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Publication: Omaha World-Herald
Byline: Bob Fischbach
Headline: Grateful Scrooge ends 30 yules of grumbling
Grateful Scrooge ends 30 yules of grumbling
By Bob Fischbach
World-Herald Staff Writer
Forty-five minutes before his final performance in "A Christmas Carol," Dick Boyd sat in his tiny shared dressing room, sounding very much like -- well, Scrooge.
"There are too many generous people in this cast," he grumbled, smiling broadly. "They start with Christmas when rehearsals start, and they never quit."
You couldn't really blame him. In his first 20 minutes at the Omaha Community Playhouse on Thursday night, Boyd sat through three television interviews, all the while fielding a stream of gifts, cards, hugs and well-wishers. It never let up.
Thursday, Boyd took his final bows as Scrooge, ending the most spectacular theatrical run in Omaha history. He never missed one of the 818 performances of "A Christmas Carol" over 30 holiday seasons. Counting Thursday's sellout, he has played to an astonishing 442,855 people.
Luckily, he doesn't need time to put on makeup anymore. At age 83, time has given him all the character lines he needs.
But Boyd wasn't showing his age Thursday. Shadowing him backstage on his final night turned out to be exhausting duty. In a physically demanding role that has him climbing ladders, slinging children over his shoulder, flying through the air tethered to a cable, leaping and dancing and crawling, the star of the night had little time to think about what this final performance meant to him.
"Tomorrow morning, 8:30, I get a haircut," he told his dressing room visitors. "Back to normal."
Thursday night was anything but normal. From the wings on both sides of the stage, cast, crew and visitors squeezed in to watch Boyd's every move, many of them snapping photos, all of them excited to witness a bit of local history.
Out front, a crowd that included several dozen "Christmas Carol" alumni was generous with its laughter and applause. Boyd's first entrance, seated at his counting-house desk and scribbling at a ledger, brought nearly 30 seconds of applause. Boyd scribbled on, staying in character until it subsided.
Bob Snipp, ending 29 years as the Ghost of Christmas Present, also triggered a big hand at his first appearance, starting off Act 2.
Backstage, a costumes mistress told Boyd to take any keepsakes he'd like to have. He kept his long red scarf, his coin purse and his top hat.
Onstage, Boyd did an un-Scroogelike thing he'd never done before: He gave away coins to cast members. In the home stretch, he hadn't a coin left to pay for the Christmas goose. He told the boy with the sled he'd have to charge it.
Between scenes, wife Miriam, in her 17th year with the show, and granddaughter Elizabeth Boyd, who has been moving scenery on and off for four seasons, kept Boyd occupied, along with that stream of hugs that never let up.
"Thanks for all the years," Boyd said to scenic designer Jim Othuse in one of those backstage moments.
"Oh, it was my pleasure," Othuse shot back instantly.
And even as the Boyd era played out, a tiny slice of the buzz was about next year, when some new scenery and costumes are planned along with the obvious need to recast some key roles.
Othuse confirmed some changes are in the wind, "but not a total new look." The show will keep its Victorian flavor, he explained, while adding special effects to street and bedroom scenes.
In spite of the end-of-an-era clamor, the show buzzed along without a hitch. A little more glitter than usual sloshed from the cup of kindness as Boyd drank deeply atop his four-poster.
An actress playing young Ebenezer's fiancee had to dry her tears before going onstage to break their engagement. A stagehand forgot to turn off a fog machine, but his error was caught within seconds as the Ghost of Christmas Future loomed large.
Near the end as he prepared to go onstage, Boyd leaned close to a hobby horse he was about to carry on, hiding his face for a long private moment.
And then, suddenly, after one final onstage smooch with his wife, it was over.
Waves of cast members were met by waves of applause, peaking with the man of the hour. Great-granddaughter Laine Swanger, 2, toddled on with a single red rose for him.
Dry-eyed, he waved the crowd silent after two solid minutes and had a final word.
Turning to his cast: "You were wonderful, and I love you all."
After acknowledging the orchestra, Boyd beckoned crew members onstage for one final chorus of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" before the curtain was wrung down at 10:08 p.m. More tears and hugs backstage.
A mob of greeters, including several former Tiny Tims, packed the lobby long after, and a cast party followed that.
Box office officials said 98 percent of the seats for Boyd's final year were filled, a record per-show average attendance.
