Being Lincoln: Fritz Klein talks about life as an impersonator
He’s been back in his hometown for only a few days, and must depart soon for an extended tour of the East Coast.
Being Honest Abe is hard but rewarding work, says Richard F. “Fritz” Klein, who has been portraying the 16th president for more than 30 years and is considered one of the nation’s top Lincoln interpreters.
With the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birthday only months away, and a full line-up of events scheduled to honor the Great Emancipator, impersonators across the country are seeing a jump in bookings.
Not Klein, who says he’s been “maxed out” for years.
“I haven’t gotten more business,” he says, “but the people who call tend to call for bicentennial reasons.”
Klein fell into playing Lincoln by chance. He was working as a landscaper in Hawaii, doing community theater on the side. In a local pageant about Hawaiian history, he portrayed preacher Lyman Beecher. Somebody spotted the lanky 28-year-old actor in a mourning coat and top hat, and decided he was a dead ringer for Lincoln. It was 1976, and there were plenty of U.S. Bicentennial events that could use a Lincoln impersonator. “I thought it’s really a stretch; I was supposed to be playing the president, so I had to age 30 years,” Klein says. He was young, so it took him up to four hours to make the transformation, he says. These days, it doesn’t take as long.
By 1980, Klein and his wife, Linda, gambled on the possibility that being Lincoln could become a full-time occupation, but they wanted to move closer to where the work would most likely be. He considered a number of possibilities with historic ties — Gettysburg, Pa.; Washington, D.C.; the birthplace near Hodgenville, Ky.; and the boyhood home in Spencer County, Ind. — but the couple decided on Springfield, where Lincoln spent his adulthood.
When they moved here, in 1982, Klein had ambitious plans for a bookstore, a gift shop, and a venue to perform nightly for tourists. “I didn’t realize at the time that pretty much all of downtown shut down at night,” he says. “Springfield is not Gettysburg.”
The occasional gigs he secured in his new hometown weren’t enough to support a growing family (the Kleins came to Springfield with two children; two more were born after they arrived). He’d have to hit the road, and the early days weren’t easy.
“Sometimes, I would lie awake in bed, just fretting how I would pay the next bill,” he says. “But things would always come along. And after a while, I just began developing a reputation.”
Early clients included conventions, service clubs, churches, and schools.
It was the kids who forced Klein to really learn Lincoln, warts and all.
“Initially, I stuck with Lincoln’s words, and that doesn’t fly with children. The language has changed too much. I couldn’t just go with scripts — these kids wanted to know what Lincoln was thinking,” he says. “ ‘Did he have a dog?’ ‘What were his kids’ names?’ ‘Where did he grow up?’ ‘Did he have any friends when he was a boy?’
“I’d write this stuff down, and I’d go back and study and say, ‘I’ll let you know.’ It just started opening up worlds of research.”
In a similar vein, he was often asked by professional groups to address a specific topic, and he’d have to crack the books, learning about Lincoln’s views on economics, constitutional issues, faith, and other weighty stuff. It’s not a stretch to channel Lincoln on contemporary matters — “he was involved in a lot of things,” Klein says. There are limits: “I can’t talk about rocket science.”
But Lincoln’s own life story, one marked by failure and loss, touches on universal themes — of determination, courage, and facing inestimable challenges — that Klein incorporates in many of his presentations and resonates with many audiences.
“Perseverance is one of the main things: Don’t be afraid to meet obstacles head on. Don’t be afraid of the opposition because, in many ways, they’re your friends — you’ll find out things from them that you’ll never find out from others.”
“Lincoln was notoriously adept at bringing in people who opposed him — his forgiving nature was one of his strongest cards because he could work with people that he knew were working against him and turn them into friends. That’s vital: trying to find ways we can work together.”
Klein says the message was especially meaningful after 9/11, when national unity became paramount. “Lincoln was able to allow minor differences to just go by the board and to look at what is our common cause.”
Lincoln took office as the nation was ripping apart, and had to act boldly to face the challenge of the Rebellion. But the steps he took permanently cemented the power of the federal government, and for that, he remains controversial even today.
“Now I’m not one to ascribe motives to people. Sometimes it may look like a duck, walk like a duck, smell like a duck — but you can’t accuse him of wanting to be a duck necessarily,” Klein says.
Lincoln acted because he had to, Klein says. “He took the bull by the horns, and did what needed to be done.”
Being Lincoln hasn’t meant just becoming invested in his biography, it also has meant shelling out serious money to make the experience authentic for audiences. Klein relies on tailors who specialize in period attire to produce his three-piece suits; his beaver stovepipe hats are ordered from a supplier in Canada; his boots also are specially fitted. The hat and cane each cost about $400; each suit about $1,200. Klein says his overcoat, made from a pattern he drew based on Lincoln’s actual garment, was a steal at $700.
Klein also hunts for early 19th-century items to better tell Lincoln’s story. For some school programs, he’ll show children how to write with quills — he invested in a $300 antique quill-cutter to make sure the feathers would actually write. His collection includes period toys, tools, and money. Among his treasured possessions are pre-Civil War marbles that were discovered in their original packaging during a construction project in Atlanta, as well as antebellum gold coins and other currency.
The more he’s portrayed Lincoln, the more the president has invaded Klein’s life, affecting the way he walks and talks. When sitting for family portraits, for example, photographers would chide him for not smiling. “It just became a habit [not to smile in photographs],” Klein says, “because in Lincoln’s time that was tantamount to bunny ears. Smiling was just foolish.”
Klein definitely doesn’t want to appear foolish. For example, he’s steered clear of the Association of Lincoln Presenters, an 18-year-old organization of nearly 300 impersonators. “I have a board of advisors that is composed of people from the business community, the religious community, the school community — people who represents the various elements that I try to market to — and they have just felt like it’s important for me to keep my work on a fairly professional level.”
“They’ve advised me don’t appear in public or on camera with other Lincolns,” he says. “So when this association came along, I thought more power to them, but I’m not a member and I’ve not gone to any of their meetings. It’s fine to do that, but I would hope it wouldn’t degenerate into Elvises jumping out of airplanes over Las Vegas.”
Not surprisingly, Klein skipped the association’s April 2008 gathering in Alton, Ill., where about 80 Lincolns showed up to mark the sesquicentenniel of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Klein refuses to endorse other Lincoln impersonators for bookings he can’t take. “I don’t want to be responsible for anybody else, if they do a good job or not.” Although he turned 60 this summer — “I’m older than Lincoln was when he was dead,” he quips — he’s not grooming an understudy.
He’s also careful about the type of appearances he’ll accept. One long-time client, Lincoln Financial Group, taps him for ribbon-cuttings and other corporate appearances, but Klein won’t do anything that makes Lincoln look ridiculous.
“Roller-skate through the aisles — I won’t do that.”
Klein did, however, don an apron last year to catch a salmon at Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market.
“I’m not above humor and having a good time,” he says, smiling. — Roland Klose (email@example.com)
Klein’s appearances have included the History Channel, NPR, and summer-long stints at Mt. Rushmore. He’s featured in a two-hour documentary, which is scheduled to air next spring in Europe, produced by Vidicom Media Productions of Hamburg, Germany. He’s also booked for several appearances in Springfield, during the week of Lincoln’s birthday. For more information, go to http://www.LincolnInstitute.com.