2017-12-01 / Shorts

Not Your Average Scrooge

Retired professor performs 40th and final one-man show of A Christmas Carol
Samantha Lauriello

Tony Lentz grew up in Stony Point, North Carolina, a small town about an hour north of Charlotte with a population of no more than 1,400 people. Lentz says as a boy, he always had the sense there was a brilliant world out there, but he just hadn’t experienced it yet.

So when he arrived on campus as a freshman at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he took full advantage of the opportunities that were now at his fingertips. He went to the theater, concerts, exhibits and readings — the most memorable of which was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol read aloud at Christmastime by a popular professor on campus.

Lentz sat in an old reading lounge with fireplaces crackling at each end of the room as he listened to Professor Earl Wynn shout “Bah! Humbug!” “The next thing I knew I was seeing gentlemen with top hats on the snowy winter streets of London,” he says. For the next four years, Lentz returned for the same reading each winter, but what he didn’t realize was just how long he would carry this tradition with him.

Lentz, a former Penn State speech and literature professor who retired in 2010, began performing an annual one-man show of A Christmas Carol in 1978, making this year his 40th and final performance.

He brought the show to State College in 1980 and has performed at places such as The State Theatre, Schlow Centre Region Library and Kern Building. “The story reinforces the idea that, like Scrooge, we make choices every day about how we’re going to respond to things,” he says, “and if we choose to respond with kindness and generosity, we can make anything better.”

Lentz says he still has the paperback copy of A Christmas Carol that he took a pen to in 1978, crossing out things he wasn’t going to read and circling the most important scenes.

Over the years, supporting details of the show have changed, but the core has remained the same. “The magic of the story is when you begin to see Scrooge joining in games and laughing,” Lentz says. “You begin to see him as a human.” A Christmas Carol is the story of a man who had cut himself off from all human sympathy, Lentz says, but slowly starts to see beauty in the world and people around him.

Program cover for Lentz's first Penn State performance in 1980.Program cover for Lentz's first Penn State performance in 1980.

Lentz says all of Dickens’ prior Christmas tales, which he wrote for newspapers to earn extra money, have elements of A Christmas Carol, but in 1843, “all of the pieces fell together in a great dramatic symmetry to make this such an effective tale.”

Performing a one-man show hasn’t always been easy for Lentz. He says it’s impossible to tell what’s going to move each individual audience. Sometimes he strikes laughter with the raise of an eyebrow, but other times he really has to work for it. Lentz has left shows wondering why he continues to try so hard to put on this performance. But one December, when he left a show feeling down, Paul Harner of Harner Farm approached him.

“I just wanted to tell you I’ve been coming to see you every Christmas since you started and it really just makes my holiday,” Harner said. That moment reminded Lentz exactly why he continues to put on the show. “I always thought, ‘Gee, I wonder if I’ll make it to 40 years,’” he says. “That seems like a good place to hang up the hat.”

To build up the energy needed to perform a one-man show, Lentz typically works up to jogging at least 5 miles, something he doesn’t see himself doing after he turns 70.

“The story has been a blessing to me,” Lentz says. “Life can be joyous in any situation if we choose to make it so, and this has reminded me of that every Christmas.”

Lentz performed the first of his two final shows in November; the last show will take place on Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. in The Attic at The State Theatre.

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