WILL THE REAL TEDDY ROOSEVELT PLEASE STAND UP?
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.
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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.
"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.
Gable is a fountain of knowledge on who those deplorable people are.
There's Joe Earley, an actor who lives near Philadelphia. There's Jim Foote, who lives a stone's throw from Roosevelt's birthplace and the headquarters of the association named for him at Sagamore Hill, New York. There's a fellow in Canada. And one in upstate New York. The best one of all was Bob Boyd, who died a few years ago in an auto accident in North Dakota. Theodore Roosevelt impersonators spend a lot of time in the Dakotas, because Theodore Roosevelt did.
The man in the car with Wayne Dellinger turned out to be Ted Zelewski, who lives near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is according to his daughter, who answers the telephone one evening. When her father takes the call, however, he is surprisingly uncommunicative about his alter life as the 26th president of the United States of America.
"I'm not sure I want to talk about it. I'm sure you can understand that there are reasons," Zelewski says mysteriously. Since we don't understand, this conversation peters out rather quickly.
Besides, John Gable, our talkative acquaintance at the Theodore Roosevelt Association, has already told us that Ted Zelewski is a professional actor who used to do more characters, but now concentrates on Theodore Roosevelt, whom he does with some success at Mount Rushmore.
joe earley doesn't want to say how old he is because as an actor he's tired of telling 26-year-old producers he'd worked on Steve Allen's show and hearing them say, "Who?" And Ernie Kovacs! He's dropped those credits entirely. Joe still wants to work.
These days Joe writes, directs for television and acts here and there. He does a Theodore Roosevelt character, but he's done Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant and Galileo--this was for Steve Allen's Meeting of the Minds, in which historical characters from different ages appeared together and chatted. He's also done soaps, and he can probably dance. Recently, though, Joe Earley has specialized in Theodore Roosevelt. He imitates the president's voice, which was high-pitched with funny jerks and halts. Then he does Grant's voice, gruff and deep from all that whiskey. An actor could do anybody, but Earley admits he has a special affinity for Theodore Roosevelt. He cherishes the time he sat next to Ethel, Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, and asked her if her father really said, "Bully!," and she cast her eyes up at the ceiling, apparently praying for patience, and said no, he usually said, "Delightful."
That same evening, Ethel Roosevelt told Earley that while he was performing, she heard flashes of her father in his voice. That was during a performance of a play Joe Earley had written about the 26th president, called TR.
The play suffered from a wretched twist of fate. Joe had written it and was in the process of "putting it on the boards," as he says, at LaSalle University in his native Philadelphia. Then he found out that James Whitmore and two collaborators--the guys who'd done Give Em Hell, Harry--had a show called Bully in the works.
Earley rushed to open TR, but couldn't find an empty theatre. The more healthily financed Bully opened and spoiled his version's chances. "It was a caricature," he says of Bully, with that special note of contempt artists reserve for each other's work. "It had him throwing teddy bears into the audience."
talking to jim foote by telephone can sometimes be difficult, since he uses one of those old two-piece phones that requires holding a trumpet-shaped piece to one's ear and shouting into a trumpet-shaped speaker mounted on a stand.
Jim Foote must have answered the upstairs telephone this day, however, because he sounded fine, as he talked about his infatuation with TR.
It all began when he got out of the Navy in 1972, grew a mustache from sheer relief and realized he looked like Theodore Roosevelt. One New Year's Eve he wore a TR costume to a party, and that was that.
Now he slips in and out of Theodore Roosevelt like a change of clothes. Sometimes he talks as Jim Foote, sometimes as TR, using actual quotes ("Success comes to those who lead a life of endeavor"). Foote works all day in a machine shop, coming home at night to a wife who somehow puts up with it all. Foote's resemblance to TR gave birth to a gnawing urge to spend his discretionary income on outfits that make him look even more like Theodore Roosevelt than he would naturally, which, given his girth, is quite a bit. He even owns a period bathing suit. "It's a perfectly decent bathing suit," he says in TR's voice, so you know it must be a quote.
