Dick Boyd Found the Role of His Life, As Scrooge, in the Omaha Community Playhouse Production of the Charles Dickens Classic ‘A Christmas Carol’
As hometown traditions and staples go, the Omaha Community Playhouse musical production of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol is a must see for lots of folks, and not just here either because the original production designed by Charles Jones tours nationwide courtesy the Nebraska Theatre Caravan company. This has been going on for two generations and I have to admit I’ve never bothered to catch the show. The closest I came was watching part of a rehearsal for the following profile I wrote about Dick Boyd, the man who portrayed Scrooge in the production for decades. He was still very much the voice and face of Scrooge here when I did the piece, but it wasn’t long after the story appeared that he announced his retirement from this role of a lifetime. I hope my article didn’t in some way hasten his abandoning the part he’d become so strongly identified with. As the story reveals, Boyd enjoys a very full life outside the Scrooge persona, which is of course far removed from his real demeanor.
Dick Boyd Found the Role of His Life, As Scrooge, in the Omaha Community Playhouse Production of the Charles Dickens Classic ‘A Christmas Carol’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
For generations of audiences Charles Dickens’ perennial classic tale A Christmas Carol has come to represent the transforming power of the Yuletide season. When the story begins, its lonely, tightfisted, bitter old protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, tyrannically administers to his cold, spare counting-house, running roughshod over cowed clerks, denying them the comfort of coal-fueled fires or even the courtesy of retiring early to be with their families on Christmas Eve. Only the plight of sweet Bob Cratchit’s crippled son, Tiny Tim, seems to move him. Otherwise, the craggy Scrooge dismisses the holiday and its celebrants with his trademark “Bah-humbug!”
But then, in a series of apparitions, ghostly visitors reveal to him the wayward, misspent path of his life. By the end, the stingy skinflint repents, expressing regret for hardening his heart and for coveting monetary gain over cultivating mortal kindness. Redeemed, Scrooge embraces life again, opening his coffers and rejoining the human race with renewed vigor. His being born again proves it’s never too late to change but also serves as a cautionary tale that the pursuit of material wealth can lead to ruinous end. So embedded is Scrooge in the popular culture that mentioning the name elicits an image of cold-hearted, penny-pinching avarice. The word long ago entered the lexicon as the embodiment of a “mean-spirited miser” — precisely how the American Heritage Dictionary defines it.
All of which brings us to Dick Boyd, the very unScrooge-like fellow who’s been portraying Ebenezer for 28 years now in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s candy-coated production of A Christmas Carol, a spectacular that’s become a holiday staple for generations of area families. The play runs now through December 21.
A veteran actor on area stages for many decades, Boyd, who along with his wife and sometime acting partner Miriam, are longtime Council Bluffs residents, has made the part his own. He’s played Scrooge in each of the nearly 700 main stage Carol productions performed since former Playhouse director Charles Jones first adapted the story and staged it in 1976. In all that time, covering all those shows, the trouper, a longtime educator in Nebraska and Iowa public schools, has never missed a single performance. When he launched the role he was a 53-year-old English instructor. Now a robust 81, he’s long retired from teaching and a grandpa many times over. In what is surely one of the longest-running theater engagements an actor’s ever had, anywhere, Boyd swears he never tires of the role.
“No, never, certainly not, or I wouldn’t be doing it 28 years,” he says in his basso profundo voice. “It’s a joy. There’s a lot of aspects that make it a joy. The people involved are probably some of the greatest people you’ll ever associate with and every year you get a few fresh new faces in there. Everybody brings something new to each part every year. There’s always different reactions, so it never gets stale.”
Back in 2000 rumors circulated he was wanting out of the role, but he says that was unfounded. “I don’t know who started that, but people seem to be surprised I’m still at it. People have been asking me about it. But as I told Carl,” he says, referring to Playhouse artistic director Carl Beck, “any time you get tired of me, let me know. I’ll go as long as I’m able.”
