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Dickens Aloud

At the annual Dickens Christmas Fair, kids and adults can hear the author tell his own tales and carols

Time was, Charles Dickens sold out theatres faster than Britney Spears. And he didn't need to lip-synch. In his time, Dickens was perhaps as beloved for his public readings as for his writings, which he brought to the public, including his American fans, for much of his later working life. And starting this weekend, you can see him live.

Or at least a good approximation. Actor Robert Young, a 57-year-old San Francisco native, is once again the centerpiece of the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Pickwick Comic Annual, a four-weekend affair that presents a mischievously fun, although rather sanitized, version of the streets, alehouses and theaters of Charles Dickens's London.

The Dickens Fair settles in for a month at that most un-Victorian of local venues, the Cow Palace, and theater is the operative word. More than 300 actors roam about, playing Dickens characters and other historical figures. The organizers promise the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian England, but they manage to omit the splash of chamber pots dumped into the streets and the ripeness of urban dwellers with little access to hot water. Indeed, the only thing contagious is the "laughter and good humor of street urchins and chimney sweeps." (Until they cough on you, perhaps.)

But let's not quibble. It's a little corny, it's great for kids, but most of all it's a damn good show. Young, who has played Dickens for more than a decade, has even been to England to study up and walk in Dickens's footsteps. To recreate Dickens, Young has gone back to transcripts of his speeches, journalists' descriptions of his prolific appearances and the dialogue Dickens's characters used. "He had a very resonant, trained oratorial voice that he liked to use a lot," says Young, citing Dickens's readings, for which he would truncate his own work, and his theatrical experience leading a repertory company.

At the fair, Young sits in character and reads from Dickens's work, memorizing long passages so that he might keep eye contact with his listeners. His favorites are A Christmas Carol -- "still the perfect morality story" -- and an excerpt from Oliver Twist that Young calls vivid and wicked: "There's probably not a more gruesomely bloody murder story in literature."

Other actors take up the mantle of Dickens's creations, including Ebeneezer Scrooge, the ghost of Jacob Marley, the Crachit Family and Tiny Tim, Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. Here's a great holiday idea: read A Christmas Carol or other Dickens work to your kids (or someone else's kids), then take them to the Dickens Fair to meet the characters in person. Sure beats Disneyland.

Like the ubiquitous Renaissance fairs, which also feature people from an age of dubious hygiene, visitors are also participants and attend in their finest Victorian frippery. To encourage dress-up, the fair holds a fashion contest, with judges wandering among the crowd to bestow awards.

Other contests feature a literary bent. In the town crier competition, contestants screech the news headlines of the day. (You can come up with your own if you like.) On the final weekend, the fair hosts a toasting contest. But what to toast with? If you are like Aunt Betsey in David Copperfield and require a night-draught not of wine ("Keep that, in case of sickness," she says, "We mustn't use it carelessly, Trot") but of ale, you can duck into Mad Sal's Dockside Ale House. There will be plenty of food, too, most of which seems authentic, although something tells me there weren't too many chaps named Manny Suarez serving candy-cane churros in the back alleys of the East End 150 years ago.

For background reading material on Dickens and Victorian London, Robert Young recommends David Copperfield, which was Dickens's autobiographical novel; the Dickens biography by Peter Ackroyd; Raymund Fitzsimmons' The Charles Dickens Show, an account of his public readings; and, if you can find it, Victorian author Henry Mayhew's 1851 portrait of street life, London Characters and Crooks.

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair runs on Saturday and Sunday from Nov. 29 to Dec. 22 at the Cow Palace. Adult ticket prices are $16 in advance, $20 at the door; children $6 in advance, $8 at the door.