On Theater: After 40 years, Hal Landon Jr. taking his last bow as South Coast Repertory’s Scrooge
All good things, as they say, must come to an end.
On Nov. 30, Hal Landon Jr. will don the threadbare garments of Ebenezer Scrooge in South Coast Repertory’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol.” It will be his 40th — and last — year in the role.
Landon, 78, has decided that four decades are quite enough to be playing one character, even though local theatergoers may disagree. He’s ushered in the Christmas season for longer than many of them have been around.
So what has kept the veteran actor, one of six SCR founding artists, returning to “Bah, humbug” his way through an astonishing 40th incarnation of the holiday classic?
“I think one of the things that has kept me going is the response of our audience, and not just their enthusiastic applause at the curtain call,” Landon said.
“So many people come up to me at SCR events, or sometimes even in a store or at the gym and say how much the play means to them,” he continued. “How Christmas doesn’t start until they see ‘A Christmas Carol,’ how their parents brought them when they were kids and now they bring their own kids.”
I can relate. I used to take my daughter Mindy to see the show year after year (notably 1984 when her brother Tim was in the cast), and now she takes her two daughters to see it.
I’ve taken the kids, now in their 40s, in alternate years and this was to be Tim’s year. But he bought tickets for him and his wife himself for Christmas Eve because he “wanted to see Hal’s last performance.”
Landon also has had familial moments. His daughter Caroline once played one of the youngsters, and last year, one of his granddaughters was Tiny Tim.
John-David Keller has directed all 40 incarnations of the show, and that is his favorite memory.
“There’s a moment where Tiny Tim comes down at curtain call and tugs on Scrooge’s sleeve,” Keller recalled, of Landon Jr.'s granddaughter. “That brought tears to my eyes and Hal’s. It was absolutely beautiful.”
How did it all begin? Back in 1980, SCR planned to put on the show as a one-time event, using a script adapted by company member Jerry Patch from the classic novel by Charles Dickens.
David Emmes, one of SCR’s two founding artistic directors, remembers it well.
“Hal was our immediate choice to portray Scrooge when this production started,” Emmes said, adding that the then-38-year-old actor who’d once played Stanley in the company’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” was “able to carry the weight of Scrooge’s path to redemption.”
The 1980 show was so successful that SCR decided to repeat it in 1981. And a tradition was born.
“This is a complicated and demanding role,” Emmes said, “and each season Hal’s performance grows stronger as he continues to explore and deepen Scrooge.”
“Meeting that challenge and striving to fulfill the needs of the role have forced me to become a better actor,” Landon said. “One of the challenges of doing a part year after year is keeping it fresh so for the audience you maintain the sense of everything happening for the first time.
“One of the keys to achieving this is being ‘in the moment’ as much as possible both as the actor and the character. Doing the play year after year has made me much better at being ‘in the moment’ on stage and even in real life.”
Emmes put it this way: “Hal’s dedication to the production, to his fellow cast members and to our Orange County audiences over the span of four decades, is exceptional.”
Landon cited his “long and joyful collaboration with so many talented actors who have returned year after year to be in the show.”
He singled out fellow founding artists Richard Doyle, Art Koustik, Don Took, Martha McFarland and Ron Boussom. Doyle and Koustik remain as part of the cast while the others have moved on.
Finally, Landon cited the director who has staged every edition of “A Christmas Carol” from 1980 to the present.
“I’ll always treasure the time spent with director John-David Keller and his insistence that we always strive to look for new ways to improve the show,” he said.
Audiences, who by now are quite familiar with the show, eagerly anticipate one particular moment — the hat trick. On Christmas morning, the redeemed Scrooge places his top hat upside down on the bed and then somersaults over the bed, donning the hat in the process, instantly eliciting applause.
Response to this year’s 40th production should be even heartier than usual since this is the last time playgoers will be treated to the definitive Scrooge.
It will be a series of special curtain calls for the estimable Hal Landon Jr., wrapping up a four-decade saga that may qualify him for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
IF YOU GO
What: “A Christmas Carol”
When: Nov. 30 to Dec. 24
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr, Costa Mesa
Cost: $38 to $91
Information: (714) 708-5555; scr.org
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