COLUMBUS — John Cooper’s obsession with being Abraham Lincoln began one score and five years ago. Its beginnings were humble.
Tall, lean and bearded, the Ohio man already bore a passing resemblance to the Rail Splitter, or so he was told. One Halloween he donned a frock coat he found in his mother’s attic, and his wife fashioned a stovepipe hat out of cardboard. A little spray paint on his beard, and he was ready for trick or treat with the kids.
He was so convincing that before long he was invited to come to schools in costume around Presidents Day. Then people started paying him to show up at their events in character to talk about the 16th president.
The rest is history.
But honestly, this is a huge weekend for the 62-year-old Cooper, who is helping to host a gathering of impersonators of the Great Emancipator in Columbus.
The 19th annual convention of the Association of Lincoln Presenters has attracted around three dozen Abes in chin beards and full regalia, along with 30 or so Mary Todd Lincolns and various other Civil War-era figures, including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
“I tell people I think we hold this convention just so we can run around in our costumes all weekend,” says Cooper, a retired Defense Department parts manager.
In Columbus, the Lincoln impersonators will walk where he walked — and where he lay in state after he was assassinated in 1865. Lincoln gave speeches at the Ohio Statehouse in 1859 and 1861, and his casket rested in the building’s rotunda for six hours on its way from Washington back to Illinois for burial. More than 50,000 stood in line to pay their respects.
On Friday morning, Jerry Payn, a Lincoln from Wooster, Ohio, stepped to the podium in the Ohio House chamber and delivered word-for-word the speech given by Lincoln in the same room just before his inauguration in 1861.
Payn, a 74-year-old retired junior high school science teacher, has been playing Lincoln since 1999 and does as many as 100 gigs a year. He says the key to being a great Lincoln is gaining in-depth knowledge of his life, speeches and writings.
“When I first started, I’m ashamed to say I was one of the dumbest guys there ever was about Abraham Lincoln,” says Payn, whose wife, Marilyn, has become a Mary Todd Lincoln impersonator. “At this point I can talk about anything about his whole life.”
The Lincolns have a certain spring in their step this year thanks to a wave of attention brought by the Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln,” which earned an Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of Honest Abe. Some of the impersonators say the excitement has led to more work for them. They can fetch several hundred dollars and up for appearances.
On Friday night, all the Lincolns planned to go to a high school in suburban Columbus to see a student production of “Our American Cousin,” the play Lincoln was watching when he was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington on April 15, 1865.
Organizers said the crack of a snare drum would mark the exact moment in the show when the shot was fired, and a student portraying Lincoln’s wife would add a scream for dramatic effect.
One of the Abe impersonators in town for the convention, Robert Broski, 60, who lives near Los Angeles, looked so much like Lincoln even without the whiskers that he was persuaded to portray him in an independent film about five years ago.
“I grew the beard, and I looked in the mirror and I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is my destiny. This is who I am!’” says Broski, who works at a Home Depot. He has parlayed that into a couple of Lincoln gigs a month, including appearances in a few gags on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show.
The Lincolns all seem to agree that one doesn’t really have to be blessed — or cursed, some might say — with a great physical resemblance to the president.
The Abes in Columbus range from well under 6 feet tall to Lincoln’s actual height of 6-foot-4. Some are barrel-chested, some slight. There are gray beards and black beards, and one beardless Lincoln. The costumes vary greatly in extravagance.
“We’re presenters. We’re not impersonators, necessarily,” Broski says. “You don’t have to look like Mr. Lincoln. But if you take a beard, a top hat and a frock coat and put it on, people instantly know who you are. What’s important is getting across his character, his honesty, his integrity.”