makes the character—in turns—serious, funny and musical.
Krigbaum, who is a full-time professional actor with a degree in theater, spends the season playing not only Scrooge, but also Santa Claus (at Burnet Park). A man of many talents, he also is a professional clown, mime, World War II re-enactor and local TV personality.
Both Krigbaum and Greene recall having posed for hundreds of holiday photos. “When people ask to take my picture, I tell them, ‘It will cost you a shady penny,’ and they’ll give me one,” Krigbaum says.
“It’s been a real joy to share this work with my family,” says Greene. “Do I have a favorite moment? No. That’s like asking if I have a favorite child. But there’s been a lot of funny stuff, touching stuff, over the years.”
One of the most emotional moments for him, Greene says, was when he presented a check to the Skaneateles Fire Department in 2001, following 9/11.
As for the funny stuff, Greene says: “My job is to make people laugh all day. I help people create memories with their families. I’m pretty lucky to have this be my work.”
The real Mr. Dickens couldn’t have said it better.