Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Washington Social Diary - A Lincoln Quartet

The newly restored Ford's Theatre from the stage. The desk and chair are where actor David Selby portrays Abraham Lincoln in "The Heavens Are Hung in Black.
By Carol Joynt


Before we focus on the iconic American president who was honored throughout the past week – Abraham Lincoln - a moment please to praise the President of right now, Barack Obama. Rather than politics, it has to do with sartorial splendor. (A nod to Fashion Week, if you will). In other words, how good did he look Wednesday night at Ford’s Theatre? He looked very good, a well-dressed man, comfortable in his skin, not to mention the contemporary tailoring of a dinner suit that featured a long black silk tie rather than a bow tie. We may not want to see Defense Secretary Bob Gates or Majority Leader Harry Reid done up the same way, but President Obama rocked this look, which usually is sported at awards ceremonies on the other coast. President Obama’s natural sense of style elevated it to real elegance. It became his.

Not to forget the First Lady. Michelle Obama walked into Ford’s Theatre in a sleeveless dark gray and white dress that fell to just below her knees. Pitch perfect for the event. In an instant every woman in a long gown appeared to be from Lincoln’s era. Together, the First Couple were fresh and modern. Could they make Washington the leading edge of American fashion? If fashion can create optimism and confidence – both sorely needed here and everywhere else - then they achieved at least that at the grand re-opening of a landmark of American history and a staple of Washington culture.
George Lucas, Mellody Hobson, First Lady Michelle Obama, Sidney Poitier, President Barack Obama, Paul Tetreault at the gala re-opening of Ford’s Theatre that happened last Wednesday night, on Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

I don’t know precisely how many times Ford’s Theatre has undergone renovation since it was built as a church in 1833. In a zigzag of events it went from being a church to being a theatre and then was closed by the government after President Lincoln was mortally wounded there on the night of April 14, 1865.

He was carried across the street to Petersen’s Boarding House, where he was laid out on a too-small bed in a tiny back bedroom. In the morning he died.

Over the years Ford’s was destroyed by fire, rebuilt, served as a records warehouse, a medical museum, a War Department clerks office and a library. In the late 1890s, the interior collapsed and killed or injured many people, and from the 1930s until 1968 it just sat there – unused or barely used. Some thought it was cursed.
The Presidential Box where Abraham Lincoln was shot. None of the box is original to Lincoln's time, but it is an authentic replication, including the door where John Wilkes Booth entered to fire his deadly shot.
Anyone who knows Ford's Theatre will appreciate that the new renovation included replacing the theater chairs with legitimate theater seats. The chairs had a lovely period feel but were uncomfortable.
Another view of the Presidential Box where Abraham Lincoln was shot.
Then along came a well-connected former Capitol Hill staffer named Frankie Hewitt. She had a vision: that the near-rotting old theatre building could again be a thriving production facility. She knew how to beneficially manipulate the government, her then-husband, “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt, and a variety of friendly celebrities like Liza Minelli, Jimmy Stewart and Luciano Pavarotti, to help get the money needed to make her vision into reality. Because of Hewitt, Ford’s Theatre dramatically re-opened for the first time on Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12, 1968. She produced 150 shows before her death at age 71 in 2003.

