Dick­ens fest ties present, past, fu­ture

Galve­ston’s Vic­to­rian rev­elry draws nov­el­ist’s fam­ily, con­ser­va­tion fo­cus

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Emily Burleson STAFF WRITER

Ol­lie Dick­ens’ first les­son in fam­ily his­tory came from the Mup­pets, don­ning Vic­to­rian dress, act­ing out his great-great­great-grand­fa­ther’s fa­mous novel: A Christ­mas Carol.

“We didn’t re­ally know Dick­ens was a real per­son,” he said.

Years later, Ol­lie Dick­ens, a Lon­don-based ac­tor, gave his own in­ter­pre­ta­tion of grumpy Ebenezer Scrooge’s trans­for­ma­tion into a gen­er­ous man dur­ing a per­for­mance Sat­ur­day at Dick­ens on the Strand, a Vic­to­rian fes­ti­val in Galve­ston’s his­toric district. Yards away, his cousins signed au­to­graphs and posed for pho­tos with dozens of fans.

The Galve­ston His­tor­i­cal Foun­da­tion started Dick­ens on the Strand 45 years ago as a way to draw in­ter­est to the then-aban­doned blocks that formed the 19th cen­tury busi­ness district. Tourism and his­toric preser­va­tion re­main the fes­ti­val’s ma­jor goals, with Charles Dick­ens per­son­i­fy­ing that spirit, but the Dick­en­sian as­pects of the fes­ti­val are a draw for some.

Over 100 peo­ple, among them Dianne Brazell, stayed for a full hour to watch Ol­lie Dick­ens’ read­ing of A Christ­mas Carol on Sat­ur­day af­ter­noon in the make-pre­tend “Trafal­gar Square.” Ac­ro­bat­ics, a Queen's pa­rade, and Vic­to­rian bed races were among the dozens of other shows.

Brazell, 61, got Ol­lie Dick­ens' au­to­graph af­ter his show, and she plans to frame it along­side a photo they took to­gether.

“This is the heart of the fes­ti­val,” the re­tired high school English teacher said. “It just le­git­imizes (the Dick­ens theme) and makes it spe­cial.”

The his­tor­i­cal foun­da­tion has been invit­ing Charles Dick­ens’ great-great-grand­chil­dren to its an­nual fes­ti­val for 43 years, when au­thor and art his­to­rian Lucinda Dick­ens Hawk­sley said her father first came to Galve­ston. Hawk­sley, who’s writ­ten sev­eral books about Charles Dick­ens and other 19th­cen­tury fig­ures, has been fly­ing down from Lon­don to cel­e­brate her fam­ily his­tory for at least 10 years.

Reg­u­lar fes­ti­val-go­ers have started to rec­og­nize Hawk­sley and her cousin, Jane Dick­ens Monk, who also at­tends ev­ery year. The his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety pays for their air­fare and lodg­ing, and they get to see dol­phins in De­cem­ber — a tra­di­tion for their Texas vis­its.

“It’s a char­ity that’s worth sup­port­ing,” Hawk­sley said. “Ar­chi­tec­ture and restora­tion are so im­por­tant, be­cause if you for­got all the old build­ings, you for­get the his­tory.”

In par­tic­u­lar, the pair were af­fected by the Bishop’s Palace, an or­nate Vic­to­rian man­sion. Like most of the is­land’s his­toric build­ings, the nearly 20,000square foot house was threat­ened by devel­op­ment be­fore the Galve­ston His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety pur­chased it in 2013.

“It would have been re­ally crim­i­nal if that had been knocked down,” Monk said.

Far away from their fam­ily’s home, Hawk­sley and her cousin, Jane Dick­ens Monk, of­ten are asked to sign old copies of Charles Dick­ens’ nov­els, and they find their own his­tory in the pages.

“One thing that’s re­ally lovely is you get peo­ple bring­ing back books that they have been bring­ing here — or their par­ents have been bring­ing here — for 45 years,” Hawk­sley said. “Ev­ery now and then, Jane will see one signed by her father, and I’ll see one signed by my father. Nei­ther of our fa­thers are still alive, so it’s re­ally mov­ing when you see that.”

The cousins, who at­tend mul­ti­ple Dick­ens fes­ti­vals each year, said Galve­sto­ni­ans are es­pe­cially keen to col­lect sig­na­tures. Some of the books they sign have seven or eight fam­ily mem­bers’ names al­ready within their pages.

That en­thu­si­asm isn’t lim­ited to col­lec­tors: Ol­lie Dick­ens was de­lighted by the en­ergy, cos­tumes, and the­atri­cal­ity of the fes­ti­val. He said he’d never seen any­thing like it at home.

“Amer­ica does fes­ti­vals bet­ter than ev­ery­one else, with all the love and the ex­u­ber­ance” com­pared to the more re­served — and cold — English fes­ti­vals, Ol­lie Dick­ens said. “It could be a Dick­ens novel, this fes­ti­val.”

And for many peo­ple, watch­ing or a read­ing Charles Dick­ens’ work also de­notes the start of the hol­i­day sea­son. Lisa New­ton, 54, said it’s al­ready a fam­ily tra­di­tion to watch the 1984 A

Christ­mas Carol movie. This year, they’ll also drink some­thing out of a newly pur­chased recipe book,

Drink­ing with Dick­ens , by de­scen­dant Cedric Dick­ens — Jane Dick­ens Monk’s father.

“It’s liv­ing his­tory, and it’s a con­nec­tion to Christ­mas and this time of year,” New­ton said. emi­lyr­[email protected]

Steve Gon­za­les / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Mem­bers of the King­wood Park High School Madri­gal singers take a lunch break from singing hol­i­day car­ols dur­ing the Galve­ston HIs­tor­i­cal Foun­da­tion’s Dick­ens on the Strand fes­ti­val. To­day is the last day of the fes­ti­val.

With fur­rowed brow, Joseph Gib­son, 7, kept his eyes on his brother, Peter, as they per­form.

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