He writes with a steel-nib pen, the kind you dunk in an inkwell. He has Roosevelt letters and books. He has Thomas Edison cylinders with recordings of the 26th president's voice. He has old magazines with TR on the cover. Jim Foote is the person antique dealers call when they turn up Teddy Roosevelt memorabilia. His apartment is decorated entirely in turn-of-the-century furniture--kerosene lamps! He and his wife have one rule, however: They will not use an object for a purpose other than the one for which it was intended. No carriage lamps outside the front door, or iceboxes used as bookcases. Foote deplores the "falsified country look."
you would not think there would be much of a call for Theodore Roosevelt these days, but in addition to his nightly appearances at the theatre, Wayne Dellinger has appeared at Pioneer Living History Museum and at a breakfast meeting of the Institute of Real Estate Managers, as well as in front of classes of schoolchildren. He has addressed the Forest Service and singles groups.
The number of such appearances, in fact, encouraged Wayne Dellinger to give up his job at Sun State Savings--that was last year--and devote himself completely to his new career. He had business cards printed, and installed in his house an answering machine that does nothing but deal with the Theodore Roosevelt side of his life. When he gives interviews to talk about why he does what he does, he wears a brown wig parted down the middle and little wire-rim glasses. The wig changes his appearance so much, he says, that people who know him from work don't recognize him in costume. Dellinger, luckily, is nearsighted, so he has a good excuse to wear the little wire-rim glasses. Unfortunately, however, his girth is less ample than that of TR in his prime, but there is at least a suggestion.
You can see, even with the wig and glasses, that Wayne Dellinger is a fairly unremarkable-looking man in his 40s. He lives in a house that has one of those living rooms that looks like people spend absolutely no time there, because there are no newspapers on the floor or other signs of normal human messiness.
There are, however, Toastmaster awards over the fireplace. About a decade ago, Wayne Dellinger went through a rough divorce. He came out of it, as many men do, with a desire to see what else life has to offer. Rather than turning his attention to younger blondes, however, Dellinger began going to Omega, which he describes as "a personal-growth group." Omega places an emphasis on testing one's limits.
One task, for instance, required enrollees to talk to a stranger in a public place and give the person something to eat. Dellinger put on an uncharacteristic headband, open shirt and gold chain, and entered the Greyhound bus station. He selected a target, sat next to him, struck up a conversation with him and offered him a stick of gum. He even managed to get the man's name and telephone number. As a result of Omega, Dellinger also went skydiving. He passed out on the way down. He spent a day at a nudist colony. He also joined Toastmasters, an organization dedicated to helping people overcome what is said to be the most pervasive fear in human life--public speaking. Members prepare little talks, or are called upon to deliver impromptu chats on suggested topics. Listeners clink their glasses--meetings tend to be at breakfast--when the speaker says, "Um."
Wayne Dellinger not only discovered he loved public speaking, he gave up his day job to pursue it. wayne dellinger H is clearly not an actor. His performance as TR is not really a performance as much as a lecture by a man who happens to be wearing a costume and pretending he is someone else. It is a labor of love.
Like many people speaking in public these days, he tends to fall into the rhythms of standup comedians, cadences that Theodore Roosevelt surely never possessed. And when he delivers one of his funny lines, he says "Yeahmmmmf" at the end, as if unconsciously waiting for the laugh.
Dellinger appeared one rainy morning at a breakfast meeting of the Institute of Real Estate Managers, one of whom he knew from Toastmasters. There he was, on the top floor of the Citicorp building, gray clouds visible through enormous windows behind him, muffin crumbs and half-full glasses of orange juice before him, telling men and women in suits anecdotes from Theodore Roosevelt's life.
The real estate folks paid a polite although somewhat puzzled attention.
"I think," Dellinger said later, "I should have spent more time on the subject of managing properties by using a 'Big Stick' philosophy in business. What I did was tell interesting stories. But to me the stories are more fun to listen to."