In recent years, the theatre functioned well enough; tourists and school children filed in for tours and special programs during the day, at night there were a variety of productions, but behind the scenes the systems were getting old, and almost everyone complained about the period-style hard backed chairs that served as theatre seats.
Ford's Theatre has only two levels - orchestra and the first balcony.
The view from the second balcony, which is used only for lights and crew, not audience.
The refurbished ceiling detail at Ford's Theatre.
Eighteen months ago a new renovation got started with millions of dollars of funds raised by The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Campaign. The list of major donors reads like it’s out of a time capsule from before the sky fell. They include Ron Perelman, Sheila Johnson, Catherine and Wayne Reynolds, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Qatar, Raytheon, American Airlines, Exxon Mobil, BP, AT&T, General Dynamics, Toyota, David and Alice Rubenstein, Carl and Edyth Lindner, Samsung, the Freed Foundation, Lockheed Martin, Marriott, Sunoco, Southern Company, O’Melveny and Myers, BAE Systems, Foster Wheeler, the Paul Singer Family Foundation. Now Ford’s gleams again, it has a new lobby entrance, state of the art technical facilities, and comfortable theatre seats.
The new Ronald O. Perelman Board Room.
Ford's Theatre credits Perelman with making the recent restoration possible. The opening presentation of the refurbished Ford's Theatre.
Some of the people, foundations, corporations and even a country - Qatar - that contributed to The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Campaign.
Preserved in its haunting tableaux as always is the replica of the box where President and Mrs. Lincoln sat with friends, watching the third act of “Our American Cousin,” when actor John Wilkes Booth burst forward from a side door and fired.

It’s impossible to be in Ford’s Theatre and not stare at the box with an eerie wonder, no matter whether it’s a first or umpteenth visit.
Directly across 10th Street from Ford's Theatre, the house where Abraham Lincoln died.
Though the furnishings are not original, this is the room where President Abraham Lincoln died, and the furniture is arranged as it would have been on that April night and morning.
The front room of the house, where First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln waited through the night for news of her husband's fate.
Ford's Theatre on a sunny February morning just days before its grand reopening. Only the building's brick exterior is original to the time of Lincoln.
To the left is the new and modern entrance to Ford's Theatre.

Which brings us back to the gala re-opening that happened Wednesday night, on Lincoln’s 200th birthday. It had been a tumultuous week of politics in pursuit of an economic stimulus bill, but in the paradox that is Washington social life, we trash talk each other all day and then get dressed up and act like grown ups at night. In the spirit of its 1968 reopening, Ford’s put on a really big show.

The stage program included talks and performances by Richard Thomas, who was emcee; James Earl Jones, Jessye Norman, Jeffrey Wright, Kelsey Grammer, David Selby, Michael Kramer, Chaney Tullos, Jonathan Watkins, Cheryl Freeman, Audra McDonald, Katie Couric, Steven Carpenter, Norman Aronovic, Ben Vereen, Patrick Lundy & The Ministers of Music, and the United States Marine Band. In a remarkable moment, Joshua Bell played a special violin. According to Liza Lorenz of Ford’s, “It was played in the orchestra at the performance that Lincoln attended the night he was assassinated.” This was the first time it was played since.

Also, actor Sidney Poitier and director George Lucas were each awarded the Lincoln Medal by the Ford’s Theatre Society.
Little Lincolns that were to be given in gratitude to the country of Qatar, Exxon Mobil, AT&T, General Dynamics, Catherine Reynolds, Sheila Johnson, Ron Perelman, Toyota, and David and Alice Rubenstein. Organizing the swag: an engraved crystal paperweight marking the date and place of the grand reopening of Ford's Theatre.
The table settings at the dinner in honor of Ford's Theatre and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial
The plates and menu featured pheasant, a food favored by President Lincoln.
Apart from Lincoln’s memory and the theatre itself, the biggest star of the night was President Obama, who remarked on Lincoln’s legacy.

“For despite all that divided us – north and south, black and white – he had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation, and one people. And because of Abraham Lincoln ... that is what we remain today. It is for that reason that we are able to gather this evening.”
The National Portrait Gallery's atrium moments before the guests arrived.
The front side of commemoratives to be handed out to favored sponsors. The backside, with thanks to Sunoco, Raytheon, Marriott, Lockheed Martin, American Airlines, Sheldon Adelson and others.
Table hopping before dinner is served.
During dinner the guests were serenaded by the Crystal Strings.
While the President and First Lady returned to the White House, approximately 600 guests walked a few short blocks from Ford’s Theatre to the National Portrait Museum, which in Lincoln’s time was the U.S. Patent Office and the site of the celebration for his second inauguration.

