Lucretia Garfield, the wife of 20th U.S. President James A. Garfield, was born 170 years ago this month. And the James A. Garfield National Historic Site is celebrating this joyous occasion by hosting Tea With Lucretia, a one-man show of stories and memories, on April 28. It's just like Give 'Em Hell, Harry! . . . if that award-winning production had featured a guy dressed like a former First Lady.
Craig Schermer has made somewhat of a career of First Lady impersonation, portraying Mary Lincoln, Grace Coolidge, and eight others (including all six Ohio-born First Ladies) over the past decade. "I try to keep myself out of them as much as possible," he explains. "But it's hard to separate them [from my personality]. I probably give them a little more humor than they had, just to keep the audience [interested]."
But there's something special about Lucretia, with whom Schermer says he shares certain characteristics. "Even though I'm very flamboyant [onstage], I'm basically a shy person," he says. "Lucretia was a very quiet, repressed woman. But she was also a real bitch on wheels."
Schermer, 54, first put on a corset and dress -- all authentic era duds, by the way -- nine years ago. His interest in history, particularly the Civil War period, led to taking it one step further. "My mother told me that I had an ability to present history interestingly," he says. "But there's the problem of being a man. She said, 'The stories will tell themselves, and people will forget that you're a man doing a woman.'" And they did.
It's tempting to step into the clothes of modern First Ladies -- Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, and Nancy Reagan would all be super subjects, Schermer says -- but he keeps his roles to the long-dead gals. "We really don't know what Mary Lincoln sounded like," he explains. "But people remember Eleanor Roosevelt's voice, so I can't get away with faking her.
"They're all too visible now. And I can't do any that are still living, because their stories aren't over yet. But there are some great ones there."
Schermer sees contemporary parallels in the tales from the past. Just like Beyoncé of Destiny's Child, "Mary Lincoln was a survivor, and she overcame obstacles," he says. "Lucy Hayes [supported] education. Caroline Harrison was involved in the arts. And Ellen Wilson lobbied for [women's rights]."
Which is why Florence Harding (wife of Warren G., not the rapper, but the Ohio-born 29th President) is his favorite. She was 80 years ahead of her time, he says. "She speaks to the modern woman more so than she did to the women in the '20s. There was so much potential there."
And she was his first successful impersonation. "She gave me the courage to do the others."
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