John-David Keller and Martha McFarland as Mr. & Mrs. Fezziwig in the 2006 production of A Christmas Carol.
Hal Landon Jr. and his granddaughter, Presley, Coogan in the 2018 production of A Christmas Carol.
Daniel Blinkoff and Jennifer Parsons as Mr. & Mrs. Cratchit with the Cratchit Children in the 2004 production.
When SCR’s beloved show A Christmas Carol begins its run on the Segerstrom Stage (Nov. 30-Dec. 24) this season, Orange County’s favorite holiday tradition will mark its 40th consecutive year. In addition to Hal Landon Jr. retiring from his role as Ebenezer Scrooge after the final 2019 performance, director John-David Keller will be stepping down from directing A Christmas Carol, after being at the helm for more than 1,400 shows during the last four decades. We recently caught up with Keller to find out what he will miss the most about directing this timeless Dickens classic and his memories of the production.
Since it’s the 40th year of A Christmas Carol this season, do past cast members—the child actors from across four decades—ever spot you when you're out and about?
My favorite story was just recently when a woman approached me in the lobby of the Modjeska [Playhouse] and said, “Mr. Keller, you don’t remember me.” And I said, “Oh no, who are you?” And she said, “I was your first Belinda Cratchit.” Belinda Cratchit is the little girl in the play. This woman said her daughters are now teenagers and she is 50; she was 10 when she did the show. And that same thing happened to me about three weeks prior to that, when a gentleman came up to me in a restaurant and said the same thing. He said, “I was your first Peter Cratchit.” It’s that kind of connection that this show has with all ages, and their parents bring them to it and I am very happy about that.
What would you say to people who are coming to see the show for the first time?
Enjoy it. That’s all the words they need. They are going to enjoy it. It’s the spirit of the show that is contagious. It starts from backstage to onstage to into the audience. There are times when we can hear the audience say the lines.
What are your favorite things about directing this show?
My favorite thing about directing the show is that, because I’ve been doing it for so long, my work is fairly easy [smiles broadly]. The people we work with more than anyone else are probably the children, and Hisa [Takakuwa, assistant director] and I do that. She’s wonderful. I will block them and make sure they know that once they are on the stage, other people will be telling them, ‘don’t do that,’ and they shouldn’t do it [laughs]. There was a period many years ago when Hal was in the very popular movie, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and the kids who were cast in the show knew that and they were dying to meet him.
In all your years of directing A Christmas Carol, what stands out as the most memorable moments?
Hal has been in the show for 40 years and his daughter has been in it, too. Last year, his grand-daughter was in the show as Tiny Tim: the moment she walked down and tugged on his coat-sleeve at the end of show, it was very emotional, it was wonderful. I think I have favorite moments from every time we do A Christmas Carol because the actors find other things to do, which is terrific, especially actors who have been doing it for a long time.
The two people who have a very challenging time are the Cratchit parents [Daniel Blinkoff and Jennifer Parsons] because they are working directly with kids, and every year the kids are different. This stage mom and dad spend a great deal of time talking to them about family and about how important this is to them and how special this particular day is to them and the kids fall into it, but sometimes they are reluctant about trying to be silly or trying to be good actors. We just say, ‘Be yourself; we cast you because we think you are the best person for that role’ and that helps.
In addition to directing the show, you also performed as Mr. Fezziwig.
Yes, I was Mr. Fezziwig. But, I was also Mr. Scrooge once, very early on. Hal had been cast in another play and didn’t realize until it was very late that his show didn’t close until into the first weekend of A Christmas Carol. So, I went on as Scrooge for that first weekend. What I remember about that particular moment was that everybody in the show knows Hal is going to do a flip across the bed into his hat. Well, they were waiting and I stopped at the bed very abruptly and turned to the audience and threw up my hands [that I wasn’t going to do it] and they laughed. They thought it was just wonderful. It’s Hal’s signature move for the show and the audience knows it’s coming and they can’t wait. It’s very brave of him to do it. Hal says he has missed it twice, but I think he has missed it three times, but who cares after 40 years? I mean, who is counting?
The other people I think who are also important to the show are The Cratchits because they represent another part of the story. It’s separate really from Scrooge. It’s about Bob Cratchit and his family. I used to tell the cast that in the scene where we find out that Tiny Tim is dead, sometimes the actor playing Bob Cratchit went to pieces and it was very appropriate. I mean, it was not staged; the actor just broke down. At first the kids were frightened by it, and I tell them not to be frightened. I said what would you do if someone was dead and you saw your dad crying, and one of the kids said they would put their arm around him, and I said, ‘Go do that.’
Danny Blinkoff, who plays Bob Cratchit, is a major part of this show. He is in more scenes than any of the other actors here—other than Scrooge—and he has that responsibility along with Jennifer Parsons. They have a huge responsibility to make a family on that stage, and the kids all have a part that is memorable. It’s the part of A Christmas Carol that is the most sentimental and it has a great deal of love in that.
This show has been such a huge part of your life for so long…
Indeed! Last year was the first time in 39 years that I spent Christmas with my family. I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
What will you miss about it?
Everything! There is nothing in this year’s production that is going to be new. In general, it’s a gorgeous show to look at. It moves very quickly, the audience loves it. I would say that 60% of the audience who comes to see the show has seen it before. And the proof is this woman who said her two children were in it and Hal Landon’s granddaughter who came to be in the show. That’s a legacy right there that’s just amazing to me. I look forward to that, and I get to sit in the audience as much as I want.
Rehearsing is always fun. There are certain traditions that always happen—like we always celebrate birthdays. And on our first music rehearsal on a Sunday, Richard Doyle [The Ghost of Christmas Past] has always brought bagels and cream cheese for everybody, and there is always a food table at rehearsals, filled with things that are OK for the kids to have. I will miss it, but I think I am doing the right thing. There will be a new Scrooge and that will be interesting.
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