Wednesday’s dinner was served in the adjacent and vaulting Kogod Courtyard. The menu was a homage to foods of the 1860s, including Field Mushroom Terrine, Roast Pheasant with Cranberry-port Sauce and Winter Vegetables, and Toffee Pudding Cake with Caramel Sauce.
George Lucas and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Katie Couric. Kelsey Grammer.
David Selby (who plays Lincoln in the current Ford's production, The Heavens Are Hung In Black) presents an illuminated copy of the Gettysburg Address to President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Flanked by the cast, President Barack Obama pays tribute to the reopening of Ford's Theatre.
In a departure from gala dinner routine, no one had to buy tickets for this extravaganza. It was purely a “thank you” to friends and supporters of Ford’s Theatre.

Guests included a heavy Administration turnout: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Attorney General, Eric Holder, and his wife, Sharon Malone; White House special counsel Greg Craig and his wife, Derry Noyes; Presidential Assistant Ronald Klain and Monica Medina, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, National Security Adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, and, trying but failing to avoid cameras, a notable almost-Cabinet member, Tom Daschle, who in the spirit of Washington sportsmanship, could be commended for showing up at all.
Catherine Reynolds. Mayor Adrian Fenty gives a radio interview to Washington's well known "Man About Town" Bob Madigan.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Becky Gates. Debbie Dingell and Michelle Fenty.
Ron Perelman. A trio of Texans: Charlene Howell, Charles Francis, Caroline Rose Hunt.
White House Counsel Greg Craig, his wife Derry, and Attorney General Eric Holder. George Lucas.
Judge William T. Newman, his wife, Sheila Johnson, and Sanford and Miriam Ain. Rima Al Sabah.
Bob Woodward with his wife, Elsa Walsh. Tom and Linda Daschle.
Abraham Lincoln, aka actor David Selby, talks with Josephine Cooper of Toyota. Mary and Mark Leithauser talk with David Selby. That's Samia Farouki to the right, smiling.

The people who run the Newseum don’t shirk from the fact their building stands on ground that was central in the plot to murder Abraham Lincoln. Instead, they make it part of an exhibition. On the very same land in 1865 stood the National Hotel, where John Wilkes Booth occupied Room 228 in the days before the assassination.

The boarding house of Mary Suratt, where the conspirators met, is also nearby (today a restaurant called Wok n’ Roll). Ford’s Theatre sits between both. Because of these sites and others, the trail of that traumatic moment in American history can be vividly traced through the downtown neighborhoods of Washington and into nearby Maryland. For history buffs it is a feast.
James L. Swanson's "Manhunt."
Historic posters from James Swanson's collection of Lincoln Assassination memorabilia.
Historian James L. Swanson’s expertise is the Lincoln Assassination. His book, “Manhunt,” is considered by many to be a lively and definitive account of what happened in the twelve days between when Lincoln was shot and Booth was captured and killed. The New York Times said that Swanson’s account, while faithful to historic facts, “streamlined the assassination's aftermath into an action-adventure version of these events.”

Swanson is a collector of Lincoln Assassination memorabilia, and the Newseum pulled together an exhibition of those artifacts, calling it, appropriately, “Manhunt.” On Valentine’s evening they held a reception to open the compact show, which will run until the end of the year.
Historian James L. Swanson. Much like the tabloids of today, this engraving of John Wilkes Booth was published in response to public demand for images of Lincoln's murderer.
Mary Kay Blake of the Newseum welcomes guests to the "Manhunt" reception.
James L. Swanson talks about the 12-day hunt for Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
Swanson spoke while guests focused on the framed fragments of the nation’s first assassination of a president. Katherine Tallmadge, an ardent “Manhunt” fan, commented on Swanson’s good fortune.

“How many authors have a three-year-old book that gets a brand new museum exhibit? His publisher has to be thrilled.”
A newspaper illustration of the Lincoln Assassination.
Photographs by Carol Joynt & Reflections Photography. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.