Besides being a richly-contoured part that allows Boyd to play a wide gamut of emotions before packed houses every night, there’s the side benefit of being rejuvenated by the character’s spiritual rebirth. “It’s the ultimate experience every night for me. Very few people get redeemed 20 or 30 times in a Christmas season,” he says, meaning the approximate number of times he plays the role each year. He feels it’s this quality of redemption that makes the Dickens story such an enduring classic and one retold over and over again in print and film and on radio, television and stage. “I just think people enjoy the spirit of the thing more than anything. They just really like the idea of somebody being renewed.”
Boyd’s association with the story goes back a long time, all the way to his childhood in Nebraska City, Neb. “As for the story itself, I’ve been involved with it ever since I can remember. I’ve always read the story…I always find something new in it. In the good old days of radio Lionel Barrymore did his annual interpretation (of Scrooge). We were always gathered around our old Majestic waiting for that to come on.” Reading the tale and playing the role as long as he has, Boyd’s developed a keen understanding of Scrooge, a symbolic figure he believes is too easily caricatured but one he finds all too human. “I, of course, have changed my opinion of Scrooge over these 70-80 years. Well, he’s a hard-nosed and flinty miser, but I’ve come to realize Scrooge is no different than the rest of us. He has his foibles and his protective devices he uses. His protective device is he simply withdraws from the people that have given him trouble and hurt him, to more of an extreme than most of us, but still, in all, he’s just a human being under all of it.”
In true Dickensian fashion, Scrooge’s coming of age reads tragic. “He’s taken back to his childhood, which shows he was kind of a cast-off,” Boyd says. “He apparently lost his mother at an early date and his little sister, whom he adored, died off in her early marriage. There’s a couple scenes where he’s left by himself in this boarding school, kind of a shabby one at that, and has to spend his Christmas alone and rely on himself. So, in his early youth a lot of things were taken away from him and not much was given to him. And, so, he got to the point where money and success were important things and relationships were kind of tentative. The money was something he could hold onto…the one thing he could grasp and keep without it fading away. His Scrooge behavior is all a defense mechanism to cover his hurt.”
After the spirits force him to confront everything he’s lost by virtue of his vindictiveness and to view the suffering his spendthrift ways might yet inflict on the Cratchits and their ailing son, Tim, Scrooge’s humanity surfaces, most poignantly in befriending the struggling family. “You see, his affinity to Tiny Tim is that they’re both cripples, really,” Boyd says. “I mean, he’s an emotional cripple and Tim is physically. They kind of mesh there.” It is the shock of recognition that turns Scrooge around. “As soon as he’s shown why he’s doing these mean things, he starts snapping out of it,” notes Boyd. “I guess the popular concept today is you go see a psychiatrist and he talks you through these past (traumatic) experiences, where Dickens uses the device of these ghosts.”
Still, the figure of Scrooge has become so identified with the image of an unfeeling tightwad that Boyd acknowledges “it’s kind of hard” to make him a real flesh-and-blood man rather than a stereotype. “After having done this role for so long I always ask Carl (Beck) to make sure that we’re not getting into any cardboard type of characterization. I know that we overblow the part a little bit. Of course, on the stage, you have to do that to get it across, but we try to steer clear of too much of that aspect. Hopefully, it’s a human portrayal.”
Touchingly human it is. When the part calls for it, Boyd dominates the proceedings with his early rendering of Scrooge as the mean, willful, narrow-minded old cuss. He groans, grouches, growls and grumbles with the best of them. But as Scrooge’s gaunt facade crumbles in the face of the cruelty he glimpses from his past, present and future, Boyd is appropriately nostalgic, afraid, exasperated and remorseful. At Scrooge’s most vulnerable, when viewing the wreckage of his life, Boyd essays a deeply wounded, apologetic soul.
The actor’s own bigger-than-life presence makes Scrooge’s fall and subsequent rise all the more telling. Boyd is a great lion of a man — from his mane of silver-gray hair to his impressive stature to his sonorous voice to his courtly manner, he carries himself with a certain majesty that only magnifies Scrooge’s callousness, making him seem smaller in the process, and that later elevates the character’s kindness, making it seem grander in comparison.