Honors for Dick Boyd during his 30th and final season playing Ebenezer Scrooge:
Nov. 18: For opening night, Mayor Mike Fahey declares Dick Boyd Day in Omaha, and Gov. Dave Heineman makes Boyd an admiral in the mythical Nebraska Navy.
Nov. 20: U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne attends and presents Boyd, who is a huge Big Red fan, with a signed football.
Nov. 30: Homecoming for all former members of the cast and crew of "A Christmas Carol," with a party for Boyd after the show. It marks Boyd's 800th performance.
Dec. 9: Omaha Chamber of Commerce board of directors honors Boyd at a breakfast.
Dec. 10: Breakfast with Scrooge at the Playhouse, and Boyd is mobbed by children.
Dec. 13: USA Today features Boyd on the cover of its Life section.
Dec. 16: ABC's "World News Tonight" features Boyd as its person of the week.
Dec. 22: Council Bluffs Rotary honors Boyd at a breakfast, and Omaha Downtown Rotary honors him at lunch. A cast party follows Boyd's final performance at the Playhouse.
Attending Dick Boyd's final performance in "A Christmas Carol" Dec. 22, 2005:
His wife of 55 years, Miriam, who was part of the cast for 17 years.
His children, Richard, Carol, Lynne and Ann, plus eight of his 11 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
His choreographer, Joanne Cady, and members of her family.
The family of Charles Jones, who wrote the show, directed it for 22 years and cast Boyd in the role. Among them: Jones' widow, Eleanor, part of the show's original production team; their son Geoffrey and grandchild Katy, all of Omaha; and Eleanor’s mother, Elean Brody, 90, of Wylam, Ala.
Forever Scrooge: Before he steps aside from a 30-year career, Dick Boyd will again pour his heart into role
This article ran Nov. 6, 2005, on the Sunday World-Herald Living section cover.
Forever Scrooge: Before he steps aside from a 30-year career, Dick Boyd will again pour his heart into role
By Bob Fischbach
He almost didn't audition, so slim did he think his chances were.
After he did, only one member of the casting team favored him. Most said he was too young.
But once cast as Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" at the Omaha Community Playhouse, Dick Boyd went to work, exploring the role for new insights, plying his craft to get better.
Now in his 30th year as Scrooge, he hasn't stopped, despite attaining local-icon status. Boyd has played Scrooge to 425,770 people in the city's longest-running, most popular stage event ever.
It's hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
But soon, we'll have to.
Next month, after 818 performances, Dick Boyd will hang up his long red scarf. At 83, he's no longer too young.
But what a trouper.
"Dick is one of the most consistent men I've ever met," said John Bennett, who compiled and arranged the show's score. "I've never seen him ruffled, and he's willing to try anything."
So consistent is Boyd, he's never missed a performance, a claim no one else can make. Leaving the role is bittersweet.
"I'm looking forward to . . .," Boyd said. And then a telltale pause.
"Of course, I'd like to go on forever," he admitted, "but I know there's a time you should probably step aside. You seem to slide a bit more after 80. It's always a bit of a worry. They don't have understudies for this show, you know."
Charles Jones was in his third of 24 years as playhouse executive director when he wrote "A Christmas Carol," adapted from the Charles Dickens classic, in the fall of 1976.
Several talented actors showed up at auditions for Scrooge: Bob Roberts, Al DiMauro, Bill Kohl. And an old pro Boyd thought was a shoo-in.
"Bill Bailey was a tough old bird who came off the Orpheum circuit," Boyd said. "He'd have been my choice."
Choreographer Joanne Cady recalled five tryout sessions, more than usual. Each man brought something different to the role.
"For Charles, it was very important the role be played as a real, dimensional person and not a caricature," said Jones' widow, Eleanor, who was also at auditions. "Realize that a lot of people involved in the casting disagreed with Charles' choice. But he was adamant."
Jones later shared why he knew he had found his Scrooge.
"He liked my interpretation of the latter part of it, the joy of redemption," Boyd said. "He didn't want to dwell on the gloom. He masterfully alternated scenes, up, then down, but in those final scenes he plays joy to the hilt, leaving the audience feeling really good."
Never intended as an annual event, "A Christmas Carol" was one of six regular-season shows for 1976-77.
