A Christmas Carol-ina

Ray Dooley as Scrooge confronts his own mortality in the PlayMakers production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Photo Credit: Carolina PlayMakers

THROUGH A TOWNIE’S LENS

By Jock Lauterer
Columnist

No Carolina Christmas is complete without “A Christmas Carol.”

Dicken’s redemptive tale of Scrooge, the old unlovable and unloved curmudgeon getting a life do-over, received stellar treatment again last week as the PlayMakers Repertory Company’s versatile stage legend Ray Dooley brought the classic back to life on the stage at UNC’s Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art.

Make no mistake about it; this was a not a reading. Dooley, a 70-year-old professor emeritus of dramatic art UNC, (1989-2021) had the entire text down cold, filling the stage with his larger than life multi-personality presence with the irrepressible energy of an actor half his age.     

Single-handedly morphing and shape-shifting into a dozen different characters during the two-hour tour de force, Dooley left many of us in the audience limp with emotion, sniffling and dabbing our eyes.

His was a fitting and masterful homage to a long-standing tradition at Carolina. The local performance of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” a century-old legacy, goes back to 1918 when Carolina PlayMakers founder Prof. Frederick Koch came to Chapel Hill from the University of North Dakota, bringing with him the production in the form of a one-man reading.

Later, following in the footsteps of “Prof Koch,” came the readings of the late great Earl Wynn, a distinguished professor credited with creating in 1954 the Department of Radio, Television and Motion Pictures at UNC-CH, which merged in 1993 with the School of Journalism and Media.

Photographed in 1984, Earl Wynn as Scrooge lets loose his rant: “If I could work my will… every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart…Bah! Humbug!”

A holiday tradition from the ‘60s into the mid-‘80s, Wynn’s dramatic reading of the Christmastime classic delighted Hill Hall audiences with his basso-profundo voice and dynamic performances. In my Chapel Hill News photo from 1984, Wynn as Scrooge, lambastes his good nephew, Fred, with the scathing rant:

“If I could work my will… every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart…Bah! Humbug!”

As an undergraduate at UNC in the winter of 1966 and just before Christmas break, I was fortunate enough to attend one of Wynn’s unforgettable recitations.

But I wasn’t the only young Tar Heel in attendance.

A peer named Tony Lentz, hearing the performance, was so moved that when he later became a professor at Penn State, he took the one-man show with him. This connection, I discovered through the delightful coincidence of my own career trajectory, which, in the early ‘90s, landed me in Happy Valley, where it wasn’t Christmas unless you attended one of Tony’s performances. 

Lentz performed his annual reading of “A Christmas Carol” at Penn State for 40 years, giving his final recitation in 2017, which he dedicated to Earl Wynn.

Bravo, Prof Koch, Earl, Tony and Ray!

And “God bless us, every one!”


Jock Lauterer is a longtime photojournalist, honored in 2020 by PEN America as a “Local Journalist Hero. He is a senior lecturer at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and is the retired founding director of the school’s Carolina Community Media Project. The author of six books, Jock is also the winner of the 1998 National Geographic Magazine Faculty Fellowship, among his many accolades

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