When the Salem Trolley launched its seasonal performances of “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens, in 1986, actor and then-tour guide Erik Rodenhiser recalls that it was slow to catch on.
“We started out doing it on a weekend. We only had eight or 10 people on a trolley, and we had to cancel another show. The same guy played all three spirits, and when the audience listened in on the Cratchit family, they heard a recording of me and my mom reading from a script and clinking plates,” recalled Rodenhiser, a Salem resident who now performs as Ebenezer Scrooge a handful of times each year while producing the show.
“We kept adding actors, and it grew into a viable, wonderful show that has continued to get bigger and better,” he said. “I don’t know if Dickens would approve of some of the twists, but it’s touching and it’s silly. I love that it’s an annual tradition for so many families, and yet it’s still brand new for so many others.”
Now in its 33rd season, “A Christmas Carol,” presented by Salem Trolley and Gallows Hill Theatre, is billed on the website as a “humorous and whimsical, interactive performance” that brings the classic tale to life in a “completely unexpected way.”
The performance that couldn’t fill a 36-passenger trolley during its inaugural season now often sells out. This year, seats went on sale for $30 on Monday, Sept. 9, for 96 performances taking place from Saturday, Nov. 30, through Monday, Dec. 23.
Passengers board at Salemdipity, located at 86 Wharf St., for a one-hour, 20-minute performance inside a heated trolley. While Rodenhiser, Mark Scalia, and Frank Hildebrand vary their respective portrayals of Scrooge, Rodenhiser said he engages the audience early and often. After asking for a show of hands to indicate who is a returning guest, for example, he scolds, “You idiots!”
There is also plenty of dancing, singing, and all-in-good-fun comments, such as those directed toward the biggest man in the group, who is inevitably pegged as Tiny Tim. The trolley progresses along with the plot, making three stops for Scrooge’s encounters with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come: at Gallows Hill Museum Theatre, Loft Museum, and the Witch Trials Memorial, respectively.
“It’s an amazingly fun journey, with a lot of room for improv,” said Rodenhiser, noting how numerous riders wear ugly Christmas sweaters and other over-the-top holiday ornamentation to goad Scrooge into directing a special “humbug” their way. While audience participation is encouraged to make each show unique, standard performance rules apply: Food and drink is not allowed, and intoxicated guests will be turned away.
Or, in one case, driven back. In fact, those performance rules were enacted after a company rented a trolley for its holiday office party early on and boarded with a keg of beer, an employee dressed as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and others who smoked cigars, grabbed the microphone from Scrooge, and vomited.
But the only group that has been jokingly banned from renting a trolley altogether is Rodenhiser’s own extended family.
“They had seen the show so many times that they became the worst audience,” he said, laughing at the memory. “They talked the entire time, and my uncle had to get his jokes in. I finally said I don’t think this is working out. Now my uncle rents the trolley for his church group, which is so much better.”
Having performed more than 1,000 shows as Scrooge, Rodenhiser has delighted in watching children enjoy the show season after season — including his own two sons, 16-year-old Griffen and 13-year-old Phoenix.
“They grew up watching their dad play Scrooge,” Rodenhiser said, “and maybe someday I’ll get to watch one of them.”
For more information about “A Christmas Carol” aboard the Salem Trolley, call 978-744-5469 or visit salemtrolley.com/special-tours-6.html.
Cindy Cantrell can be reached at email@example.com.