Brian Farnon brings ‘Scrooge’ character to life
Brian Farnon is not your ordinary casino worker.
“I’m not crazy about the casino life. I never smoked, drank or gambled,” Farnon said.
He had one of the few jobs where he could avoid most of that. His work was in the showroom, not on the casino floor. Even in retirement he is still working at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe South Shore Room.
Most people know him as “Scrooge.” The stage production “Ebenezer Scrooge” begins its four-day run Thursday, marking its 21st year at the Stateline casino. Scrooge is hardly a term befitting a man whose life has been dedicated to bringing music to the world for generations.
Farnon, who is a legend around these parts, refuses to give his age. Suffice it to say everyone would hope to look so good and be so spry when they reach his age.
“He has always struck me as incredibly energetic, funny, intelligent and widely read,” said John Packer, director of public relations and entertainment at Harrah’s. “He is a real interesting person, almost a renaissance man for Lake Tahoe … and very culturally in tune.”
Farnon comes from a family rich in music, though his beginnings were humble. His dad died when he was 12. A few years later, he found himself adding to the family income by working in a Toronto biscuit factory.
Much to his chagrin, his mom kept her promise to buy him a musical instrument if he were promoted to the factory’s office. The finger-hurting banjo was soon exchanged for the saxophone.
“I honked out bad notes,” Farnon recalled of his teen years.
Money was tight and lessons were not an option. His younger brother, Robert, felt left out so mom got him a drum set and then a trumpet. Soon the youngest Farnon — Denny — was playing the trumpet as well.
His brothers went on to be conductors in England and Holland.
The eldest Farnon boy made a name for himself as a musical genius for some of the greatest musicians.
It was about 1963 when Farnon hooked up with Nat King Cole to be his musical director.
“He was the most wonderful guy. So easygoing,” Farnon said. “I conducted the bands wherever he went.”
The union was cut short when Cole died of lung cancer in 1965.
This was the same year the movie “The Sound of Music” came out with Farnon’s daughter, Charmian, playing the role of the oldest child, Liesl.
With a desire to stay in Hollywood, Farnon hooked up with the Spike Jones Orchestra. The band is known for the little diddy “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.”
For 12 years people watched Farnon do a little bit of everything — singing, acting, whatever was needed — on the “Farmer John Polka Parade” weekly television show.
He called it quits when Harveys called to offer him a chance to conduct the summer concert series. Concert series 30 years ago were nothing like they are today.
“We would start a new show almost every Friday,” Packer said. “There were times when Sammy (Davis Jr.) would be here two weeks and we would have Lawrence Welk’s show for three weeks.”
Today it would be the equivalent to having Britney Spears and Eminem play night after night.
That is one of the things that disappoints Farnon — the evolution of music. He has a hard time calling some of it music.
“It breaks my heart seeing people forgetting about the arts. Symphonies are barely surviving … ballets … it’s so sad,” Farnon said, as his blue eyes drifted back to an era we’ll never see again.
“When I got into the business, I had a megaphone to sing with,” he said.
He is grateful for the microphone but doesn’t have much good to say about other technological advances used in music today.
After a few years, Farnon moved over to Harrah’s — the casino he has been affiliated with ever since.
Usually, a headliner would use the house orchestra which Farnon conducted. Sinatra, Mathis, Steve and Edie — they were the one-name stars of the day.
Farnon refused to name one of the more difficult performers to work with because that person is still alive.
He found Carol Burnett to be as funny offstage as on. He traveled with John Denver and Jim Davis. He worked with Roy Clark, Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming — finding them all to be wonderful.
“He worked with the big names of Hollywood like Count Basie … the music greats. He not only has worked with them, sang and played with them, but was well respected by them,” said Bob Grant.
When Grant isn’t directing “Ebenezer Scrooge,” he teaches vocal music, theater and stagecraft at South Tahoe High School.
The two have been working together for a number of years.
“He is not a controlling person at all, but he is a perfectionist,” Grant said. “He’s always kind and nice and doesn’t embarrass people.”
And it’s a good thing Farnon can laugh at himself because one year he had the entire audience in stitches and didn’t have a clue as to why. It was about six years ago that Farnon came on stage in his customary red underwear instead of the traditional nightgown.
Body mikes are used to project an actor’s voice. The antenna usually goes down the leg. Farnon’s antenna was coming out the front buttons.
This wasn’t his only microphone gaffe.
“Sometimes he’ll have a lapse and forget the mike is on. He won’t like something he did and he will go ‘Oh, darn it!’ and the whole room hears it,” Grant said.
This will be the 21st year that Dorothy Farnon has played opposite him as the Ghost of Christmas Present. They are the reason the show exists in the form that it does. Married when it all started in 1982, the two have since divorced.
Like all great performers, they took to heart the words “The show must go on.”
“They are great together. Only us insiders from Tahoe know what is really being said,” said Sylvia Allen, in reference to the repartee between actors and the former couple.
Allen has been in the production since day one. Now she drives up from Carson City for the five-day-a-week rehearsals that started the first of the month. And she wouldn’t miss it.
“You should hear him sing,” Allen said of Farnon. “He can hit a high C. It’s incredible.”
Incredible is word heard over and over when people talk about Farnon the person as well as Farnon’s accomplishments.
Charles Dickens’ original tale is not a likely candidate to be transformed into a musical-comedy. But Brian and Dorothy Farnon have pulled it off. He wrote the music and she wrote the lyrics. They are always tweaking it, with no two years being identical.
Dorothy Farnon, who lives in Minden, directs the dancers — even getting on stage with her surgery-scarred knees to show the youngsters how things are done.
Her background is as a professional dancer, having at one time been on stage at Chez Paree in Chicago. Brian Farnon was there as well doing his thing.
For years Dorothy Farnon ran a dance school in Tahoe.
Both are still active in their respective disciplines.
Brian Farnon now calls Twin Falls, Idaho, home with his current wife, Gloria.
How many more years will they be involved with “Scrooge” is anyone’s guess. Farnon was shocked to get the call in Idaho from Harrah’s asking him to come back. He says he’s willing to make the trek back if asked to do so again.
Kathryn Reed may be reached at (530) 541-3880, ext. 251 or via e-mail at email@example.com
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