A Holiday Tradition: Frederick Koch’s Reading of a Christmas Carol

A drawing, in green on a white background, of Frederick Koch seated at a table with a candle on it, holding a book and pointing as he reads.
An illustration of Koch performing A Christmas Carol, 1943 (From the Carolina Playmakers Scrapbook, 1942-1943, North Carolina Collection)

When Carolina Playmakers founder Frederick Koch came to UNC in 1918, he brought with him a holiday tradition – annual dramatic readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Each year, he performed the classic Christmas tale on campus and in towns across North Carolina and beyond, sometimes performing it 15 or more times each season. The tradition started in 1906, when Koch was at the University of North Dakota:

Far away, it seems now, on the winter prairie of Dakota I was impelled with the desire to read again for my own enjoyment Charles Dickens’ immortal ghost story, A Christmas Carol. Fresh from Harvard, I was then a very young instructor at the State University of North Dakota… In that lonely isolation on the Great Flat I was pretty homesick, I guess, when I thought of the cheerful fireside associations I had left behind me in the East – of home, and friends at Christmastime. It was a Sunday afternoon that I read the story, and felt myself greatly cheered by it. So much so, that I mentioned the fact to a little group at supper in the University commons that evening with the comment: “Everybody ought to read Dickens’ Christmas Carol every year before Christmas.”

The dean of women spoke up: “Well, if you feel that way about it, you ought to read it for us.” On the following Sunday afternoon, the last Sunday before Christmas, I read A Christmas Carol, seated in a great armchair beside a crackling wood-fire. Outside the snow was blowing and drifting with a bitter wind, but inside all was warm with the glow from the hearth and from the mellow light of the candles. I remember distinctly the big bowl of crisp, green holly leaves someone had brought, and the soft singing of girls’ voices of the old songs we cherish at Christmas: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy to the World.” So it began. The next year, and the next, and the next.

-Frederick Koch (Burlington Daily Times-News, December 13, 1933)

(An audio clip from one of Koch’s performances, year unknown, from the Records of the Department of Radio, Television and Motion Pictures, University Archives)
Program for a 1943 performance of A Christmas Carol (From the Carolina Playmakers Scrapbook, 1942-1943, North Carolina Collection)
Program for a 1943 performance of A Christmas Carol (From the Carolina Playmakers Scrapbook, 1942-1943, North Carolina Collection)

Koch’s performances brought the story to life without the aid of elaborate costumes or sets. The Raleigh News and Observer said that at a 1919 performance in Gerrard Hall, he “[sat] alone on the stage, the chapel dark except for the light at his table, with a background of Christmas trees gaily decorated behind him.” According to the newspaper’s report, he read “with spirit, vividness, and a fine touch of feeling,” and the two intermissions during the show featured carols by university singing groups.

By the end of his life, Koch had performed the story over 245 times – 39 times on the UNC campus. His readings had been broadcast on radio and television, and were a beloved annual tradition for many. After Koch’s death in 1944, the tradition was taken up by Samuel Selden, Koch’s successor as chair of the Dept. of Dramatic Art and director of the Carolina Playmakers. From 1966 through the early 1980s, the annual reading was performed by Earl Wynn of the Department of Radio, Television, and Motion Pictures.

See also: “A Christmas Carol with a Playmakers’ Flair,” North Carolina Miscellany

Happy 120th birthday, Paul Green!

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, so lots of people are wearing green. But at UNC, we’re celebrating another kind of Green—playwright Paul Green, who was born 120 years ago today.

Author  Paul Green (from the UNC Press Records, #40073, University Archives).

Paul Green, born in Lillington, North Carolina, enrolled at UNC in 1916. However, his academic career was interrupted by World War I—he enlisted in 1917 and served overseas before returning to UNC in 1919. During his time at UNC, he was a student of Fredrick Koch, the head of the UNC Department of Dramatic Arts and the founder of the Carolina Playmakers. He graduated in 1922 with a degree in philosophy. The same year, he married a fellow student of Koch, Elizabeth Lay. In 1923, after his graduate studies, Green returned to UNC as a professor of philosophy.

During this time, Green published many acclaimed works, including In Abraham’s Bosom (1929), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The House of Connelly (1931) , Roll Sweet Chariot (1935), and Johnny Johnson (1937), which featured music by Kurt Weill. In 1941, he collaborated with Richard Wright to adapt Wright’s Native Son for the stage. Many of his works addressed themes of racism, and poverty, and war, reflecting his lifelong activism for human rights.

A scene from an early production of the Lost Colony in which Sir Walter Raleigh speaks with Queen Elizabeth I (from the UNC Press Records, #40073, University Archives).

While Green’s work was well-received on New York stages, one of his greatest contributions to American theatre happened far from Broadway. In 1937, he published The Lost Colony, a “symphonic drama” about the ill-fated Roanoke Island Colony to be performed on the island itself, off the coast of North Carolina. The play, first performed in 1937 as part of the celebration of the 350th anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth, is still running today. Having only suspended production during the years of World War II, it is the longest-running outdoor drama in the country. The Lost Colony established the genre of outdoor drama in the United States, and Green went on to write 14 more plays of this type.

From 1939 to 1944, Green worked as a professor of dramatic arts at UNC, then devoted himself solely to writing. His work includes not only plays but essays, short stories, screenplays, radio dramas, two novels, and music.

In 1968, UNC built the Paul Green Theatre, which is named in his honor.  In 1979, Green was named North Carolina Dramatist Laureate. After his death in 1981, Green was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame (1993) and the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame (1996), reflecting his impact on the literary world on both a national and local level.