2001 April: Tuesday
At 3pm, Delmar dropped me off at the Hampton Inn on the southern outskirts of Charlotte. It was a long way from the luxury of the Hilton on Third – this was downmarket with a vengeance. A surly receptionist broke off from her lover’s tiff with a resident truck driver long enough to toss the room key onto the lobby counter and gesture vaguely in the direction of the bedrooms. Still, the price matched the service, so I settled in without complaint. A long 24 hours stretched ahead, as did the featureless motorway outside.
2001 April: Wednesday
At 3pm, the next promoter arrived. Bob was a short man who wore a yellow bow tie, and who appeared to be a fan of Dale Carnegie. All the usual signs were there – the dazzling friendship-winning smile and hearty people-influencing handshake, followed by the sharp unwavering attention to the simplest comment, and the judicious ponder upon their significance. Still, he seemed a lively enough character.
We arrived at the night’s venue at 6pm. It was another Lutheran Church, the twelfth largest in the USA, with some sort of school attached. My heart sank when I saw the theatre arena – a vast bare hall with 100 plastic seats inhabiting about a quarter of the total floor space.
On the wall directly behind my ‘Parisian café’ stage area, there were four large portraits of 19th century Lutheran divines. Their expressions seemed almost calculated to inhibit jollity. On the plus side, the acoustics were superb. I could hear the echo returning as I performed a few warm up speeches – always a good sign.
And so it proved. The show went down a storm and the audience followed every jest and twist of emotion. This was easily the best reaction since Charleston. At the end, the applause grew until, to my total surprise, the audience climbed to their feet and clapped on. For the first time ever, I received a standing ovation!
I returned to the dressing room and, overwhelmed by the experience, started to change. Suddenly the door banged open and three elderly ladies burst in. As I stood in shirt tails, they continued the babble of approval unabashed:
“It was awesome! Where did the ESU find you?” etc.
I’d not only got my first ovation, it looked like I’d got my first groupies as well.
Dressing as decorously as possible, I led them back into the groups of well-wishers outside the door. More compliments flooded in:
“You really brought Oscar Wilde alive for us, sir!”
It seemed that, in addition to the show, my fake reputation as a titled aristocrat had also travelled ahead of me. One woman kept burbling that she had met Princess Michael of Kent and that I must take her good wishes back to Court with me. It was a heady night.
2001 April: Thursday
Bob had left by the time I ambled down to breakfast and I spent the morning chatting to his wife Marion – it turned out she was another Colonial Dame. When she saw me glancing through the local paper, the Charlotte Observer, Marion snorted:
“Oh, don’t bother yourself with that rubbish. That’s a real leftist rag.”
The Observer’s editorial turned out to be a mild plea that the city might establish a soup kitchen to cater for street people.
At 10 30am, my next contact arrived to drive me to the venue in Salisbury, N.C. He was a pleasant elderly gentleman called John who chatted politely as we ambled along the Interstate at a steady 30 mph.
“We’re easy-going folk in North Carolina. We have to be. To the north we’ve got Virginia and to the south we’ve got South Carolina. We call ourselves the Vale of Humility between the two Mountains of Conceit.”
We reached Salisbury by noon and John took me on a short introductory tour of the town – the main attraction seemed to be a museum called ‘The Sports Writers and Sports Readers Hall of Fame.’
I was beginning to notice a pattern in American towns, the ‘Private equals Good, Public equals Bad’ syndrome. While huge effort seemed to have gone into private architecture, the overall impression of the public areas was that of a mess. Each street had its own spaghetti tangle of high level wiring, random street furniture, and a riot of unnecessary signage. Obviously, at some point, the basics of municipal life such as the court house and the town hall, etc., had been built, but nobody had bothered much since then.
The opposite seemed to apply to the domestic buildings in the suburbs. Although the individual houses were clunkingly derivative of the Nouveau Disney Era – English Old Colonial beside Spanish hacienda next to French chateau – cumulatively these estates were impressive. Maybe the true glories of America are its ‘burbs.
The show that night was at the Salisbury Country Club and performed before a black tie audience seated at small separate dining tables. A difficult crowd to play to: a 180 degree front but only two tables’ depth. A punch line delivered to the far right flank automatically excluded the far left flank from the intimacy. Therefore, only half the audience really responded at any one time. There was some laughter but too diffuse to gel. Although not as bad as Richmond, I reckoned this was a qualified failure.
In the following question and answer session, one questioner turned out to be a fellow Briton, the guest of one of the members. He was red-faced and piggy-eyed, with that air of supercilious but creepy condescension that is probably responsible for the general American image of the Brits.
