Friday, April 17, 2015

Abe Lincoln, Steve Martin and Knott's Berry Farm

Steve Martin as Asa Trenchard in Our American Cousin, 1965.
A couple days ago, Janet Whitcomb, who usually writes about South O.C. history, emailed me a great North O.C. story taken from her own childhood memories. It was so interesting, in fact, that I asked if she'd let me share it here. So without further ado,...

Wednesday, April 15, 2015
From: Janet Whitcomb:
Subject: With apologies to Sgt. Pepper: It was 150 years ago today...

This morning I suddenly realized, while listening to my car's radio on my way to work, that I knew exactly where I was 50 years ago.

Knott's Berry Farm!

More specifically, my mother and grandmother took me to see an abridged production of Our American Cousin at Knott's Berry Farm's Birdcage Theater. And it may well have been that we attended on April 14th instead of the 15th . . . but read on, and I’ll go into that issue a bit later.

Our American Cousin was the play President and Mrs. Lincoln attended the evening of April 14, 1865. And as anyone who has studied American history knows, during the play's performance—halfway through Act III, Scene 2, to be a bit more exact—John Wilkes Booth gained access to the theater box where the Lincolns and their guests were seated and assassinated President Lincoln.
Martin's rustic character proves out-of-place in Victorian England.
As for our presence at Knott's Berry Farm's Birdcage Theater . . . We arrived in the afternoon (it was a school day, after all) with the express purpose of attending the play. (These were the days when both entrance to and parking at Knott's were free of charge.) Soon we'd found seats in the theater and, once the lights went down, saw to our immediate right—where a "box seat" would've been located—the silhouetted figure of Lincoln. This silhouette remained lit until the third act, when immediately after the following line:
"Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap."
—a single shot rang out and the entire theater went dark. Then the lights came up, one of the play's actors rushed out and very nervously announced: "On this day, one hundred years ago, the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was shot."[Or died, depending on which day we were there, as Lincoln was shot on April 14th and died April 15th. I simply remember my mom made sure I was aware that we were attending on a Very Important Anniversary.] The actor then added a few other words to the effect that Lincoln would live forever in the hearts of Americans, and that the play would now resume.

Which it did . . . minus the illuminated silhouette.

Obviously all of this made an impression on me, for as I was driving to school this morning I heard about commemoration ceremonies at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. At which point I recalled that my mother and grandmother were thoughtful enough to give me a Lincoln memory of my own.

And here’s a postscript to this “memory play”: Upon looking up the Birdcage Theater’s production of Our American Cousin online, I found information  indicating that actor/comedian Steve Martin may well have been in the production we saw. This link takes you to [Dave DeCaro's website], Daveland, which displays a very young Steve Martin, in photos from the production dated June 1965. So perhaps Steve was on stage in April as well.  I certainly remember the barn backdrop with the exaggerated perspective. At the time, however, I was far more interested in animals and drawing than I was in actors!

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