When Stephen Hill first purchased tickets to “A Christmas Carol” at South Coast Repertory, he was a newly divorced father from Laguna Niguel, trying to cheer up his 6-year-old daughter, Chelsea.
That was back in 1995. Fast forward to Tuesday afternoon, when Hill attended the production for the 25th year in a row.
Chelsea, now 31, drove down from Los Angeles with her boyfriend, who experienced the Hill family tradition for the first time last year. Also in tow: Hill’s current wife, as well as his ex-wife and her husband.
All six of them wore the same bright red scarf — Christmas gifts purchased from the theater over the years by Hill, who donned a Scrooge-like top hat accessorized with a glistening poinsettia.
“To me, this show is Christmas magic,” said Teri Dayton, Hill’s ex-wife. “I cry every time, even though I know exactly what’s going to happen.”
On Christmas Eve, Dayton’s tears weren’t merely from the joy of watching the Charles Dickens classic. She and others in the audience became emotional watching Hal Landon Jr. take his final bow as Ebenezer Scrooge, after playing the Christmas curmudgeon for 40 years.
“This has been such a big part of my childhood,” Chelsea Hill said. “He’s the only Scrooge I’ve ever known.”
Landon’s last performance on the Costa Mesa stage became the hottest ticket when it went on sale back in March.
“I usually get the seats that are dead center, but this sold out so quickly, so it’s the first time in my life that I’m watching from the side seats,” said Mark Jordan, who’s seen the show 30 times over the years with his three children.
Jordan signed guest books for Landon and director John-David Keller, also departing the production this year. Some theatergoers, dressed in festive holiday garb, posed for photos with the life-size cutout of Landon in the lobby.
Others waited in line at the theater’s gift shop, which long ago sold out of red Christmas ball ornaments adorned with Landon’s face. The foyer practically doubled as a shrine to Landon, so beloved for playing a character described as “odious,” “stingy” and “unfeeling” on stage.
“It always feels weird to see my face everywhere,” Landon told The Times in an interview a few days before Christmas Eve. “But I’m so thankful. It’s a fantastic role, and I’ve learned so much. I think I’ve become a better actor by continually trying to meet the demands of the character every year.”
SCR first staged its adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” — featuring a script by company member Jerry Patch — as a one-time event in 1980. At two hours with intermission, the narrator-less take is one of Southern California’s more traditional renditions of the tale, with sliding sets, multiple musical moments and lots of falling snow.
Now 78, Landon has aged gracefully into the part, with his shoulder-length gray hair peeking out from under the character’s burgundy nightcap. He decided to step away from Scrooge because “’40 years’ sounded good, it’s a nice round number,” he explained. “And it’s maybe better to quit too soon than too late.”
After performing a matinee show earlier in the day — and receiving special honors from the California Assembly and the House of Representatives — Landon took to the stage for his final performance. He entered the scene to thunderous applause, complete with whoops and whistles.
Lizzie Boyle, the afternoon show’s rare first-time attendee, was there with her husband and daughters. “You can feel an amazing energy from the crowd,” she said. “It really feels like such a celebration.”
But Landon didn’t linger in the praise; he still had a job to do, after all. With more than 1,400 performances under his belt, he delivered each punchline with a fresh gusto and hit each cue with a seasoned precision.
And when he gleefully performed his signature Christmas morning “hat roll” — in which he somersaults onto Scrooge’s bed, lands his head into his top hat, and folds out into a standing position, hat in place — he got rollicking cheers from the audience.
It’s a stunt that roots back to Landon’s diving days as a teenager.
“When I’m doing my strength training, I put a little more emphasis on my shoulders so I don’t break my neck during that somersault,” he said. “Now that I’m done, I guess I can just go to pot if I wanted to!”
When the show was over, the entire audience rose to its feet for a minutes-long ovation, some people swinging their red scarves over their heads. Fellow actor Timothy Landfield tossed colored confetti as Landon took his final bow. As he shared a hug with director Keller, many members of the cast — which included his granddaughter for the second year — alternated between applauding and wiping away tears.
“The show is an unexpected gift, because we’ve really become a family,” said Daniel Blinkoff, who played Bob Cratchit and has been with the production for 17 years. “We’ve shared parents passing away, people getting married, kids being born and kids graduating college. And Hal has been our pillar. Tonight is still a celebration, but it’s the end of that journey too.”
Richard Doyle, who has been with the show for 36 years, briefly paused the curtain call to present Landon with Scrooge’s hat.
“After the thousands of times he somersaulted into it, for your entertainment and ours,” he told the audience.
The crowd then dispersed, piling into their cars. Landon spent the rest of the evening with his entire immediate family at his sister’s house. He’s not done with acting altogether. He’ll soon be seen in another follow-up to “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” reprising his role as the father of Keanu Reeves’ character.
Landon told The Times that he may not attend SCR’s production of “A Christmas Carol” in 2020: “I think I might take a year off, but I’ll definitely come and see future shows.”
Richard and Patti Peterson of Rancho Santa Margarita, who have attended the Christmas Eve evening performances for 30 years, said they’ll return for their annual ritual, even if Landon isn’t there. But his absence will be felt.
“He’s been magnificent, year after year,” Patti Peterson said. “We’ve never met him, but we really feel like we know him because we’ve seen him every year. He just feels like part of our family, you know? It’s so sad. I’m gonna miss him so much.”