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Getting a Taste of Bagel and 'Bah, Humbug'

December 23, 1998|Steve Chawkins

When better than the eve of the eve of Christmas Eve to have breakfast with Ebenezer Scrooge?

I met with the squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner at a downtown Ventura restaurant, where I expected to hear him bark for his customary bowl of gruel. Instead, he ordered a toasted onion bagel with cream cheese and a cup of coffee, black.

Naturally, I bade him a Merry Christmas and braced for his customary assault: "If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!"

Instead, Scrooge clasped my hand and said, "Well, Merry Christmas to you, too!"

Well, humbug. If that is how Robert "Doc" Reynolds wanted to play it, I guessed I'd just have to go along. Reynolds is Ventura County's longest-lived and most famous Scrooge. At 78, he has performed in "Christmas Carol" productions beyond counting, including one in Latin. For the ninth year, he will portray the tyrannical tightwad in a Christmas Eve production at 6 p.m. on KBBY-FM (95.1) radio.

In years past, the cast has included local political figures, but not this year.

"I suppose they're too busy being political," said Reynolds, a man as given to quiet wryness as Scrooge was not.

Even so, when it comes to Scrooge, Doc knows his stuff--so who was I to suggest he might wish to spit out his coffee and declare it more vile than the equally overpriced embalming fluid that was pumped into poor Marley? And that waitress: Caring as she seemed, was she not simply craving whatever miserable pittance we might in a moment of softheadedness deposit on her germ-laden table? Surely, Scrooge had observed all this and would not leave it to an amateur like me to prod him into the requisite churlishness.

Yet here he was, sipping coffee and nonchalantly mentioning the war wound that caused the severe arthritis that hunches him over and keeps him from moving his neck.

"Doesn't slow me down too much," he said.

Reynolds' long career began six decades ago, when, as a young man in the Midwest, he mastered the art of singing "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" in 16 dialects--Norwegian, Irish, Brooklyn, French, Southern U.S., Chinese, and on and on. Softly, he demonstrated.

"Foolishness!" the Scrooge I know would have shouted. "Twaddle!"

Then again, Scrooge never wanted to tread the boards. A force as uncompromising as the Ghost of Christmas Past impelled Reynolds from the Minnesota backwoods to acting school, to a brief stint in Hollywood, and then on to hundreds of Ventura County productions from Shakespeare to Simon.

Along the way, he picked up a PhD in speech and drama--hence "Doc." He taught for 15 years at the community colleges in Moorpark and Oxnard, and became so expert at 50 to 60 dialects that he routinely trains other actors. He admits that his hold on Pakistani is tenuous.

At the cafe, he explained the difference between the drawl of north Florida and the lilt of southern Georgia, how certain Minnesotans call milk "melk," how Finnish is a world apart from other Scandinavian tongues. He talked about helping people embarrassed by their speech patterns, such as the priest from East L.A. whose parishioners constantly asked just where in Mexico he was from. Then there was the girl from Oklahoma who was conquering her twang until she suddenly withdrew from Reynolds' class. "My parents say I'm beginning to talk funny," she explained.

The Scrooge I know would not have bothered with such a wretched specimen any more than he would have played Foosball with Tiny Tim.

"It's enough for a man to understand his own business and not to interfere with other people's," he would have grumbled. "Mine occupies me constantly."

Yet Reynolds clearly relished it, just as he relishes working with preschoolers, performing at rest homes and giving readings to, of all people, the homeless.

The homeless! Scrooge would have broken into full-throttle humbug at that, for he had his own ideas about the poor.

"If they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease this surplus population," he opined.

So why has a nice guy like Doc Reynolds bothered for so long with this hateful husk of a Scrooge?

"Because it's a wonderful story," he said. "I love it. I've come to realize that Scrooge is a great person, because he's so able to change."

But isn't sudden redemption just a lot of candy-cane Christmas sentiment?

No, no, not at all, insisted Doc Reynolds, who knows how to keep Christmas well.

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