"And one of the roughest productions that ever came along," recalled Eleanor Jones. The show, laden with special effects, scene changes, a cast of 44 and 18 musical numbers, was a huge undertaking with only the regular six-week production schedule. It wasn't ready on opening night.
But "A Christmas Carol" was an instant hit. World-Herald reviewer Doug Smith singled out Boyd's "moving conversion from misanthrope to philanthrope" in labeling the show "a splendid draught of holiday cheer."
Boyd found that gratifying because he considers that transformation the most challenging aspect of the role.
"Playing the miser's not hard. Being out of your mind with happiness at the end is not hard. But that quick transition from crying my eyes out to dancing -- it's hard to get that across believably."
Ticket demand soared through the three-week run that first year. After that, Eleanor Jones said, "each year we had two questions: Could it happen again, and would Dick do it?"
The answer was always yes.
In fact, Boyd insists, there has never been a night he didn't want to go on. Not when teaching full time. Not when he had the flu. Not when bad knees required joint replacement surgery. Not when howling winter storms made crossing the bridge from his Council Bluffs home hazardous.
When his wife, Miriam, got tired of not seeing him from October until Christmas, she joined the cast. (This is her 17th year.) If Miriam resented the years she put up the Christmas tree alone and ferried four kids to music and dance lessons, she'll never admit it.
"That's what he wanted to do, and that was fine with me. He's been a wonderful husband and father. He gives a lot of himself to others. I think he's the greatest."
So do lots of "Christmas Carol" veterans.
"Working with Dick is always a pleasure," said Marianne Young, who has played Mrs. Cratchit for more than 20 years. "He's a very nice man, certainly not an arrogant performer, and he treats everyone with respect. And he always thinks there's something new to find in a scene. Every year he says he's back to try and get it right."
"Dick's such a kind person," said orchestrator Bennett, "and he has one of the best singing voices in the cast."
Boyd is quick to credit other cast members: the dignity of the late Mary Peckham as the Ghost of Christmas Past; the sauciness of Julie Huff, who has that role now; the jolly spirit of Bob Snipp as the Ghost of Christmas Present; the sweetness of Spencer Newman, his 18th and final Tiny Tim.
"I've gotten more out of this show than they've ever gotten out of me, I guarantee," he said. "Just doing the show is the reward. It's great to look forward to, every time."
Critics have occasionally faulted Boyd's diction, something he says Jones worked hard with him on from day one. Boyd says he's constantly on guard to maintain the energy level and freshness and yet avoid overplaying.
But it's hard to argue with hundreds of standing ovations and years of compliments.
"I got a note from a retirement home supervisor who brought a group to the show," Boyd recalled. "One gent was really the epitome of Scroogelike behavior. But after the show he changed. Actually changed."
Boyd's favorite scene?
"I love the one with the kids, chasing them around my office," Boyd said. "The kids get such a kick out of it, getting the best of me. They never get tired of it."
Or of Boyd.
"He's always been excellent with kids," said choreographer Cady. "At the first cast meeting, he makes sure he goes to each new child, finds out their name, gets to know a tiny bit about them. The past-year kids just run to hug him."
The first little kid Scrooge threw out of his office, back in 1976, was Charles and Eleanor's redheaded son, Jonathan.
Late last December, after "A Christmas Carol" had just closed its 29th run, Charles and Eleanor Jones opened their mail together at home. A card with a little redheaded boy stood out. It was from Dick Boyd.
"He said he should have written so much sooner, to express how grateful he was for the opportunity to play Scrooge, how enriched his life had been by it," Eleanor said.
"When you think of what this man has given, this incredible treasure for the community, and for our lives personally and theatrically -- and here he was apologizing. This is the man. Well, we both just sat there and sobbed."
A few days later, Dick Boyd delivered the eulogy at Charles Jones' funeral.
"A Christmas Carol" will outlive the participation of all its creators. While playhouse Artistic Director Carl Beck declined to speculate on who will next play Scrooge, he said the show will continue in 2006.
Cast members also refused to speculate, although two actors have played Scrooge for years in the playhouse's two national touring companies: Matt Kamprath and Cork Ramer.
Whoever is cast, Boyd's nightcap will be hard to fill.
"He's one of the most thorough actors in being prepared and grounded," said Eleanor Jones. "He never goes onstage that it's not fresh and real and new for him. He keeps it from being any kind of stock character."
Boyd's own advice to his successor:
"Just love it, that's all. Don't act it. Be it."
