Jim Greene, 68, of Dryden, has played a lead role for more than 20 years
By David Figura
The popular Dickens Christmas in Skaneateles is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
An individual who has had a huge influence on the current theme and format is the event’s producer, Jim Greene.
Greene, 68, of Dryden, has played a lead role for more than 20 years. He dresses up and plays the part of Charles Dickens and just loves the fact that the event is such “an organic, largely improv event. The fun part is you never know what’s going to happen. The whole thing is just joyful.”
Dickens Christmas in Skaneateles began this year on Nov. 24 and is slated to continue weekends through Dec. 24. The event, which each year draws an estimated 20,000 visitors to this small, Finger Lakes village, takes place mainly downtown. It is free to attend.
Greene said he wasn’t around when the event started in 1993. The credit for coming up with the idea goes to the late Karen Fultz, a village storeowner.
“She had been a retailer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She and her husband moved here and opened Pomodoro, a successful gift shop in downtown Skaneateles,” Greene said. “She soon observed winter was dead here (from a storeowner’s perspective) and that everyone was going to the malls to shop. Something needed to be done.”
Fultz suggested Skaneateles start a Dickens Christmas event, similar to one that she knew that had been a success in Minneapolis. She teamed up with Sue Dove, the executive director of the Skaneateles Area Chamber of Commerce at the time. Dove succeeded in getting the stores, the Merchants Association and the Skaneateles Foundation on board to financially support it.
The event started small and went on for seven years with the premise of a downtown scene that recreated London in the early 1840s, which was the time Dickens wrote his famous story, “A Christmas Carol.”
Greene, 68, born on Long Island and raised in Florida, is a seasoned actor-producer with 40 years of interactive theater experience, traveling around the country doing character and improv performances at Renaissance fairs, coupled with 15 years as a performer at Disney World. He and his wife, Tracey, and their three children, moved to Upstate New York in 1999.
He started off working at the Renaissance Fair in Sterling and found out about the Dickens Christmas in Skaneateles from a friend. He worked at the 1999 Dickens Christmas event as a character — Emerson Wales, the rat catcher. It was a character that he performed for several decades at other Renaissance fairs.
He was approached afterward by Fultz and Dove at a cast party and offered the job as artistic director to move things “to the next level” the following year.
First thing Greene remembers telling Dove and Fultz following their offer was that they “needed to write a bigger check” for the event. He said his plan was to “populate” the festival with a few pros “who could do a better job than the 35 people who didn’t know what they were doing.”
“I wasn’t being critical of the people who were doing it then. They were all lovely people doing their best,” he said. “It’s just that I had been doing this kind of thing for years with the Renaissance festivals and at Disney.”
Greene succeeded in getting the event’s budget doubled and bringing on a few pros he knew to work with the event’s expansive group of amateur actors and volunteers, both young and old, who today receive token payments for their efforts. Among those Greene hired was Maria DeMitchell, of Marcellus, who had extensive Renaissance fair experience as the fair’s queen and for years had trained many of the fair’s actors in interactive theater techniques.
DeMitchell, who has been involved with Dickens for more than 20 years, currently serves as its artistic director. She oversees the auditions, held in mid-October each year. She runs the rehearsals for the cast and sets the tone of the whole performance for guests and performers. She also plays the role of Queen Victoria for Dickens.
“Jim is a great partner in this experience,” DeMitchell said. “His skill, his humor, the way he interacts with guests. He’s just been a real gem for the Dickens Christmas in Skaneateles.”
Greene also came up with a change to the initial premise behind the event.
“I found out Dickens was in Syracuse in 1842, the year before he wrote ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Skaneateles was here at that time. So, I came up with the premise that the event should be that Dickens visits Skaneateles, meets Ebenezer Scrooge and all the other characters and decides to write the story,” he said. “We added Queen Victoria (who never visited this country) and a few other characters to the mix. Bottom line, we’re actors, entertainers — not historians.”
Asked if there were any funny experiences that stand out during his time with Dickens, Green laughed and said there were many.
“There’s one woman who for years and years has taken a picture of Dickens (me) and her small dog and used it for her Christmas card,” he said.
“And one year, we didn’t have a Tiny Tim. So, I arranged beforehand with a father to have his 4 ½-year-old son come up one day on the gazebo during our 2 p.m. revels (sing-along) to pronounce Tiny Tim’s famous line: ‘God bless us, every one.’
Well, the boy got up on the gazebo, looked at me and said, ‘The geese are on the lake.’ Everyone laughed. I followed with, ‘Yes, the geese are on the lake and God bless them, every one.’”
Today, Dickens Christmas in Skaneateles is made possible with support from Howard Hanna Real Estate and Skaneateles area businesses.
Business owners in downtown Skaneateles are able to stay open during the winter thanks to the income generated during Dickens Christmas, according to Hilary Fenner, executive director of the Skaneateles Area Chamber of Commerce.
“It allows Skaneateles to be a four-season destination,” she said.
“We’ve become a Christmas tradition for many people near and far,” Greene said. “All I know is that many people leave with a warm feeling and a smile on their faces. And when that happens, I know that I and the rest of the Dickens cast have done our jobs.”
More on Dickens Christmas in Skaneateles
Dickens Christmas in Skaneateles features free roasted chestnuts and eggnog. It began this year the day after Thanksgiving and runs from noon to 4 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday through Christmas Eve. There is a limited show Christmas Eve from noon to 2:30 p.m.
Some 50 characters from “A Christmas Carol” and others from that time period dress up, stroll the downtown, interact with visitors, perform street theater and sing Christmas carols. Special “trunk” acting performances with the help of those attending are scheduled daily at 12:30 at the gazebo and 3 p.m. at the library. There’s also a popular sing-along, called the mid day revels, set for 2 p.m. each day at the gazebo.
The cast of characters includes Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Crachit, Tiny Tim, Fezziwig, the Ghost of Jacob Marley, Father Christmas, a winter fairy, chimney sweepers, pickpockets and other villagers. Add to that, Queen Victoria and members of her entourage, along with American author Washington Irving, who reportedly was good friends with Dickens.
Horse-drawn carriage rides, for years a popular feature, were for various reasons only offered this year during the opening weekend.
Special Dickens-related events this year include Fezziwig’s Ball from 5 to 7 p.m. Dec. 10 at the Sinclair, 4357 Jordan Road, featuring English country dancing by the Syracuse Country Dancers. Cost to attend is $20. Contact the Skaneateles Chamber for tickets.
Also,“A Christmas Story” radio show beginning at 7 p.m. Dec. 16 at Auburn Public Theater. Cost is $15 for adults, $12 for children younger than 12. Contact the chamber or APT for tickets.
For a complete schedule of all Dickens events, go to Skaneateles.com and click on “Dickens Christmas.”