Pretend POTUSes bring history to life
By RICHARD CHIN | Star Tribune | Published: February 12, 2021
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — America really is the land of opportunity, a country where if you don't grow up to be president, you can at least make a living pretending to be one.
On the eve of Presidents' Day, it is altogether fitting and proper that we turn our gaze to the army of ersatz Abe Lincolns, imitation Teddy Roosevelts and fake George Washingtons produced by our great nation.
These are historical re-enactors, political cosplayers and actors who found the perfect role for a one-man show as leader of the free world. For fun or profit, they'll show up at your school group, trade meeting, or retirement community ready to cover presidential hits like the Gettysburg Address, an inaugural speech or a Fireside Chat.
You also can hire your favorite, long-dead POTUS to march in a parade, act in a commercial, entertain at a birthday party, throw out the first pitch at a baseball game, even officiate at your wedding.
But they don't consider themselves mere impersonators or entertainers: They are scholars and educators who are bringing history to life.
"You're trying to explain to the audience who this person is," said Adam Lindquist, a Theodore Roosevelt portrayer from Lonsdale, Minn.
Lindquist became Roosevelt after performing as the narrator in a touring Wild West stage play that featured characters like Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp.
"It was an incredibly fun show," said Lindquist, who calls himself "a natural ham."
His performing career took a presidential turn in 2009 after he shaved off his beard but left his mustache. When he saw a picture that was taken of him, he was struck by how much he looked like Theodore Roosevelt in his famous walrus mustache.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Lindquist, 58, studied the 26th president, memorized his speeches, trained himself to sound like Roosevelt. He invested in outfits ranging from early-20th-century presidential formalwear to Rough Riders uniforms. He even got an old-fashioned canvas tent and animal skins to emulate the trappings of the outdoorsy commander in chief.
"It's not my primary job, but I do very well at it," said Lindquist, who also works in financial risk management and grows wine grapes.
He's considered one of the top Theodore Roosevelts in the country, typically appearing before more than 100,000 people a year. He's even won competitions among "living history performers."
But the Roosevelts (there are about three dozen portrayers in the country) aren't a competitive bunch. In fact, they typically gather once a year to talk shop. At Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, of course.
"We share the skill sets we've learned to make everyone better," Lindquist said.
Cousins and saints
Sometimes Lindquist will make an appearance with his fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt.
That would be St. Louis Park resident Gary Stamm, who became FDR after a decades-long performing career that included stints in musical theater, barbershop quartets, TV commercials, voice-over work for cartoons and appearances on TV game shows.
He started specializing as FDR after getting cast as the president in a production of the musical "Annie" in a Racine, Wis., theater 20 years ago.
After getting told how much he resembled the 32nd president, Stamm decided to go solo, developing a one-man play. He acquired the necessary accessories: a double-breasted suit, a fedora, pince-nez eyeglasses and a jaunty cigarette holder.
The 72-year-old Stamm, who describes himself as a "performing scholar," also researched Roosevelt's history and studied recordings of the president's speeches so he could imitate his voice and mannerisms, down to using a wheelchair on stage when not mimicking the hobbling walk Roosevelt used because of his polio.
"I try to look like him and I try to sound like him, but most importantly I strive to capture his personality," said Stamm.
There's also a Thomas Jefferson in Minnesota, thanks to Mankato resident Tony Filipovitch.
About 25 years ago, Filipovitch's Unitarian church invited members to dress up as their favorite saint. The Unitarian church doesn't really have saints and Jefferson wasn't really a Unitarian, but "the Unitarians claim him," Filipovitch said.
After that, Filipovitch, a 73-year-old retired urban studies professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, sewed his own period clothing, got a red wig and adopted a tidewater Virginia accent to portray Jefferson in classrooms, parades and history festivals.
"When I'm in costume, in my head, I'm Thomas Jefferson," said Filipovitch, who doesn't charge for his appearances. "Mostly, I just do it for the love of doing it."
A land of Lincolns
Then there are the Lincolns.
