David Coffee, a native of Arlington, Texas, was only 35 years old when he was tabbed by North Shore Music Theatre in 1992 to star in the fourth production of its adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol.”
The rest is holiday history. Coffee’s annual arrival has become a harbinger of the season, and he’ll be starring as Ebenezer Scrooge for the 20th time when the show starts performances Dec. 6.
In a recent interview, Coffee was asked how it feels to be associated for so long with a character whose name is synonymous with meanness, miserliness, and greed. “When people ask, I just say you didn’t read the end of the book,” said Coffee with a laugh. “You should remember him as he is at the end of the book.”
So just how did a character actor from Texas become a holiday fixture in the Northeast?
Jon Kimbell, who was North Shore’s artistic director when Coffee was hired in 1992, said he was well aware of the actor’s talents because the theater often collaborated with Casa Mañana, a Fort Worth, Texas, theater where Coffee frequently performed.
Kimbell, who is now retired, admired Coffee’s versatility. “Because we were performing so many shows for schools, we wanted the actor to be a comedian who could bring out the humor as well as the drama to the role,” said Kimbell, who crafted the musical adaptation that North Shore performs.
He knew Coffee had often played older as an actor, but had no idea he was only 35 at the time. As Scrooge, Coffee turned out to be older and wiser than his years. “He’s always anchored in the script, but he’s a born actor, completely brilliant in his choices,” Kimbell said. “His commitment to the role has never wavered, whether it’s Saturday at 8 p.m. or a 10 a.m. show for the kids.”
In all, Coffee has performed in 48 productions at North Shore Music Theatre, portraying lead characters in about half of them.
But there was no Scrooge or “A Christmas Carol” in 2008: In its place was “Disney’s High School Musical 2,” a decision that proved unpopular with ticket-buyers and added to the theater’s mounting financial problems. And when North Shore closed in 2009 after the nonprofit that operated it declared bankruptcy, Coffee took his Scrooge to the Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth, N.H.
It so happened that one of the people in the audience that year was Bill Hanney, who had just agreed to buy the North Shore Music Theatre and wanted to see the show. He was blown away, and sought out Coffee afterward to discuss the show’s return. “I would have been ridden out of town on a rail if I didn’t bring it back,” laughed Hanney. “I don’t know if I would have reopened the theater without it.”
Coffee said that when he stepped onto the Beverly stage in 2010 to play Scrooge for the first time there in three years, the moment gave him chills. “I had never heard a welcome such as the one I got that night,” he said. “Now I know what a rock star feels like.”
Another tradition was born a few years into Coffee’s run on a night when 200 or so theatergoers braved a huge snowstorm. After the show, he went around the audience shaking hands and wishing one and all a merry Christmas.
Since then, he takes a “victory lap” after each performance, circling the stage, shaking hands, and greeting old friends.
Coffee is single and lives in Texas, but he has stayed connected to the “Carol” family, especially the many young actors who have become like nephews, nieces, and grandchildren to him.
“Many of us stay in touch with Facebook,” he said. “And many of those kids I used to act with have brought their kids back to see me.”
Coffee is 56 now, but he said his approach to the role hasn’t changed all that much from the beginning. As for his future: “As long as I’m healthy enough and remember the lines and someone wants me, I’ll be doing it.”
That shouldn’t be a worry. Hanney is emphatic that Coffee and “Carol” remain a holiday tradition.
In the end, superior acting may not even be the most important ingredient when it comes to being a great Scrooge.
Longtime friend Joel Ferrell, who directed Coffee in “The Wizard of Oz” last summer, said “A Christmas Carol” is most successfully performed by actors who fundamentally believe in the redemption of the human spirit, and “in this jaded world, they’re hard to find.”
Coffee, he said, is just such a person, and the actor agrees.
“I’ve always believed in the play’s message about redemption,” Coffee said. “If you don’t believe it, there’s no reason for the piece to be around.”