To his credit, Boyd avoids a cliched performance. Not by accident either. Rehearsals for A Christmas Carol began October 19 and ran through November 20 and during this stretch Boyd worked on both the broad strokes and fine nuances of his performance. In a mid-November rehearsal, he showed remarkable range in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Past has him revisit his youth as an apprentice under dear old Fezziwig, who celebrated Christmas by treating all his friends, loved ones and employees to a big party. Face to face with the bright young Ebenezer, Boyd’s Scrooge acts overjoyed, as much by facial expression, gesture and carriage as by words, at the holiday merriment and warm human interaction he once indulged in. Forgetting he’s invisible, Scrooge joins the party, upset he cannot break through the bonds of time. When the ghost chides Fezziwig for his unrequited generosity, Scrooge defends his beloved old boss, practically sermonizing about how it’s better to give than to receive, before realizing he’s contradicting his own parsimonious ways.
When Scrooge looks at himself as the earnest young apprentice, he sees the promise for happiness he once held and that he foolishly squandered away in blind pursuit of wealth. He cannot bear it when young Ebenezer spurns the affections of a girl and the prospect of a happy life together for the toil of work and the tinkle of coin, desperately wishing he could reverse the lonely course his life took. Later, when it’s revealed what an object of derision he’s become to some and what a figure of melancholy he represents to others, Boyd expresses profound anguish in the contortions of his face, the collapse of his body and the caterwauling wail of his voice. Everything about him is heavy, slow, sad.
By the end, when a repentant Scrooge pledges in front of his own tombstone to reform — “I’ll be good from now on” — he’s a man reborn. His burden has been lifted. Everything about him seems lighter, brighter, bolder. This scene, along with the final one when he greets everybody with rousing wishes of “Merry Christmas,” are among the actor’s favorites.
Boyd, who makes a point of rereading Dickens’ original A Christmas Carol in preparation for the play, describes how his take on Scrooge has changed as his own experience has caught up with the character’s. “I like to think you get a little more understanding as you get older anyway,” he says. “You see some of the things underneath the outward appearances of people. I know more about Scrooge than I did 28 years ago. Quite a bit more about him.” For a long while, though, the actor didn’t suspect his characterization had altered from the start. “I thought I was pretty much the same as always until I looked at some tapes from past performances and saw there has been a little bit of growth over the years. I think I show more of a change from the earlier character to the redeemed character. I carry the last scene a little farther than I used to. I used to be within myself more and now I try to involve more of the other characters on stage…as many as I can get a hold of, and I think it shows a little more warmth than it used to.”
He credits Charles Jones, the man who originally adapted and staged the Dickens classic at the Playhouse, for emphasizing the warmth of the piece. “He saw all the joy that’s bound up in it and I think that’s really one of the reasons why this has become so successful around here,” Boyd says. “Nobody ever leaves that show feeling bad because he always gives them that lift.”
Something else Jones encouraged Boyd and his fellow actors in is developing back stories to anchor their characterizations in a context that provides motivation for their actions. Scrooge’s background is basically all there in the Dickens tale, but not so for supporting-peripheral characters, and it’s with these parts, Boyd says, that Jones made sure every actor, down to the last extra, developed a story that described, “Who are you, what are you doing, and why have you been doing it? It’s not just coming on the stage, it’s living the part,” is how Boyd explains it.
He says the production has not changed appreciably since Jones left the Playhouse in 1998. The approach still centers on making the drama as fresh and alive as any current event. That includes the authentic sets designed by set designer James Othuse. “One thing about James Othuse’s sets is that when you step on stage you feel like you’re in the place he’s trying to recreate. In other words, you feel like you’re on a street in Victorian London. James is probably a genius at this. Whenever you get the snow falling and the crowds moving and all the color with the shops in the background, it sets a mood.”
