Spotlight: Remembering Charles Dickens on his 200th birthday
It was 1868 and world famous writer Charles Dickens was coming to Buffalo! The much read and loved author was scheduled for two evenings at St. James Hall, located where One M&T Plaza now stands. Local newspapers were filled with stories that stirred anticipation, and Western New Yorkers were warned to be on their best behavior. The Buffalo Commercial Advertiser cautioned audiences to be seated ten minutes before show time and added: “We earnestly hope that those individuals who have a weakness for parading about the hall and showing themselves to the audience after an entertainment has commenced will refrain from doing so tonight and tomorrow night.”
Dickens’s American Reading Tour in 1867–68 was a bigger happening than almost anything we can imagine today. People cheerfully waited for hours, sometimes overnight (bringing blankets and mattresses and camping out, as music and sports fans often did before the advent of online ticket sales) in the hopes of getting a coveted ticket. At around $2, it was a high-priced seat, but scalpers could get upwards of $25 to $50. Before the show, audiences shared their stories, buzzing about how they obtained tickets and how much they paid.
Naturally, many people were shut out of the big event. No matter how many seats could be squeezed into those nineteenth century halls (sometimes 3,000 plus), there were never enough for all who wanted to see Charles Dickens’s “readings.”
In truth, the readings weren’t readings at all. They were, by all accounts, theatrical performances that had Dickens reciting from memory and bringing his dozens of familiar characters to life on stage. The Buffalo Morning Express finished off its review with: “No range of character seems to be beyond his reach, and the changes from boy to man, from stage driver to judge, from man to woman are almost as marvelous in their rapidity as their completeness.”
It should be noted that Dickens had nearly become a professional actor and that even after he chose to pursue writing instead, he continued to produce and perform in amateur plays. His actor friends claimed repeatedly that Dickens could easily have had a successful career in theater. The Dickens readings, therefore, were an entertaining tour de force, a blending of author and actor, which created wonderful magic on stage.
But Dickens almost didn’t make it onto the St. James stage. The night before the first reading, Dickens and his tour manager, George Dolby, were dining at a local eatery when they were interrupted by the sheriff, who announced that unless certain local taxes were paid, the doors to St. James Hall would be barred and the readings would not take place.
The always-prepared and protective Dolby quickly presented a legal document that proved that Dickens was exempt from local taxes. The situation was smoothed over when the tour manager offered the sheriff free tickets, which he later surmised is really all the officer wanted in the first place.
Audiences and critics loved Dickens no matter where he appeared, and Buffalo was no exception. The Buffalo Daily Courier effused: “To the readers of Dickens, the treat of last night was a golden one, for what an exhilaration did they not enjoy in the contact into which they were brought with the man who, above all others had contributed to their enjoyment. Certainly they will remember the entertainment of last night as one of the most delightful of their lives.”
By 1868, Buffalo had grown to be the country’s eleventh largest city and boasted 100,000 people and several daily newspapers. But it wasn’t so much Buffalo that Mr. Dickens was interested in as much as it was the Seventh Wonder of the World in Buffalo’s backyard. Visiting Buffalo afforded Dickens a respite at Niagara Falls!
After his two nights in the Queen City, Dickens satisfied several more engagements before extreme weather and persistent health issues forced him to cancel points west, including Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. Nonetheless, the tour put about $100,000 in Dickens’ pocket, and Western New Yorkers were a part of what we might now call a pop star phenomenon—the era’s greatest author, brilliant live performer, and icon in his own time performing live in their city.
Mike Randall recreates Dickens’s Buffalo performance every year. Visit charlesdickenslive.com for a schedule.