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article image'Mad Sal' is the gal to see at the annual Dickens Christmas Fair Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Nov 4, 2016 in Entertainment
San Francisco - As our nation ponders the possibility of a woman president in this upcoming November election, it is important to note how far women have advanced over a century’s time.
Women taking care of business and being their own boss is routine these days. But over a century ago, this was an exception, especially in Victorian England. Still, even with social restrictions and an insane caste system, there were some women who did well. Among them would be ‘Mad Sal’ of Mad Sal's Dockside Alehouse at the annual Great Dickens Christmas Fair at the Cow Palace beginning on November 19.
While there is no actual character named ‘Mad Sal’ in any of Charles Dickens' stories the probability of someone who fits her type of character would certainly have been in Dickens' time.
Executive Director of the Dickens Fair, Kevin Patterson took a moment to explain how Mad Sal came into being. "The character of Mad Sal was created by my father, Ron Patterson. Ron as co-founder of the Dickens Fair was an amazing art director as well as impresario. He and my mother Phyllis Patterson did a lot of work to make the experience of a Dickens type of Christmas come to life. It is very much like a living Victorian Christmas card. And in researching Victorian London, my father found a drawing of a female innkeeper with serious attitude."
Patterson’s father and lead actress and improvisational diva at the time, Judy Kory used the vintage lithograph to create the character of 'Mad Sal.' “In keeping with the art form of environmental theatre unique to the Dickens Fair, Judy evolved the character over the next five years," said Patterson. He noted that a total of six actresses have portrayed Mad Sal over the 34 seasons of the Dickens Fair. Currently, actress Laura Gregory portrays 'Mad Sal' and has done so since 2014.
Seen here is actress Laura Gregory with cast. She has been portraying Mad Sal since 2014.  Mad Sal s...
Seen here is actress Laura Gregory with cast. She has been portraying Mad Sal since 2014. "Mad Sal's' Dockside Alehouse show has all new material for this holiday season of the Great Dickens Christmas Fair which opens on Nov. 19 and continues until Dec. 18, 2016
MarkEYE, courtesy of Dickens Christmas Fair and Red Barn Productions
Curious to know the secret to Mad Sal's longevity, this reporter asked the show’s director Sandey Grinn, what is this New Show of Sal’s that everyone’s talking about? What is the basis of the show? Is it based upon actual show formats of Dickens’ time or an approximation there of?
"Among the many popular shows to have appeared on Sal’s stage over the years," said Grinn, "is perhaps the Music Hall.” He explained further. “The Music Hall is a type of British theatrical entertainment that first became popular in the early Victorian era circa 1850. It involved a mixture of popular songs, comedy and variety entertainment.
"And this year for the 2016 season, The All-New Mad Sal’s Dockside Alehouse Music Hall Review is featuring Le Can Can Bijou. The show with its new songs — including two never before heard anywhere — has a completely new cast. Comedic characters, singers, dancers and a bit of acrobatics, all performed by enthusiastic and talented performers – not to mention a surprisingly touching 'through line'. We believe it promises to be even better than ever”
Grinn took a moment to describe the scene as he and all the cast and crew work very hard to create an authentic 19th Century atmosphere. “Visitors to The Dockside Alehouse at the Dickens Fair will see that it is the best, most popular bar in all of Dickens' London. We have painstakingly transformed a portion of the Cow Palace into that setting. It has been fully recreated by the Dickens Fair and Red Barn Productions, thanks to a dedicated cast and crew.”
In keeping with the spirit of the famous author on which the entire annual holiday fair is based, Grinn said. "As it is in many of Dickens' stories a popular spot like The Dockside Alehouse happens to be located in the worst, most dangerous part of London. And maybe that," he said, "is part of the charm.”
Grinn pointed out that in a typical Dicken’s story, a place like Sal's is the go-to place for drinking, singing and merriment — much like the Oom-pah-pah scene in the movie musical ‘Oliver’. But not too far off in its shadows, dark things continue to occur.
Women in Victorian England of more than a century ago did not have any of the freedoms women today have. Business and finance was considered for men only. While Dickens detailed the frightening gap between the lower and upper classes during the Industrial Revolution, he tended to highlight women as “angels of the house” and domestic sphere. Men were the ones who took control of finances and were the only ones to inherit land and property. Prospects for women outside the domestic sphere of marriage and family were none. This is a theme played out in yet another 19th Century author’s stories, that of Jane Austin.
Women were very vulnerable to poverty and those in the working classes were often faced with it on a regular if not daily basis.
The fact that a woman like Mad Sal, who was her own proprietor, might have existed is telling of the strength and determination of the human spirit, amid harsh conditions and oppressive social caste systems. "While Victorian actors might sometimes achieve fame, their profession was not really considered respectable," says Prof. Diana Archibald, PhD. She is Associate Chair of English at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, Massachusetts. She is also part of the Dickens Society there and has written a book, entitled, "Dickens and Massachusetts: The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015). She graciously commented on the predicament of people in Victorian England. Life on the stage was barely above prostitution and if a woman was an actress, in Victorian society she was often considered as such.
The idea for  Mad Sal  came from an actual lithograph sketch of the Victorian era which co-founder K...
The idea for 'Mad Sal' came from an actual lithograph sketch of the Victorian era which co-founder Kevin Patterson had stumbled upon. Laura Gregory (seen here) is one of many actress to portray the fictional 'Mad Sal.' The Dockside Alehouse show has been a fixture at the annual Christmas fair for over 34 years.
markEYE, courtesy of Dickens Christmas Fair and Red Barn Productions
Yet, as Archibald noted, that began to change in the 19th Century, with the likes of Mark Twain and Dickens. The emergence of 'celebrity' was taking shape. Public speaking tours were very popular. Along with Twain, Dickens was reaching a pinnacle as he traveled extensively. "America changed him. He began to see that his role as a pop culture hero came with great responsibility. It is no coincidence," said Archibald, "that the year after he returned home, he published his iconic book, A Christmas Carol (December 1843), a tale of radical transformation and social responsibility."
Even with this shift in awareness on the part of the great writers of the 19th Century, like Dickens, Austen and Twain, it would take another 70 years for women to achieve the right to vote in the United States and another 50 years to have the U.S. constitutional right to make their own decision to procreate or not.
To have a character like 'Mad Sal' amid the expanded cast of Dickens characters at the Fair gives witness to the social changes brewing in the 19th Century.
"Sal (within the alehouse setting) is by far the loudest," said Grinn. "She is the most colorful, most interesting, not to mention powerful and important person in the best, most popular bar in all of London."
The annual Great Dickens Christmas Fair starts Nov 19 and continues for five consecutive weekends; and that includes the Friday after Thanksgiving. The fair ends on Dec. 18. Tickets are now on sale. Visit the Dickens Christmas Fair web site for more details.
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