Like any performer, Boyd gets a charge from the high energy the cast and crew and audience give off during performance nights. “You can’t explain it. It’s kind of an electricity you feel.” He says working with a new cast practically every year keeps him on his toes. “A lot of if depends on who you’re working with on stage. If you get some dullards in there, it kind of drags things down, but that’s the nice thing about this one — we never get any of those. Of course, the kids have boundless energy. They’re ready to go every night. I guess we oldsters kind of feed off of that. I have a new Cratchit this year and a new Tiny Tim. Everybody has a little different approach to it and then of course you have to react to that.” As for audience reactions, he says, “It’s a horrible feeling if they’re not with you, I’ll guarantee you. You get feedback from them. It’s a give and take situation. If your audience is good, well, you may not be so good, but you act a little harder.”
Audiences anticipate his bellicose bellowing of that most signature Scrooge line, “Bah-humbug,” and Boyd knows it, so he plays to their expectations. “I listen to the audience.” he says. “It always gets kind of a snicker the first time it comes out. You can pretty much gauge if you’ve done it right.” He suspects that during hearing impaired performances the signer assigned to shadowing him on stage may “sign something other than bah-humbug,” perhaps an expletive “you wouldn’t exactly repeat in public, because the audience sure gets a snicker out of it.”
As closely identified as Boyd is with Scrooge, including being recognized on the street, the part hardly defines his performing life. His stage credits are impressive. He even has an award named after him at the Playhouse, whose most prestigious acting honor, the Fonda/McGuire Award, he’s won. Two of his favorite roles came as noble Atticus Finch in the Chanticleer Theater’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird and as curmudgeon Norman Thayer, opposite the legendary Mary Peckham, in On Golden Pond. He recently collaborated again with Charles Jones in a Grande Olde Players staging of The Three Penny Opera. Boyd and his wife of 53 years, Miriam, who appears with him in Carol, have been active members of the St. John Lutheran Church (Council Bluffs) choir and the Omaha Symphonic Chorus.
Although acting’s been an avocation, not a livelihood, it’s filled a large portion of his life. His performing days date back to high school in Nebraska City, where music became an early passion. After two years at Scottsbluff Junior College his university studies were interrupted by a three-and-half-year hitch in the Army signal corps that took him to the South Pacific during World War II. Upon returning stateside, he studied music and drama at Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Neb. Already possessing a fine bass voice, he sang in the school’s touring a cappella choir, and it was on one tour that he fell for fellow choir member and future wife Miriam, whose father was the then-president of Midland. He eventually earned an education degree and spent the next few years teaching and serving as a school superintendent in Shelby and Ceresco, Neb. Miriam also became a teacher.
It was in Shelby, in the early ‘60s, where Boyd first got greasepaint fever. The late artist Terence Duren recruited him to play the lead, opposite Miriam, in the Shelby community theater production ofDirty Work at the Crossroads. “I was the hero and she was the heroine,” Boyd recalls. A few years later, after moving their growing family to Council Bluffs, the Boyds, at Miriam’s urging, landed chorus parts in a Playhouse staging of Kiss Me Kate. “We went on from there and did quite a number of shows,” he says, encouraged by Omaha’s then leading arts mavens, the Levines. Joe Levine was the Omaha Symphony director and his wife Mary, a musician and theater patron. The Boyds also performed with the Omaha opera company. When the couple’s four children were quite young, they often accompanied their parents to the theater and concert hall, playing backstage. “Oh, they had a ball,” Boyd says. Three of their adult offspring have worked in theater, one on the technical end, another as a music director and a third as an opera singer.
By the time he went up for the coveted role of Scrooge in 1976, he figured he had no shot at it. After all, his stiff competition included accomplished actor and former vaudevillian Bill Bailey. When, to his surprise, Boyd bagged the flamboyant part, he never imagined he’d still be at it. So, is there any downside to being Scrooge? Besides a danger of “letting a little Scrooge creep into my other acting, no, none. It’s a joy,” he says. Any worries about typecasting? “Bah-humbug!”