“Marley was dead: to begin with.” With those words, on November 28, 1978 actor Val Bettin launched what would become one of Chicago’s most enduring theatrical traditions: Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol. The inaugural production, directed by Tony Mockus, featured William J. Norris as Scrooge and Bettin as Charles Dickens, acting for several years as the story’s narrator. Mockus’ production also featured a sampling of Christmas carols from around the world as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Scrooge navigate their time together. Legendary improv director, actor and writer and iO Theater founder Del Close appeared as the Ghost of Christmas Present, returning for several engagements. (Fun fact: Upon his death in 1999, Close requested his skull be donated to the Goodman to be used on stage.) Throughout the years, a number of notable Chicago actors have played the jovial spirit, including A.C. Smith; Ernest Perry, Jr.; Tony Award nominee Felicia P. Fields; Alex Weisman and Ora Jones.
Lighting designer Robert Christen designed the first production, returning each year until his untimely death in 2014. Among many beautiful effects, Christen created one of the show’s most awe-inspiring moments: the magical panorama of stars.
A Christmas Carol isn’t only a family tradition for audiences. In the inaugural production, Frank Howard played Tiny Tim, with his brother later appearing as Boy Scrooge. Roger Mueller played Bob Cratchit for a number of years; later, his daughter, Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller, appeared as Scrooge’s love interest Belle in 2009. In 1987, brothers Kevin and John Duda appeared as Tiny Tim and Boy Scrooge, respectively. Goodman Resident Artistic Associate Henry Godinez, who has both directed and appeared in the show, has also seen his wife Nancy Voigts on stage, as well as their daughter Lucy. Musical director and musician Malcolm Ruhl also shared the stage with his daughter Madeline in 2015.
“The more I worked on the role, the more complex it seemed. Year after year, the directors and I would try to dig deeper psychologically and emotionally. Scrooge had to become as real as the social ills Dickens was addressing in his story.” — William J. Norris (Ebenezer Scrooge, 1978 – 1983 and 1985 – 1990)
In 1985, Larry Schanker brought live music to the production, accompanying the cast with his arrangements of traditional carols and original compositions. One song, “Evergreen,” became a theme for the production that appeared for nearly 15 years.
“My family has attended A Christmas Carol for over 32 years. It started with my mother (now 88 years old), my sisters and sisters-in-law and our children. We traveled from Missouri, Iowa and around Illinois. I recently learned I will be a grandmother, and can’t wait to have the newest member of the family join in our tradition. The only gift we need each year is the Goodman’s production of the greatest story ever told!” — Mary Theresa Fisher, Audience Member
A seven-time Scrooge, Tom Mula extended his love for the Dickens’ tale when he penned the novella Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, which continued the story of Scrooge’s former business partner. He later adapted the piece into a one-man show he performed, directed by Steve Scott in the Goodman Studio Theatre in 1998 and 1999.
“It’s a great, great story, of a man who’s redeemed. There’s the possibility that your life can change. That there’s always hope for that person no matter how bleak your situation may be.” — Tom Creamer, dramaturg whose adaptation of A Christmas Carol has appeared at the Goodman since 1989.
Closing night of the 2000 production marked the final performance of the Goodman at its home at the Art Institute of Chicago; that evening, dozens of previous cast members appeared onstage for a curtain-call toast to the old space. The next year, A Christmas Carol celebrated its first year at the Goodman’s current home on Dearborn Street with a magnifi cent new set design by future Tony Award winner Todd Rosenthal.
In 2000, Robert Schleifer, a deaf actor who at the time worked in the Goodman Box Office, played the Ghost of Christmas Present. Director Henry Godinez worked with Robert to communicate with Scrooge using sign language, while an off-stage voice expressed the ghost’s intentions.
“This is one of those stories that so many people can relate to, and I see the relief and joy on their faces every year, even if they know what’s going to happen. It gives people hope at a time of year that can be stressful. It’s a deeply moving story and I feel like I get to bring people along on a journey.” — Larry Yando, who celebrates his 10th season as Scrooge this year.
In a multi-year partnership with Make-A-Wish Illinois, A Christmas Carol welcomes sports icons to the production in cameo appearances including Chicago Bulls great Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, White Sox manager and third baseman Robin Ventura and the Blackhawks’ Bobby Hull and Denis Savard.
“A Christmas Carol’s story is timeless, heartfelt, warm and rings true year after year. I’ve been enjoying the show since 1981 and eventually started bringing my two sons when they were six and nine years old. I remarried and my husband and I still go each year. In fact, we were married on December 13, 2014, at Goodman Theatre between performances of A Christmas Carol! Bob Cratchit (Ron E. Rains) was our officiant and Tiny Tim (Nathaniel Buescher) was the ring bearer. I will never forget the magic of that day and the magic of each performance I attend! — Deborah Walczak Luebke, Audience Member
In 2016, Scrooge’s nephew Fred became his niece Frida, played by Kristina Vlada-Viars. The gender swap remains intact for the 40th anniversary production, featuring Ali Burch in the role.
Continuing its efforts to make theater accessible to all, this year the Goodman will introduce its first-ever sensory-friendly performance of A Christmas Carol for families with members who have autism or other social, cognitive and physical challenges.