Five years ago, I tried out for the leading man in the musical production of Annie at the Guymon Community Theatre. Had I gotten that role as Daddy Warbucks, I would have shaved my head and become a billionaire. I did not get the part. At first, I was disappointed not to get to be the man who sits atop the Forbes Fictional 15, but the director gave me the choice between taking the part of Bert Healy or the President of the United States. Choosing to be fully dressed, with or without a smile, I quickly settled into the character role of FDR.
The first thing I learned about dear old Franklin Delano Roosevelt is that he married his cousin, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt. So, now I have to pretend to be some guy who married his cousin and later became the President of the United States? I do not remember learning about this in school, but it is nonetheless true. Although, I am still trying to figure out if Eleanor kept her maiden name, took Franklin’s, or both. Take your pick. Either way, this just seems creepy to me.
I also learned that those Pince-nez glasses FDR wore do not stay on your nose when you are sweating under the stage lights. Thankfully, after much experimentation, I figured out that false eyelash glue works perfectly for keeping those Pince-nez spectacles on your face. I even learned something that FDR probably did not know: you cannot buy a tube of false eyelash glue without the false eyelashes, and the clerks at Wally World are not used to seeing guys go through the express lane buying false eyelashes for themselves.
I listened to all the recordings I could find of FDR speeches. I tried to imitate his accent, practiced the cadence of his words. I found one of those old cigarette holders on eBay too. I jutted my jaw forward, and I clinched that cigarette holder in my teeth until my checks ached. I applied his speech pattern to my lines as I rehearsed them. I tried to become FDR.
Although FDR did not want to be seen by the nation in his wheelchair, for this musical production, he needed to be seen in one. Somebody had spotted an antique wheelchair down at Guymon’s year around garage sale, so off I went to the dimly lit ex-VFW building to check it out. I found an antique wheelchair all right, but it was in pretty sorry condition with most of the wicker in need of repair or replacement. Plus, this chair was the super-pooper model, and I did not think that would look quite right in the footlights. I knew this chair would take a lot of work to be ready for the stage, but it was just what the President needed, so I bought it.
I had never done any kind of wicker repair work, so I surfed the Internet, reading tutorials and shopping for supplies, and finally ordering new webbing and spline for the chair. When the materials arrived, I had a problem. I had ordered natural wicker, but it was almost pure white. Turns out that wicker takes years of exposure to sunlight to turn that beautiful golden color. Going back to the Internet, I learned a little shortcut about giving wicker that aged look; when you wet the wicker, soak it in tea instead of water. We were without a bathtub for several days, but the tea bath worked perfectly. Then, after a bit of woodworking, no one would ever want to drop his or her drawers in this chair again. With the super-pooper feature permanently disabled, I sanded, I polished, I used a hair blow dryer to dry and tighten the wicker. Finally, after much work, love and attention, the chair was completed with only a few days to spare before opening night.
Following one of the performances, a frail little lady came up to me after the show to shake my hand and tell me how much she enjoyed my characterization of Roosevelt. “I remember him well, and you sounded just like him too,” she said to me. “You were very good, exactly like him, and I would know. I voted for him.”
“You can’t be old enough to remember Roosevelt,” I quipped as if it were a matter of fact.
Then returning the complement, she leaned in and whispered, “I think you played Roosevelt better than Roosevelt himself.”
What that woman said to me was music to my ears. I had finally done it. All the research, the practicing, the rehearsing, the hard work, it had all paid off. I had become FDR. I had become one with the wheelchair.
A year later, I rolled out onto the stage again as FDR in the sequel, Annie Warbucks. But ever since then, the old wheelchair has just been sitting in my garage. A few weeks ago, I finally came to a place where I decided I was ready to give up that old chair. I had come to terms, and was ready to say my good-byes. I loaded her up in the Suburban for one last trip down to the Guymon Community Theatre, where she will once again roll onto the stage and into the spotlight. Come this December, in the performance of It’s a Wonderful Life she will be seen in the roll [sic] of Henry F. Potter. I will not be on the stage with her, but I will be there in the audience to watch her…
… a chair which will roll in infamy.