Reaching 50 years of age wasn’t a problem for Phil Jessen. In fact, getting older actually opened up a whole new world for him.
“I woke up one morning about 16 years ago, went to the bathroom to brush my teeth, and while I’m looking in the mirror I got this really strange feeling,” said Jessen, an East Hartford resident and Abraham Lincoln impersonator who will help the Bridge Theater in Whitehall celebrate the town’s involvement in the Civil War at noon Saturday at the Whitehall Athletic Club.
“I didn’t think much of it, but then people started giving me double glances. Finally, one lady at the bank said, ‘You know, you look like Abraham Lincoln.’”
At 6-foot-4 and about 180 pounds, Jessen, CEO of the Glens Falls Association of the Blind, had long mirrored the 16th president’s height and weight. Then, as he approached 50, he decided to sport a beard, and that, along with his community theater experience, got Jessen thinking.
“I just happened to have grown a beard at the time, and I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I can do something with this,’ ” remembered Jessen. “I thought I bore some resemblance to the man, so I acquired some period-appropriate costuming, a stovepipe hat and started doing a few educational programs at schools and senior centers.”
Learning his role
Jessen, however, had a problem. He was never a big history buff, and during his presentations, he was always equipped with index cards that he would typically read to the audience.
‘Whitehall’s Civil War Celebration — 1863’
WHAT: A presentation by Abraham Lincoln impersonator Phil Jessen
WHERE: Whitehall Athletic Center, 62 Poultney St., Whitehall
WHEN: Noon Saturday
HOW MUCH: $15, $13 for children 17 and younger
MORE INFO: 499-0477 or 499-2657
“Then one day, I was about to start my presentation and they lowered the lights,” said Jessen. “I couldn’t read from my index cards, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, it’s time to sink or swim.’ So, I just started to speak, it went pretty well, and now, after several years, I think I have incorporated the whole spirit of the man into my presentations. I never use notes anymore.”
And, after 16 years of impersonating Lincoln, he also has a big library, filled with history books relating to the “Illinois Rail Splitter.”
“My brother-in-law thinks it’s hilarious that I was never a big fan of history, and now I have all these books on Lincoln piled up in the library waiting to be read,” said Jessen. “And I’ve enjoyed all the reading. The more I read, the more I realized what an extraordinary political figure Lincoln was. He got a lot done while he was president, despite the Civil War, and he had the courage and the confidence in his own skills to pack his Cabinet with more Democrats than Republicans. He moved forward with confidence and conviction, despite facing some intense public criticism.”
Jessen, who has about 20 Lincoln presentations scheduled this year, said he was a big fan of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, “Lincoln,” with Daniel Day-Lewis portraying the title character.
“I thought it was an extraordinary film, and I was just mesmerized by it,” said Jessen. “There were a few things that maybe wouldn’t have happened, like Lincoln slapping his son Robert in the face. I don’t think he would have done that. But overall it was a great film. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.”
Jessen, a Long Island native, is a member of the Association of Lincoln Presenters, a national group with about 300 members, all of them Lincoln impersonators. During Saturday’s program, “Whitehall’s Civil War Celebration - 1863,” Jessen will talk for about 45 minutes and then conclude with a reading of the Gettysburg Address. The program will also include other actors impersonating characters such as Clara Barton, Julia Ward Howe, and John Joseph Abercrombie, the oldest general in the Union Army.
Music will be provided by the 77th Regiment Balladeers, and Lance Ingmire, president of the Friends of the New York State Military Museum, will offer a presentation of historical Lincoln photographs.
Held in conjunction with the Arts and Recreation Commission of Whitehall, Saturday’s celebration will also include letters written by Whitehall residents during the Civil War.
“We have six or seven letters written by Whitehall people, two of them soldiers, and we will have actors reading those letters,” said Martin Kelly, director of the Bridge Theater. “They give you a good indication of what it was like back then. Some are letters written by soldiers back home, and others are letters that were written from Whitehall to soldiers with the Union army. They’re letters from young people who, even with all the flag waving, are realizing how horrible war really is.”
A former theater critic for the Albany Times Union, Kelly started the Bridge Theater acting troupe in 2000 on a portion of the bridge spanning Lock 12 of the Champlain Canal in Whitehall. When that structure was deemed unsafe in 2009, Kelly moved his group to a nearby recreation center. The last two years, he hasn’t produced any major theatrical events and instead has produced cabaret-style projects at the Whitehall Athletic Club, formerly the Whitehall Armory and now owned by Greg Gross.
“I’m taking baby steps right now,” said Kelly, when asked about the future, “but we’re hopeful of getting a few grants, maybe producing some plays in the future and really turning this place into a community hub. Greg Gross has been wonderful welcoming us, and the people of Whitehall have really supported us.”