New Canaan Men's Club to air a 'heartwarming and a hopeful' performance of 'A Christmas Carol'

While COVID-19 prevents live performances of holiday classics this year, the New Canaan Men’s Club (NCMC) will still bring a performance of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to the community.

The club will present a dramatic reading of the holiday tale on the local cable-TV public access channel. The video presentation features actors as well as costumes, visual backdrops, music and sound effects.

Technology allowed the production to be created, with cast members individually reading their parts to follow social distance guidelines and ensure public health. They were videotaped reciting their lines in front of a green screen, which is a blank screen that later can be filled in with images.

The production will be shown on New Canaan Channel 79 during the holiday season, beginning sometime before Christmas.

Last year, NCMC put on a live, old-style radio show of “A Christmas Carol” in front of an audience of about 125 people. That wasn’t an option this year due to the pandemic.

“A Christmas Carol” focuses on miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge, known for saying “Bah! Humbug!” Scrooge dislikes Christmas and helping the less fortunate.

But when visited by ghosts — of former business partner Jacob Marley plus Christmas Past, Present and Future — he changes into a generous man who embodies “the spirit of Christmas.”

Dickens’ story was published in 1843 in England and became an immediate commercial success.

“It’s a great story that touches everyone, whether in the 21st Century or the 19th Century when it was written,” said NCMC member Brian Hollstein, the production’s creative director.

Hollstein came up with the idea of doing the radio and video productions, and remembers the holiday story well from his childhood. “It was Christmas when I was a kid,” he said of Dickens’ 138-page novella.

He owns a reproduction of the first edition book. “It changed the whole way Christmas was conceived in the 1840s,” said Hollstein, a retired corporate security expert.

NCMC president Keith Richey recalls being “very taken” by the story while a child and later learning about how it changed the perception of Christmas from a purely a religious holiday to one that also highlighted the importance of being generous to others.

Twenty or so people are in the NCMC production, most of them club members but others from the community, including one former actress.

Member Peter Eldridge, who plays the part of Scrooge, said he reread the story and watched several film versions to prepare for his role.

“When filming I try to understand the dynamics of the scene and how a person like Scrooge might react,” he said.

“It’s a heartwarming and a hopeful story,” said Eldridge, a retired corporate attorney.

Club member Les DeVilliers is the Ghost of Christmas Future. “They gave me the easy lines,” DeVilliers said. “I just have to look menacing. Basically, I’m the guy who gets him to change his ways.”

He’s learned how to look menacing from his role as an African safari coordinator. “I know how to be menacing when the lions act up,” said DeVilliers, who’s worked in journalism, diplomacy and publishing.

Stephen Johnson plays Scrooge’s nephew Fred, who invites Scrooge over to have Christmas dinner with his family. He performed the same role in last year’s radio show.

Johnson said his background in sales prepared him for the role, noting it has many speaking parts. “I keep popping up throughout the play,” said the former NCMC president. “I tried to make the character empathetic and fit into the flow of the play.”

Director Joel Pelzner is intrigued with how the production came together during a pandemic, with the need to follow public health rules.

“It’s fascinating how you can bring disparate people together and create a final product that’s a wonderful piece of art,” said Pelzner, who’s worked in technology, sales and marketing.

Club member Pete Stair is technical director, using his expertise to set up the studio and equipment as well as add sound effects, music and visual backgrounds.

The presentation was done based on a purchased live radio script that includes audio and visual guidance.

Backdrops feature Victorian-era images of London, a dreary place for poor people. Hollstein provided the hats for some characters from his extensive hat collection.

Richey called the production “an extraordinary technical achievement” during a pandemic, noting the final product will show characters interacting with each other even though the readers never performed together. He also said it’s “a great thing to watch for the pure entertainment value.”

Bob Doran, who helps oversee production at NC-79 as a volunteer, said the station is excited to share the club’s presentation with the public during the holidays.

“They are going to great lengths to create something to help the community have a shared experience, especially during a pandemic when large groups can’t gather,” Doran said.

Hollstein said the target audience is families, pointing out it can sometimes be hard to get children to read even a short book due to the prevalence of video. “Kids today are more oriented toward seeing things,” he said.

The NCMC is a nonprofit social and service organization that meets weekly, often hearing from prominent speakers. It’s open to men ages 55 and older and has about 375 members.

For more information, visit newcanaan.info/community/nctv_channel_79

Brad Durrell is a freelance writer.