The Association of Lincoln Presenters lists nearly 90 people around the country who impersonate the 16th president, almost double the number of actual presidents this country has seen. The imitation Abes advertise their services on websites like fourscore7yearsago.com, and can be reached at e-mails like firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Max and Donna Daniels, a couple from Illinois, make a full-time living portraying Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Their website is abeandthebabe.com. Their voice mail greeting concludes with, "And now if you will excuse me, I am late for the theater."
There are so many Lincolns out there that some offer unusual variations on the Lincarnation theme.
Patrick McCreary, a Lincoln from St. Louis, does a one-man show in which he plays both Lincoln and assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Kevin Wood, a Lincoln from Illinois, bills himself as a "multilingual Lincoln," who can do presentations in Spanish, French or German as well as English.
"All people are created equal, but not all Lincolns are created equal," Wood said. "Every Lincoln is looking for his niche."
Wood was a missionary and an environmental scientist before becoming a full-time Lincoln. He has done triathlons and naturalization ceremonies and was once hired by the mother of a bride-to-be to show up at a bachelorette party. The prospective bride was a big fan of Lincoln.
"Before you get the wrong idea, Lincoln didn't take off anything except his hat," Wood said.
COVID-19 has hit many presidential portrayers pretty hard as in-person gigs have been canceled.
"A lot of Lincolns kind of hung up their hats, waiting out the pandemic," Wood said. However, he pivoted to become a videoconferencing and livestreaming Lincoln. He also played Lincoln at a drive-by graduation ceremony.
Thanks to a fake beard, Jami Coren, a 40-year-old Colorado woman, is a presidential portrayer who bills herself as the Lady Lincoln. It helps that Coren is 6 feet tall.
She's not the only cross-dressing pretend head of state in the country.
Peter Small, a presidential portrayer from California, does George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
"Golda Meir is actually one of my best ones," Small said. "It's no different from doing Washington or Jefferson. I just change my wig and stockings."
It turns out that you don't need to be a dead ringer to portray a dead president.
Some Lincoln portrayers of modest height, for example, get a little help from elevator shoes.
"Some of the shorter guys have extremely tall hats," added Rick Miller, a Lincoln portrayer who lives near Pittsburgh.
Playing for real
Our respect for presidents can be so great that even a fake Lincoln can strike awe among audiences.
"They'll stop and there will be a collective gasp and kids will take their hats off," said Coren of when she makes her entrance as Lincoln.
J.P. Wammack is a second-generation Lincoln from California. His father was a Lincoln portrayer, too. When he first appeared before a school group, he was mobbed by kids wanting to take a picture with him.
"It was like being a rock star or a movie star," he said. "Everybody loves Lincoln."
But irreverence, confusion and criticism are also part of the job.
"I thought you were dead" is a frequent comment heard by presidential portrayers. Wammack said kids will ask him if he's a ghost.
A Cub Scout once asked Eric Richardson, "How many vampires have you killed?" apparently inspired by the movie and novel, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."
Richardson is a "professional tribute artist" from Maryland who can do Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington, Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin in addition to Abraham Lincoln.
He once did a commercial as Lincoln, driving a Lincoln SUV, that spoofed a car ad that originally starred Matthew McConaughey.
When he's being FDR, Small said, some audience members will challenge him on why he wasn't more helpful to Jewish refugees during World War II or why he ordered the internment of Japanese Americans.
Filipovitch, a Jefferson portrayer, also gets tough questions.
"If people ask me as Thomas Jefferson about Sally Hemings, I will answer as Jefferson," he said, meaning that he'll refuse to comment about the enslaved woman that Jefferson owned and had a sexual relationship with.
"He was a complex man," Filipovitch said of America's third president. "He didn't always live up to the ideas he espoused. But he sure was interesting."
Theodore Roosevelt portrayer Lindquist said he strives to avoid a cartoonish portrayal of a man who can seem larger than life.
"I do limit the number of times I say, 'Bully!' " Lindquist said. "It's easy to make Theodore Roosevelt over the top. He deserves a lot more respect than that."
While presidential portrayers acknowledge the shortcomings of their subjects, sometimes a bit of the greatness rubs off. Resembling one of the country's most beloved presidents means you have to behave a certain way in public.
"I try to be a gentleman at all times," said James Hayney, a Lincoln portrayer from Pennsylvania. "It's made me a better person."
(c)2021 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Visit the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) at www.startribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.