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A FEW YEARS AGO, Wayne Dellinger decided he'd like to make a living doing impersonations of Theodore Roosevelt. Having spent some time in the banking and real estate businesses, Dellinger knew enough to do market research. His market research consisted of dressing up as TR--black cutaway coat, top hat, little wire glasses--and standing around Terminal 3 at Sky Harbor International Airport.
Within a few minutes, a woman came up to him. "What are you doing here?" she asked, perplexed.
"I'm Theodore Roosevelt," Dellinger told her.
"I know who you are," the woman answered with some asperity. "I want to know what you're doing here."
wayne dellinger was getting ready to fulfill his dream. For a while last winter, he did just that. He was the owner and operator of the only theatre in the country devoted entirely to one-man performances as Theodore Roosevelt.
The Theodore Roosevelt Theatre, during its brief life span from January through March, was at 48th Street and Main in east Mesa. Wayne Dellinger selected that area, although he lives in northwest Phoenix, because it has a healthy population of snowbirds who went to school during an era when Theodore Roosevelt was fresher in the American mind than he is now, and when American history was actually taught.
The theatre was located between Bradley's Shoes and the Bavarian Point restaurant, a couple of doors down from the Fluff and Fold Laundry and Dry Cleaners. People heard about it from fliers Wayne Dellinger distributed at mobile-home parks in the area.
Some nights there'd be three dozen people. One night a single man showed up. Dellinger suggested gently that the fellow might like to return some other evening.
"No, that's fine," he told Dellinger, and Dellinger gave the performance for an audience of one.
For two acts and an hour and a half, six nights a week, with a break for coffee and cookies, Wayne Dellinger would hold forth on the life of the man to whom he does indeed have a startling physical resemblance. Dellinger stood next to an antique desk, first in Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Rider outfit, later in the black cutaway coat, and told Roosevelt's life story as if he were the man himself.
He told of a childhood weakened by asthma, and of his determination to become physically strong despite it. He told of his climbing the Matterhorn, and of sparring with John L. Lewis. He told of his cattle-ranching days in North Dakota, and how the love of nature that grew in him there flowered into presidential conservation programs. He told of the Bull Moose party, of his intractable daughter Alice, of the 30 books he wrote. He told of an assassination attempt, and even shot off a pistol. He enhanced the performance with slides and an old film of the funeral of President William McKinley, whose death brought Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency.
Although Dellinger's performance was more a series of unconnected anecdotes than a play, it did have a point. The point had to do with triumphing over adversity. Theodore Roosevelt has a special private meaning for Wayne Dellinger; his performance, while entertaining, is essentially an inspirational one. "It is far better to dare mighty things, even though checkered by failure, than to live in the twilight between victory and defeat," he told the audience.
theodore roosevelt apparently has a special private meaning for a fair number of people. There is a Theodore Roosevelt Association in Oyster Bay, New York, dedicated to "promoting the things Theodore Roosevelt stood for." This is from P. James Roosevelt, "a cousin," who happens to be in the office balancing the books, and is courtly enough to take time to chat on the telephone, since the line to the actual headquarters has been frazzling out all day, what with the rain.
"There's a Washington Association and a Lincoln Association," he says, "and there's an organization for Millard Fillmore, but that's kind of a spoof." He does not mention that Millard Fillmore brought the first bathtub to the White House, so we will.
From the looks of a newsletter published after its annual meeting last year, the Theodore Roosevelt Association is made up of men not entirely unfamiliar with political prominence, success in life and the social register. Hamilton Fish is a member. So are a number of people with the titles "Ambassador" or "Honorable."
Each year, Roosevelt says, the association gives an award to someone who exemplifies Theodore Roosevelt's principles. The organization likes to present it to people who exemplify "overcoming," since TR overcame so much--ill health, deaths of loved ones--on his way to success. In 1990 the medal was given to novelist Tom Wolfe, who gave a speech.
Wayne Dellinger was at that meeting. He was trying to grab a cab to get to the dinner when he ran into a couple of other guys headed for the same destination. One had a car and offered him a lift.
"What do you do?" the driver asked pleasantly after they were all bundled in.
"I impersonate Theodore Roosevelt," Dellinger told them.
"So do I!" the man said.
According to John Gable, executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, there are some half-dozen Theodore Roosevelt impersonators active in the country right now. Gable is a talkative, well-informed fellow with a quick wit and no hesitation whatsoever in saying that while the public may like Theodore Roosevelt impersonators, he doesn't because they do violence to the historical context. Nor does he refrain from saying that the Roosevelt family also deplores them, but its members are much too polite to say so.