Bellefont, Pennsylvani 1682
And can it be that in a world so full and busy the loss of one creature makes a void so wide and deep that nothing but the width and depth of eternity can fill it up
- Charles Dickens
This year, the whole thing will be different.
Not worse, mind you. Not even close. But...just...not the same.
I didn't know Dave Donovan, but I can still tell that this year will be something different. It doesn't take much. You can sense it in the words spoken by his friends. You can almost feel it in the way they tell their tales, remember their brother and friend.
Dave Donovan, you see, was this monumental part of Bellefonte Victorian Christmas over the past decade. He was, as Victorian Christmas co-chairwoman often refers to him even now, "Our Dickens." Which is a fine title, really, because that's exactly who he was. For the last decade, Dave Donovan WAS Charles Dickens, they tell me, It's as simple as that. He reveled in his role playing the English author of 'A Christmas Carol', the star role of the entire Victorian Christmas weekend, year in and year out.
Then this past July, Dave was gone. Just like that. Unexpectedly. Unfair. Uncalled for. And unreal.
Leaving behind a wife and daughter at their home in Lancaster County, a family that loved him dearly, Dave, who was 56 years old, also left behind an extended family here too. In Bellefonte. And as is sometimes the case when we lose certain people, the hole is vast; the void appears to just go on and on and on.
But in many ways that is precisely the way that Dickens himself was talked about when he passed away so many moons ago. He inspired and excited legions of people who were lucky enough to discover his writing. The man's talents were 'inimitable' they often said of Dickens. And to hear Dave Donovan's Victorian Christmas friends talk about him is to hear many of the same things said about him as folks said- and still say to this day- about Mr. Dickens.
Those fortunate enough to have witnessed Dave out on the wintery streets of Bellefonte, or in one of the many performances he gave here each year, they remember him vividly. With a passion for acting and a love of the stage, he commanded the scene, even if that scene was out in the middle of a blustery High Street sidewalk at 11 in the morning.
It isn't easy to describe some people in words.
You probably lost someone like that in your life too at some point, huh?
You probably know what I'm saying even if I can't quite say it.
They will pay homage, of course. His face will scamper across their minds even when they least expect it. They will hear his voice at times, probably. They will remember him standing just over there, smiling, bringing the past alive in Technicolor for kids and old people and young lovers holding hands and even the parking meter guy who'd stopped to watch a scene unfold.
They will honor him the best they can.
"This season will absolutely be a tribute to him and dedicated in his memory," Brian Belge tells me. And he ought to know. Belge is the experienced producer and director of the Victorian Christmas Troupe, the group of historically-committed actors and actresses who strive to make the 19th century come alive And Dave was his long-time friend. They co-produced Victorian Christmas together. The loss has touched him deeply.
"Dave and I met in 1979 when we were both studying theater at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York," explains Belge. "We have worked on hundreds of professional theatrical projects together since then, as well as being the best of friends. We have been playing Dickens and Scrooge together nearly every year since 1987, when he and I helped produce the original Dickens of a Christmas at Mount Hope mansion in Manheim Pennsylvania. He has brought Charles Dickens to life in schools, libraries, churches, private parties and communities throughout the Northeast."
That legacy of bringing Dickens' work to life ultimately led both Donovan and Belge here to Bellefonte together nine years ago. The rest, as they say, is history. History rising up to appear real again. The troupe allowed people walking the streets during the celebration to experience a bygone era in ways that are only possible when you can actually see the sparkle in the eye of someone you've just come across on the street, someone from long ago. Like a ghost, you know?
Like the Ghost of Christmas Past.
"Dave loved Christmas and being in service to his fellow human being," Belge reflects. "He channeled those two loves through his incredible talent and brought joy to thousands. It's really as simple as that."
It's a funny thing in life. Some people are leery of outsiders. It doesn't matter where you go, big city, country town, there will be folks who look at you and don't feel comfortable because you're not one of them. Your lack of 'localness' ends up putting you on the spot at times like that. And as a stranger in a potentially strange land, you find yourself faced with one of two choices.
You can retreat. Take off. Leave at dawn and ride away to the next town, hoping against hope that you'll find greener pastures somewhere else.
Or you can try and win them over.
The first choice is easier; the second takes guts. Dave Donovan was not a Bellefonte native, and neither were some of the others who ended up forming the much beloved Victorian Christmas Troupe as it stands today. But that didn't stop them. That didn't stop Dave. He was determined to try to win us over, both as Dickens and as a stranger come to town: a man possessed by the spirit of Christmas, albeit far from home.
It worked too. Oh, how it worked.
"I know that I was especially criticized by some townsfolk for bringing in outside talent," says Sally Houser, co-chairwoman of the Historic Bellefonte Inc.'s Victorian Christmas. "But once you meet them and feel their warmth through their many talents, you understand that sometimes you need to put aside those negative feelings and reach outside that comfort zone for the good of the whole. The troupe members have become part of our Bellefonte community and love this town and us as if they have been natives all their lives."
I suspect that Charles Dickens himself would have loved the lesson here.
If you turn your nose up at your fellow man: you will probably miss out on something wonderful in time.
Bellefonte, in the end: they loved Dave Donovan.
Sally Houser was right. They welcomed him here even though he wasn't from here and Victorian Christmas was made all the more magnificent by his presence, by his talents, and by his charm. That says something about people who live here, I think. At least I hope it does. It certainly says something about Dave Donovan, the man who set his sights on being Dickens here and succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams.
Now the time is almost upon them, upon these actors and actresses and producers and Historic Bellefonte Inc. members and volunteers and everyone who knew and loved "Our Dickens" as they called him, so many people, dedicating their time and energy to keeping a tradition alive even in the face of such loss. When you lose one of your own it becomes nearly impossible to imagine venturing forth, doesn't it? Even The Ghost of Christmas Future may not be able to present any of them with a clear vantage of what lies ahead.
Dave won't be Dickens this year for the first time in a long time.
But then again.
His legacy will run rampant through the streets and across the stages that were most familiar to him. And that certainly includes us. Bellefonte. We were part of Dave and he was part of us and this year, maybe more than ever before, there will be a heck of a lot of people feeling that.
One lovely little way that the Victorian gang is out to keep Dave's Dickensian memory alive is through the sale of a Special Edition 2018 Christmas Ornament. Priced at just $20, the two-sided ornament features a commemorative photo of the actors and actresses in the troupe that Dave led. And of course, Dave is right there as well, in the middle of it all. All the proceeds from ornament sales will be donated to the David Donovan Memorial Fund started by his friend, Brian Belge, to assist the wife and daughter Dave left behind.
"Dave's wife, Kathy, has told me she is humbled by the outpouring of love the community of Bellefonte has already demonstrated," Belge says. "The specially designed ornaments are gorgeous and the webpage in his honor couldn't be any more heartwarming. As far as hope and optimism are concerned, I hope we can live up to the shining example he set, and I am optimistic that if we hold him in our hearts, we will succeed."
Indeed we will.
Thanks for everything, Dave.
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