Sometimes things that are too weird to be true actually happen, and when they do it can throw off your sense of what's possible. So after Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, it didn't seem out of the question that F. Murray Abraham, Timothy Hutton, James Garner, Stockard Channing, Wayne Knight, and George Wendt would all be coming to town in a touring production of A Christmas Carol, set for an eight-performance stand December 22-27 at the Civic Opera House. Or that the tickets would be selling for near-bargain rates. Or that the impresario responsible for this star-studded holiday extravaganza—adaptor, director, and producer Kevin Von Feldt—would be putting it all together from his base in tiny Rice Lake, Wisconsin, about 100 miles northeast of Saint Paul.
But by the day after the initial announcement on October 13, Channing and Hutton had vanished from the cast. Their manager told the Sun-Times's Mary Houlihan they'd been offered parts "but the finances never came through." Von Feldt, who claimed he'd been given authority to use their names, issued a new press release that said their parts would be played by "actors to be announced," and on October 16, Ticketmaster and the Lyric Opera box office began selling tickets priced from $17.50 to $67.50, with 50 percent discounts for kids. A posting attributed to Von Feldt on the Saint Paul Pioneer Press Web site said business was brisk, with 3,000 tickets moving in the first four hours. (No one at Lyric Opera returned calls for this story.)
Late last week, though, things were still unsettled. Although the tour was supposed to start in Philadelphia November 24, with subsequent stops in Boston, Baltimore, and Minneapolis before the Chicago run, there was no evidence that venues had been booked or tickets offered in Philly or Boston. Michael Szczepkowski, vice president and general manager of Boston's Citi Performing Arts Center, said Monday that "discussions are ongoing, but nothing's confirmed."
As of press time, the Minneapolis run had been canceled. Tickets were still being sold for Baltimore and Chicago, but it wasn't clear who's still with the show. Jeff Hunter at the William Morris Agency, which manages Abraham, declined to comment when asked if Abraham would be coming to Chicago, and Garner's manager, Bill Robinson, said he couldn't answer that question "right now." Representatives of Knight and Wendt didn't return calls. Actors' Equity spokesperson Maria Somma said Von Feldt hadn't put up the bond that's required before contracts can be approved and rehearsals can start. In fact, she noted, he hadn't given the union the information necessary to calculate how much the bond (which covers actors' salaries and benefits) should be.
Meanwhile, the ghosts of Von Feldt's Christmas Carols past have started emerging from a number of reports—including a blog post by Kris Vire of Time Out Chicago—along with the rest of his colorful history.
Von Feldt's relationship with the Dickens classic goes back to the 1980s, when he penned an adaptation of it while cooling his heels in a Los Angeles County jail cell (more about that later). That script became the basis for an ill-fated production he mounted last year at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, best known as the home of the Oscars. The show sold only 18 percent of the house, reportedly lost $500,000, and still owes money to people who worked on it. On the other hand, it elicited some lively opening-night reviews.
Two stars the audience expected to see in live performance were missing. Gene Wilder—who, it turned out, was only slated to appear as a hologram—didn't show up in any form, and a flyer in the program announced that Jane Seymour had come down with a bronchial infection. But the show went on, with dropped and bungled lines, as well as tech problems including wayward scenery, ill-timed curtain risings and fallings, erratic offstage narration, and stagehands unintentionally front and center. It reminded more than one reviewer of Noises Off. Reporting on his News From Me blog, Mark Evanier called it "a live bloopers show" that finally had even the actors laughing. In the end, he wrote, Christopher Lloyd—who played Scrooge—and the rest of the cast "got a tremendous standing ovation for sheer persistence and courage under fire."
Von Feldt didn't return calls for this story, but he has responded to comments about the Kodak Carol on various Web sites, saying that they'd had just five days of rehearsal and three hours at the theater to put up a show involving 32 scene changes and 23 actors, and that subsequent performances were much improved.
But that was only the latest in a series of Von Feldt Christmas Carols. He opened a version in Pasadena in 1994, advertising John Gielgud as narrator, apparently without making it clear that he was represented only by a recording. That show—which left people who worked on it and suppliers partially unpaid—provided Von Feldt with costumes and sets that he's still using.
Before that, according to the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Von Feldt received two fines totaling $175,000 for false advertising in Ramsey County in the 1970s and 1980s. And in 1987 he got a one-year jail sentence in LA for, as the Los Angeles Times put it, "establishing an airline that didn't fly and a movie promotion with no films." Von Feldt advertised and sold tickets for a Hawaiian Pacific Airlines though he owned no planes and had obtained no permits, the Times reported. He also promised jobs to would-be pilots and stewards while charging them for training. While under investigation for that, he launched a multistate television ad campaign, selling a $39.95 packet of tickets to a film series featuring classics like The Wizard of Oz and The Blob, without having secured rights to the films or agreements with the theaters that would supposedly screen them. In all, LA deputy city attorney Katharine MacKenzie told the Times, he apparently bilked victims out of $300,000-$500,000. "This is the first time he's ever gotten jail time," she said, "and I'm hoping it will finally make him stop."
In 2002 he put together his biggest plan ever: a $3 billion proposal to develop two professional sports stadiums and an entertainment district anchored by a casino in the Saint Paul suburb of Eagan. The proposal was rejected and the scenario ended with Von Feldt threatening to sue Eagan for unspecified "damages" and Eagan city attorney Michael Dougherty notifying Von Feldt that the mayor and city council members "wish to have no further direct or indirect contact" with him.
Von Feldt told the LA Times last January that he thought the only way to pay off the bills from the Kodak run would be to stage the show again in 2009, "somewhere outside Los Angeles," taking advantage of the fact that he already has "the set built and the costumes." (Bryan Ryman, who designed the sets in '94 and says he's never been paid for them, was surprised to learn that he's listed as design consultant for this year's show. "I've not been contracted yet," Ryman said Monday. "I would do the show if all my monies and expenses are in escrow, but so far that hasn't happened.")
Von Feldt also told the Times that he was socking away funds left over from the Kodak production in a Wisconsin bank for the purpose of remounting the show—which, he told the Pioneer Press, is capitalized at $1.5 million, with "big names in the cast" getting paid in part "based on the percentage of attendance." But anyone who signed on with that agreement is likely to be rethinking it: as the tour dwindles, so will the gate.