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Bicentennial (and Obama) means boom times for Lincoln presenters

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Skip Critell performs as Lincoln in schools and senior centers in the Boise area. (Photo courtesy of Skip Critell)

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Max and Donna Daniels have made a living presenting Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln throughout the country. (Photo courtesy of Max Daniels)

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Despite living just a few hours from Fort Sumter, where the Civil War started, Gerald Pitts says there's more offers to play Lincoln than ever. (Photo courtesy of Jon O. Hollowa)

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Fritz Klein, an Illinois based presenter, occasionally fasts to stay Lincoln-thin. (Photo courtesy of Steve Wright)

It’s good to be president. Maybe not if you’re Barack Obama and you are juggling a faltering economy and two wars. But if you preserved the Union, freed the slaves and picked a bad night to catch a play at Ford’s Theatre, then this is your year.

After years spent plying their craft at Civil War re-enactments, schools and road shows, Lincoln presenters are finding their services in great demand. Many report a 50 percent increase in offers to play the “Great Emancipator.”

“We usually spend January in Florida,” said Max Daniels, an Illinois-based Lincoln presenter, who has been portraying “Honest Abe” for two decades. “But this year we just can’t. We’ve been flooded with offers.”

Fate and history have intersected in a dramatic way. This year marks the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, and publishers are flooding bookstores with new titles on the nation’s 16th president. Just as important, President Barack Obama’s allusions to Lincoln throughout the transition and inauguration have made the man from Springfield hot again. Obama’s decision to use the Lincoln Bible while taking the oath of office and even his train ride into Washington, D.C., on the eve of the inaugural, with its echoes of Lincoln’s similar train journey in 1861, dovetailed to keep the 200-year-old former president in vogue.

“The Obama fascination has been a godsend to the Lincoln bicentennial,” said Ron Keller, curator of the Lincoln Heritage Museum at Lincoln College in Illinois. “His election is at just the right time and ties in so well. He’s making connections, but they aren’t forced. He really understands that he’s here today because of what Lincoln did.”

Lincoln mania has even spread to some surprising places. Gerald Pitts, 68, a Lincoln presenter in Greenwood, S.C., reports that it’s inching south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Pitts is expecting a busy season. In a typical year, Pitts does roughly a dozen presentations. This year, in just one week, he did seven shows, and has appearances booked through July. It’s a sign that any lingering wounds from the Civil War are dissipating, as Pitts’ hometown is just three hours from Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

“I am going to be as busy as a cat at the Westminster Dog Show for the rest of the year,” Pitts jokes.

Presenters welcome the recognition and the opportunity to share their passion for Lincoln with new audiences. Some, like the 70-year-old Daniels, made a career out of putting on a stovepipe hat, while others, like Idaho-native Skip Critell, 52, view it as a hobby. The price for booking Lincoln varies from the cost of gas to $5,000 an appearance. An annual workload runs from six or seven performances to 250 shows with stops in such far-flung locales as China and France.

The bicentennial and the enthusiasm surrounding it has led schools and corporations to turn to these performers as a way to present Lincoln and his personal attributes to students and employees in a creative and engaging way. For clients, Lincoln presenters offer shows that are educational and frequently humorous. Appearances are tailored to a client’s needs and draw on Lincoln’s story to illustrate themes such as leadership and courage.

Though their shows differ, Lincoln presenters are united on one point--don’t call them impersonators.

“I even like to use another word, portrayer,” said Jim Getty, a Lincoln presenter from Pennsylvania. “Impersonator just has a bad ring to it. An impersonator could be almost anything. A bank robber could come up to teller with gun impersonating someone and demanding the money.”

As for the shows themselves, they range from slopshod to well-oiled, geared at everyone from kindergartners to executives. But all radiate with a love of subject.

In an effort to make the Civil War more accessible for her students, Leslie Evans-Boxer turned to a Lincoln presenter. Evans-Boxer, 41, relocated to Idaho from Pennsylvania a few years ago to teach refugee and immigrant children at the Boise Language Academy. Living outside of Gettysburg she’d been exposed to Civil War re-enactments and felt that having a performer visit her class might be a good way to excite her students about Lincoln’s legacy. An Internet search for performers in the Boise area turned up Critell. She was dazzled by his performance.

“I opened the door to let him into the classroom and my jaw dropped,” Evans-Boxer recalls. “He looked so much like Lincoln.”

Critell charmed the kids by passing around old artifacts from the era such as marbles and a slate board. He also showed photos of Lincoln’s boyhood home and school books from the time. But the part of his performance that left the children floored was his recitation of the Gettysburg Address from memory.

“This just brought it to life in a fresh way,” said Evans-Boxer. “I’m not sure they’ll remember anything else from this year, except that Lincoln came here.”

Even groups that have used presenters before are seeing heightened interest from the public. Carla Hill, director of Illinois’ Batavia Depot Museum, has retained Max and Donna Daniels for various dinner theater presentations over the years, with Max playing Lincoln and Donna, 55, playing Mary Todd Lincoln. But one of Hill’s favorite events that she hired the couple to create was a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday geared toward children. In it, Daniels as Lincoln recounts memories of growing up in a log cabin, eventually tracing the president’s story from childhood to the White House. After the presentation, Daniels posed for photos and the museum served cake and punch.

This year, the program soared in popularity. Hill, 62, estimated that the party drew 90 parents and children, about twice the number that had come in previous years. Hill thinks that’s partly to do with her state’s pride in having a native son in the White House at the same time people are celebrating Illinois’ most famous figure, Abraham Lincoln.

“Naturally, Obama’s election had an impact,” said Hill. “The state of Illinois has lot to be proud of this year. We take pride that Lincoln came from here. We’re also proud to have the new president be our former senator.”

Any parallels between Lincoln and Obama were largely lost on the children. Hill notes that they were mostly captivated by what it was like to grow up without electricity.

But if the children didn’t see the connections, the similarities aren’t lost on the performers themselves.

One Lincoln presenter, Patrick McCreary, is working all his contacts in the hopes of nabbing the most exclusive audience in the world--President Obama. McCreary, 58, has previously performed for presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush

“There are great similarities,” said McCreary. “Particularly in that the new president is idea driven, With Lincoln it didn’t matter where an idea would come from. I see that a lot with Obama today. I’m thrilled at the amount of attention being given and think it’s because the president holds Lincoln in such esteem.”

E-mail: bal2137@columbia.edu