Wayne Dellinger's feelings toward Theodore Roosevelt are not the sort that would easily allow him to use the former president as a selling device. Wayne Dellinger is something of a missionary in the church of Theodore Roosevelt. He admires the decency of the man who rose above the dirty politics of the time, the energy that prompted him to write 30 books, the inner strength that, as he says, propelled "a weak, sickly, extremely nearsighted boy to become the President of the United States."
"I really feel I have the potential to change people's lives as Theodore Roosevelt," Dellinger says. "If I can show what he did, the obstacles he overcame, I can motivate people to change."
Theodore Roosevelt changed his life. Dellinger discovered the 26th president after he had embarked on his course of personal growth with Omega. After skydiving and nudism, he took a more substantial risk: He wrote a letter to his father, who had left the family unsupported since Wayne was a year old. (Upon receiving the letter, his father told a family member, "You know, I think Wayne's on drugs.")
Other people find spirituality. Some turn to religion. For Wayne Dellinger, Theodore Roosevelt "just seemed to be there at the right time."
He thinks of Theodore Roosevelt when things get rough, when he wonders where he's going and if the choices he's made have been the right ones. "When I'm down, I have to think about what I say in giving these speeches," he says, reflecting on Theodore Roosevelt's words. "The speeches are as much a help to me as they are to others."
"There are aspects of him I'd like to be like," Dellinger says of his model, "but I'm not. He always took things head-on. He challenged himself--he only had one eye, but he went on safari. He was willing to risk his life."
Of himself he says, "Many times I avoid confrontations, or doing things that are difficult." During Dellinger's performing career, this inspirational message has fallen on more than a couple of deaf ears. He has had performances that have frankly bombed. Out in Globe once, at a county fair, he was cruelly scheduled just after a local rock n' roll band and just before fiddler Doug Kershaw. A guy was stapling a cover to the wagon he was standing on. Behind him, Kershaw's band was testing the microphones.
"It was the worst thing that's ever happened to me," Dellinger says. But he persevered.
Perhaps oddly, the audience that seems to pick up on the deep seriousness of his message is in the schools. Dellinger frequently visits classrooms, and the consequent interruption of boring math classes and the enforced encouragement of well-meaning teachers inspire grateful letters from children. They write, because they have been told to, about what they have learned from Dellinger's talk on Theodore Roosevelt. But through the apathy shine some rays of light, in statements like, "I would use courage to get me through rough times" and "I should become independent like him" and "If anyone in my family dies, I'll go on."
The kids get the point. They understand that Theodore Roosevelt was a man worth imitating. It is perhaps fitting that the storefront Dellinger selected for his theatre last winter turned out to have been most recently a church. Wayne Dellinger had once started his own church--the New Life Fellowship. He is not afraid of grappling with the larger mysteries of life, or embarrassed to be seen doing it. Of his performing career he says, "It's a good feeling to have a purpose in life."
wayne dellinger's winter season in Mesa was good enough to encourage him to take his show on the road. This summer he'll be performing in the small town of Keystone near Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, where Theodore Roosevelt's is one of four faces carved into the mountain.
Two million people go through Keystone every summer, Dellinger says, and he's hoping some of them will stop to see his twice-daily shows at the Miner's Music Hall, 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., sandwiched between the resident troupe's family-style country music revues. They're the kind, Dellinger says, that always have a 3-year-old in them.
He had occasion to do a little market testing while he was up in South Dakota this spring. He was dressed in one of his Teddy Roosevelt outfits to chat with Park Service officials at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial where he would like to circulate in costume and pass out information on his theatre. (The Park Service told him he couldn't advertise overtly, but strolling about in costume and encouraging questions was all right.)
On the way out, Dellinger overheard a couple talking about the faces on the mountain. "You know, Teddy Roosevelt was an afterthought," the woman told her husband, not knowing who was behind her.
"I was never an afterthought," Dellinger said indignantly, jumping at the chance to spread the word. "Gutzon Borglum wanted me all along."
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