First ladies come to life as 'President's Wives' performances return to Marco

B. ELAINE MICHAELIS
Special to Coastal Life
Front lft - Doreen Hertel, Marion Nicolay, Judy Daye, Linda Kropp. Standing - Kay Folsom. Not Pictured - Faye Moore.

For a short time, Marco audiences will once again get to see five former first ladies come to life before their very eyes.

"The Presidents' Wives" is back again — by popular demand — with two performances by Marco Island Historical Society re-enactors: one on Sunday, Feb. 15., at 2 p.m., and the other on Monday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m.

But there is another story that should also to be told — what these talented actresses did to create and bring their roles to the stage.

Take, for example, Marion Nicolay. At 85 years old, Nicolay is the oldest of the first lady re-enactors. She also is legally blind and has been for more than 31 years. Family and friends helped research her role of Edith Galt Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson (1913-21), sending much of that information to her via email. Her script, however, is all her own.

Nicolay used both a talking computer and a closed-circuit television reading machine to organize her anecdotal material and perfect her performance, a time-consuming and difficult task with limited visual abilities. A former teacher, Nicolay says: "It's fun to be back on stage again — as all teachers are — after an absence of more than 50 years."

The first thing you notice when you meet Faye Moore is her strong Southern drawl.

"I choose first ladies from the South. That way I don't have to change my accent," Moore says. Last year, she played Lady Bird Johnson. This year, Rosalynn Carter, wife of President Jimmy Carter (1977-81), was another perfect fit.

Moore does not memorize lines but rather speaks extemporaneously. She was a debater in college and is used to speaking "off the cuff" and having an abundance of material to cull from. For her research, she went directly to the source: the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, where she now lives full-time. According to Moore, President Carter has gone on to do "wonderful things since leaving office, more than any other president, and Rosalynn has been there with him every step of the way."

Not at all shy, Moore plans to call upon the Carters — they still maintain an apartment in Atlanta while the former president teaches at Emory University — and ask Rosalynn for some tips and advice, as well as to invite her to Marco for the performances.

"I've got a live one here," says Moore. "You better believe that when I drive down I'm going to try to bring the former first lady with me."

The newest member of "The Presidents' Wives" is Linda Kropp, a former science teacher at the Marco Island Academy. Asked why she chose to re-enact the life of Sarah Childress Polk, wife of James Polk (1845-49), Kropp said, "I was intrigued by the period, as well as by Polk, who was a strong¸ well-educated woman during very hard times. She played a major role in her husband's decision-making throughout his career."

Kropp's biggest challenge was coming up with a costume appropriate to the mid-1800s. She ended up sewing her own, combining several patterns to create the correct underskirts and overskirts, in those days up to 10 yards of fabric, and augmenting them with lace trims. To complete the illusion, she purchased a hoop skirt, hairpiece, shawl, snood, fan and lace gloves. "It is not easy wearing that costume, especially going up and down stairs with two knee replacements," she says.

Doreen Herteltook on the role of Julia Gardiner Tyler, wife of President John Tyler (1841-45), who was 30 years her senior. For the eight months that Tyler served as first lady, according to Hertel, "she always wore white; dressed her ladies in waiting (a European affectation) in white; even her carriage horses were white." Hertel found the perfect costume at the Bargain Basket, a wedding gown, which she altered for the occasion.

According to Hertel, getting ready for the production took over her life. "No sooner did I finish last year's performance than I had to start the research for this year," she says.

Judy Daye, who will portray Helen Louise Taft, wife of President Howard Taft (1909-13), agrees.

"It took months to research, write and come up with a script that I could memorize and felt appropriate for the time that I had. There was so much more that I could have used, including the fact that Taft smoked, drank beer and gambled at cards, outrageous behavior for that period of history," says Daye.

Before their actual performance, the re-enactors had one additional hurdle to overcome. Their scripts had to be approved by Saundra Martel, a former attorney and contract appeals judge in Washington, D.C., "with a lifelong interest in history, the presidents and their first ladies." Martell has been described as a script writer, editor, fact checker and historical authenticator but all the re-enactors agreed that her role was absolutely essential to fine tuning what they had written, as well as making their material historically accurate.

Credit should also be given to Kay Folsom, who brought the idea of "The Presidents' Wives" to the MIHS Re-enactors more than three years ago. Normally, Folsom would be appearing as a first lady herself. But this year she decided to take a "break" and will serve as the performance moderator. Also, the re-enactors owe much of their success to island historian, chief organizer and producer Betsy Perdichizzi. Proceeds will benefit the Marco Island Historical Society.

If you go Feb. 15-16

Tickets are $20 (cash or check only) per person and may be purchased at the gift shop at the Marco Island Historical Museum or at Kay's on the Beach. Performances are held in the Rose History Auditorium. For more information, call 642-1440.