One town, six Teddys: ‘A good idea’
MEDORA, N.D. – The 26th president’s exuberant, high-pitched, clipped style of speech will ring throughout the Badlands today, maybe more than it ever has before.
A half-dozen versions of the Rough Rider, plus any echoes bouncing off the buttes, will be heard at what’s believed to be the country’s first gathering of Theodore Roosevelt re-enactors.
Joe Wiegand, a preeminent T.R. impersonator, conceived of this meeting of Teddys in Medora, a town not far from where the upper-class New York City native raised cattle.
“The penalty for a good idea is executing it,” Wiegand said this week as he tweaked the daylong schedule of performances at the Old Town Hall Theater.
Wiegand views the event as a way to promote Roosevelt re-enacting and forge bonds among its practitioners. “The rest of the guys out there who are doing T.R., they’re not my competition, they’re my colleagues,” he said. “We have a lot we can learn from each other.”
Along with Wiegand of Solana Beach, Calif., the other Roosevelt impersonators are Arch Ellwein of Sidney, Mont.; William Dietzler of Alexandria, Minn.; Steve Stark and Marty Jonason, both of Fargo; and Larry Marple of South Charleston, Ohio. Marple’s wife, Julia, will give her version of Edith Roosevelt, the president’s second wife and first lady.
Wiegand said it’s no coincidence that this event takes place on Edith’s 153rd birthday. “She says no way does she want 153 candles,” he said.
Bringing a life’s worth of re-enacting experience to the gathering is 73-year-old Jonason, a professional acting coach. He first played T.R. as a high school junior in Dickinson, and then in 1964, he earned the presidential part in “Old Four Eyes,” the show that preceded the Medora Musical.
Roosevelt “came to the Badlands at 23, I played him at 23,” Jonason said. “He weighed 138 pounds, I weighed 138 pounds. With my boots, I stood 5-foot-8, he stood 5-foot-8. He had bad vision, and he was a bad speller. I said, ‘I can do this role.’ ”
Jonason mentored Stark before Stark debuted as T.R. at a national conference of county agents in Wichita, Kan., in 1982. “Doing Teddy Roosevelt then took me all over North Dakota, and I think 23 other states with big and small groups,” said Stark, a cartoonist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead who makes historical charcoal sketches on long rolls of paper during his performances.
Stark and Jonason are prepared for today with Roosevelt-style push-broom mustaches, even though they haven’t portrayed the man for several years. In contrast, Wiegand, who also sports a real ’stache, has made re-enacting a full-time job.
“This is what I do to provide for my family,” he said. “I do about 300 shows a year across the country.”
Wiegand, 49, spent 20 years working in Illinois Republican politics before he started touring as T.R. in 2008. The same year, he ended up performing at the White House in celebration of Roosevelt’s 150th birthday.
With this year’s gathering not yet over, Wiegand has his eye on a second, bigger assemblage of Teddys.
“Next year, it’s realistic to think that we might have 15 or 20 T.R. re-enactors,” he said.
If you go
What: Gathering of Theodore Roosevelts
When: 10:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. today (Mountain time)
Where: Old Town Hall Theater and other sites in Medora, N.D.
Info: $10 admission; (800) MEDORA-1 or medora.com