At Founding Fathers, the storied watering hole on Edward Street not far from Buffalo's Theater District, the portraits of regal statesmen stare out at patrons from behind the bar.
Hidden among the imposing likenesses of George Washington and John Adams and sepia-tinted photographs of James Garfield, Grover Cleveland and Millard Fillmore, attentive bargoers will find the mutton-chopped, bespectacled visage of John Smeathers, whose scowling portrait somehow seems to fit right in with the political figures for whom the bar was named.
Smeathers, who has been playing Ebenezer Scrooge in the Alleyway Theatre's production of "A Christmas Carol" for the past 15 years, has become a part of the furniture in Buffalo. (The sold-out play is at the Alleyway through Dec. 16.) His yearly arrival is treated with nothing less than a presidential level of respect by his fellow theater artists, the regulars at Founding Fathers and the staff and patrons of the Towne Restaurant, where he eats breakfast every morning.
For the people Smeathers has met in and around Buffalo, his yearly arrival is a happy harbinger of the holiday season. But on Dec. 16, when the final performance of Alleyway's 30th annual production of "A Christmas Carol" gets under way, Smeathers will utter his last "Bah, humbug!" on a Buffalo stage. After a decade-and-a-half in the role of the grumpy London banker turned yuletide proselytizer, the 65-year-old actor has decided to call it quits.
On a quiet Monday afternoon at Founding Fathers, Smeathers – his unkempt white beard not yet trimmed back to mutton-chop formation – explained why his 15-year run of Scrooge is drawing to a close.
"All good things come to an end," he said. "I just thought, it's been a good run. I would hate to push it a year or two too much. I would rather quit while people have a happy memory of it and while I have a happy memory of it rather than just push something too far."
Smeathers' decision to wrap up his tenure as the quintessential Dickens character arrived out of a confluence of concerns. For one thing, after 15 years, there are only so many new things one can bring to a specific character. And Smeathers – who frequently acts and directs in his hometown of South Manchester – has his eyes on other creative pursuits back home. Secondly, since the actor has no green card and is now on a fixed retirement income, his yearly trips to Buffalo were essentially gifts to the Alleyway that would only become more expensive each year.
He says he'll miss his yearly routine in Buffalo, though he is hoping that Alleway founder Neal Radice or someone else on the Buffalo theater scene may at some point cast him in a role other than Scrooge.
"I feel extremely comfortable, extremely at home in Buffalo," he said. "I come in [to Founding Fathers] and I get a warm welcome the first time I walk in each year. I have breakfast at the Towne Restaurant. It's an amazing restaurant – it's the same staff, year after year after year. At home, restaurant staff turnover is huge. But there, it's the same set of people. I walk in there the first time, it's, ‘Knew you couldn't have been far away.' It's just such a very warm welcome. I really feel part of where I am."
Smeathers is the seventh Scrooge in the history of the Alleyway's production, but by far the longest-running. Radice, who met Smeathers in the late-'70s at a theater event in Westchester County and has remained close to him ever since, said he brought a special glimmer and sense of humor to the role. Though Dickens describes Scrooge as a man whom no warmth could warm and no wintry weather chill, Smeathers took a slightly warmer approach.
"There have to be little signs, little inklings that we suspect that maybe that [Scrooge] could be a good person. And John manages that so well," Radice said. "He doesn't overplay the obstinate, cranky, angry Scrooge. There's almost a little bit of a teasing sense of humor. And so even though the bite of Scrooge is there in John's performance, nevertheless, the transition is something that's very believable, that's very easy for the audience to accept. Because John himself is about the sweetest person I've ever met. He really is Scrooge when Christmas morning arrives. He's that guy."
For Smeathers, one of the things that keeps audiences coming back to the Alleyway's production – which sold out its entire run before it even opened this year because crowds heard that it would be Smeathers' swan song – is how little it changes from year to year.
"You can come back and see something that is unchanged ... There are not many things in life anymore that you can come back to and that nobody's kind of messed around with it," Smeathers said. "People spend half of their Christmases talking about previous Christmases. They reminisce. Half the enjoyment of Christmas is thinking about Christmases past. So I think ‘A Christmas Carol' at Alleyway really fulfills that."
But fans will have to adjust themselves to Smeathers' absence next year. And, Radice said, the inclusion of a new Scrooge won't be the only difference. Several cast members who have been in the production even longer than Smeathers may be calling it quits as well, and Radice may be updating the set – which has remained unchanged since 1990.
"There may be three or four of us who are going to wrap up this year because some of us have been doing it so long," Radice said. "This is sort of the end of one era, and maybe we'll start a new one."