Roche Schulfer

With each passing year, more and more of our audiences have come to know Goodman Theatre as a major U.S. cultural organization with wide ranging productions and community programs. But this was not always the case. In 1978, the Goodman was only two years into its existence as an independent not-for-profit theater (instead of a department of the Art Institute of Chicago) and the pressure on the “new” Goodman to generate patrons and fi ll seats was enormous. To invigorate the theater’s artistic direction that year, the new board of trustees, under Stanley Freehling’s leadership, appointed Gregory Mosher as artistic director. I had worked with Greg as producer of the Goodman’s Second Stage, where David Mamet’s American Buffalo and A Life in the Theatre received their world premieres, giving the Goodman an unprecedented level of local and national visibility.

Our immediate planning priority was how to attract an audience during the month of December, when people are preoccupied with holidays, family and friends. As Greg and I discussed seasonal fare, we very quickly landed on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; we had both grown up with the Alistair Sim film version, and I remembered Marley’s chilling ascent to Scrooge’s chambers on my record player. The obvious appeal of this entertaining ghost story about forgiveness, redemption and love for our fellow human beings was irresistible.

We had to do it. But it was not easy, as not everyone thought it was a brilliant idea.

A rehearsal in 1997 for the scene in which Scrooge visits the Cratchit family dinner. Photo by Lisa Ebright.

A Christmas Carol is an epic story, and at that time, it was the largest production that the Goodman had ever produced. It would have to run for three seasons to recoup its initial investment, and put a giant demand on our production resources and personnel. What’s more, being a well-known and beloved story made the task even more daunting, as audiences would take their seats with high expectations. If it failed, the financial repercussions would be very serious for the Goodman. Fortunately, the decision was made to proceed.

We knew we needed an artist of significant talent and ability to play Ebenezer Scrooge. After all, the character is on stage for the entire play, and largely carries the production. Besides stamina, he must make Scrooge as believable as the irascible miser as the warm and jovial figure he becomes at the end.

In 1978, William J. Norris was a charismatic Chicago actor doing incredible work with Stuart Gordon’s legendary Organic Theatre—and much too young to play Scrooge as a conventional “old codger.” But I felt strongly that his age would be an advantage to our production, turning Scrooge into a recognizable contemporary businessman. There was no question in my mind that Bill was up to the challenge, and he magnificently delivered an Ebenezer Scrooge who was at once terrifying, hilarious and profoundly moving as he contemplated his failure with Belle and his later reconciliation with Fred. There was not a dry eye in the house.

It was Bill’s performance that made the production a success from the outset, and helped establish A Christmas Carol as a new Chicago holiday tradition. The extraordinary Chicago actors who have followed in his footsteps include Frank Galati, Tom Mula, Rick Snyder, William Brown, Jonathan Weir and John Judd. This year, Larry Yando celebrates his 10th season in the role, having made a tremendous impact with his gruff, snide and endearingly heartwarming performance.

Over 40 years, we have learned to expect the unexpected on stage and off—including the memorable night when the young actor playing Tiny Tim initiated a food fight on stage during the Cratchit family dinner. Or the matinee when Scrooge’s flying apparatus suddenly malfunctioned, leaving him suspended (and swinging) midair—until a cherry picker entered to bring him down. Then there was the time when the life-sized replicas of Scrooge and Christmas Present once used in the production disappeared from storage, leading to the evening TV news headline: “Who Stole Scrooge?”

People have asked how we keep A Christmas Carol fresh and alive? The answer is that for all of us at the Goodman, A Christmas Carol is much more than a holiday entertainment or diversion. We believe that Charles Dickens’ “little Christmas story” promotes values that are universal and true everywhere in the world—compassion, understanding, love, empathy, forgiveness and redemption. Presenting this story each year to thousands of people is an enormous privilege we take very seriously, and hope contributes in some small way to building a better society.

Since 1984, A Christmas Carol has featured a culturally diverse cast, becoming the highest profile Chicago production to take that step. It was not a completely popular decision at the time—but it gives me hope to know that its casting is now largely embraced by our community.

We have now seen A Christmas Carol create several generations of new theatergoers. Youth who attended the early productions are now bringing their children (and grandchildren). From the outset, we wanted the production to be a family event—not a children’s theater performance. To see audiences of parents, children and relatives enthralled and engaged is totally inspiring. A Christmas Carol has been a key part of our School Matinee Series, the entry point for teachers working with us for the first time.

Did I know 40 years ago that all of this would take place? Well, no. But I was confident that we were producing A Christmas Carol for the right reasons, and that it would have an impact on audiences for a number of years. A Christmas Carol cannot stay the same—but we strive to only change it in ways we believe enhance the experience for the audience and all connected with it. To provide A Christmas Carol for Chicago over the past four decades is a highlight of my life in the theater, and I am grateful to all of the countless artists, professionals and patrons who make it possible.

Here’s to the next 40 years of A Christmas Carol at the Goodman!

Roche Schulfer, Executive Director