Through the years
"A Christmas Carol" is a technically complex show. Over 29 years and nearly 800 performances, a few snags have become backstage lore.
Snow job: A wintry street scene became something between a blizzard and an avalanche when an overhead snowflake container split, dumping its entire contents on the singers below.
That's sick: The show must go on, but one year Tiny Tim wasn't faking illness. He threw up on Scrooge onstage.
Flying bed: Director Charles Jones ordered the top of Scrooge's four-poster loaded with greens and cornucopia, but somebody forgot to glue it all down. When the bed spun, items flew all over the stage.
Curtain call: After Scrooge dies, an old woman steals his velvet bed curtains. But the first time Mary Peckham tried it, the curtains were firmly stapled into place. Mary had to yank with all her might, and the crowd heard a rrrrrip! Velcro soon solved that problem.
Tough entrance: A door repair made after dress rehearsal required laying the flat on the floor and nailing the door shut. Repair complete, flat back in place. But somebody forgot to remove the nail. Suddenly, in midshow, nobody could enter or exit the Bakery Shop.
Fly away: After Scrooge's flight from the stage floor to atop the four-poster, the Ghost of Christmas Present must detach the thin cable attached to Scrooge. One night it stuck. Rather than strand Scrooge in midair as the bed left the stage, the ghost called for the curtain to close so the cable could be unhooked.
Another kind of fly: Once, and only once, Scrooge's quick change from nightshirt to suit for his joyful last scene missed a zipper. The crowd roared as part of the white nightshirt made the oversight obvious to all but Scrooge.
Stand-in: When the Ghost of Christmas Present got laryngitis, director Carl Beck once had to stand in. He's afraid of heights. "I still have the bruises" from Beck's tight grip on his arm atop the four-poster, Dick Boyd joked.
Born: May 1922 in Nebraska City.
Married: Miriam Hieronymus Boyd, daughter of the former president of Midland College in Fremont, Neb., in 1950.
Children: Richard, Carol, Lynne and Ann. Eleven grandchildren. One great-grandchild.
Education: Bachelor's degree from Midland College; master's in education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Military: Army Air Corps, World War II veteran of the South Pacific.
Profession: Taught four years in Shelby, Neb., one year in Ceresco, Neb.; auto supply store manager in Council Bluffs, seven years; middle-school language arts teacher in Council Bluffs, 28 years. Twice president of Council Bluffs Education Association. Outstanding teacher award, 1988.
The Omaha Community Playhouse family was deeply saddened late Tuesday to learn of the death of Dick Boyd, a beloved icon of our theater community. Boyd originated the role of Scrooge in the Playhouse’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol.” For 30 years – 1976 through 2005 – Boyd played Scrooge for 818 performances, to a total audience of 442,855 people.
He never missed a performance. Not for ice or snow or flu or knee replacements. It became the longest run in Omaha theatrical history. Charles Jones, former OCP executive director, cast Boyd for what was planned to be a one-year run. The show proved so popular it has become an annual tradition for many area families.
“For Charles, it was very important the role be played as a real, dimensional person and not a caricature,” Jones’ late widow, Eleanor, said in 2005. “He never goes onstage that it’s not fresh and real and new for him.”
Boyd, 98, was born in Nebraska City. He wed Miriam Hieronymus, daughter of the former president of Midland College in Fremont, Neb., in 1950. She preceded him in death in November 2017. They had four children, Richard, Carol, Lynne and Ann. When Miriam tired of missing her husband each holiday season, she joined the “Christmas Carol” cast for 17 years.
Dick Boyd served in the Army Air Corps and was a World War II veteran of the South Pacific. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Midland College and a master’s in education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He taught middle-school language arts in Council Bluffs for 28 years. He was president of the Council Bluffs Education Association twice and won an outstanding teacher award in 1988.
He loved children. His favorite scene in “A Christmas Carol” was the one in which Scrooge chases youngsters out of his office. The show’s choreographer, Joanne Cady, said in 2005 that Boyd was great with the kids. “At the first cast meeting, he makes sure he goes to each new child, finds out their name. The past-year kids just run to hug him.”
Today thousands are remembering Dick Boyd as a kind, humble, gifted and generous man, onstage and off. All of us at the Playhouse send our deepest sympathies to his family, his stage family and his many friends and fans.