“I’m sure Mr Titley would like to show his appreciation of this wonderful country by describing what he feels to be its greatest contributions to the world” he squeaked.
Backed into a corner, I seized on the very point I’d been thinking about during the afternoon – the American suburbs. I replied, with some sincerity, that I thought that their housing was magnificent. There was a ripple of self-congratulation round the room until one voice drawled out:
“You ain’t seen the trailer parks yet.”
2001 April: Friday
The next day was spent sight-seeing round town in the company of various ESU members. The first call was on the historic Meroney Theatre, built in 1906, where I was shown backstage by Reid, the director. On one wall, I noticed a portrait of the French actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Bernhardt had been an indefatigable theatrical traveller and self-promoter, notching up performances round the world and particularly in the USA. Such was her determination to tour that she became known as ‘the Muse of the Railroads’. On one journey, a bridge in Missouri was threatened by floods and the train driver refused to cross it. Eager to reach the next theatre, Sarah bribed him $500 to risk it. They managed to reach the far bank but as they did so, the bridge collapsed behind them. The rest of the cast were not amused.
Bernhardt had performed at the Meroney Theatre circa 1910; her special train had stopped at Salisbury and a large party held in her honour at the station. Reid told me that he had met an elderly resident who had attended it. Although the man had been aged only four at the time, it had been so special that he had remembered the event all his life.
My own favourite story about the actress was that after her leg famously had been amputated, an impresario had offered her $100,000 for permission to exhibit it. Sarah had sent a telegram in reply: ‘Which leg?’
The next stop was at the Old Rowan Courthouse, now in the process of being turned into a museum. Amidst the clutter of 19th century bonnets, stovepipe hats, and a complete covered Salem wagon, I noticed a small wooden park bench. Carved across its front was the word ‘COLORED’, a sharp reminder of the comparatively recent days of segregation.
The final destination was the site of the Civil War prison for Union troops. Intended as a stockade for prisoners-of-war, as a result of privation and disease it had turned into a charnel house. Almost 12,000 Northern soldiers died there and were buried in trenches nearby. The only prison structure now remaining was the former Confederate guardhouse. I was introduced to Clyde, its present day occupant.
There was a brooding mustiness about both the building and Clyde himself. It was almost as if he was still on duty – the last Confederate left guarding the dead. However this ghostly quality in no way inhibited his entrepreneurial skills – within five minutes he was trying to sell me a ‘Confederate knife and fork’. He claimed they were a genuine relic of – in his words – ‘the War of Northern Aggression’.
He did show me a rarity – one of the earliest of the Confederate battle flags, consisting of the familiar blue cross on red occupying one corner of an otherwise white background. This had to be abandoned as, when the cross was obscured for any reason, the resulting totally white emblem made it look like they were surrendering. When I insisted on taking a photo of this, Clyde reluctantly agreed to hold up the flag but only as long as his face did not appear in the picture. This was intriguing. Was the Civil War still such an inflammatory topic as to demand anonymity?
The last event of the day was an invitation to dinner at a smart Italian restaurant with a local benefactress called Mary and her friends. Mary was the heiress to an illustrious Carolina family. She was a direct descendent of Richard Henderson (1734-85), a merchant and judge who had financed Daniel Boone’s expedition to explore Kentucky, and who once had sacked the young (and future President) Andrew Jackson from his employ. She was also a stalwart of the Republican Party and over the lobster penne asked my opinion of Mrs Thatcher. Torn between politeness and honesty, I replied:
“She was the best Prime Minister the Republican Party ever had.”
Despite our political differences, I rather liked Mary. She told me about a previous Scottish ESU speaker who had visited Salisbury.
“From his letters, we thought that he would be a quiet, retiring gentleman. He turned out to be a huge man who looked like Billy Connolly, and went everywhere carrying a bottle of whisky. He’d had six wives and eleven children and was looking for more. Our husbands were out of town, and the two old ladies who were meant to be accommodating him, took one look and slammed the door.”
2001 April: Saturday
While driving me back west to Charlotte airport through the morning traffic, John explained the origin of NASCAR. It was all the direct result of the 1920 Prohibition laws. Bootlegging of liquor became a major industry of the Appalachians, and the bootleggers started to soup up their small fast cars in order to outrun the police. Even when Prohibition was repealed, a similar rivalry developed between the illegal ‘moonshiners’ and the government revenue men. This evolved into racing for fun, and finally became formalised into a recognised sport – hence NASCAR, the ‘National Association for Stock Car Racing’.
NJT and Mary at the Country Club, Salisbury.