Edgar Allan Poe looks pretty good for a guy who is 209 years old. You might not believe that, but you can see for yourself on Friday, March 22, when he visits Town Square in Baton Rouge. Poe will be on hand to speak, read some of his poetry and mingle with the crowd a little, courtesy of Bob Gleason, a Chatauqua-style performer who makes a living portraying Poe and other historic personages such as Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee.
Gleason’s appearance is being sponsored by the East Baton Rouge Parish Library as part of the Poe Party, an event of the January-to-May One Book One Community reading program. He is prepped and ready.
“Last week I was Mark Twain in Indiana. Tonight I’ll be Abraham Lincoln in Doylestown (Pa.). Month before last, I was Gilbert Stuart in Laredo, Texas, I painted George Washington’s portrait down there for the college (Texas A&M International University). Oh, I’ve done Thomas Paine and Gen. Sir William Howell, who was Washington’s opponent during the Revolutionary War. I’ve done Robert E. Lee in Buffalo Gap, Texas — a whole slew of folks. I do everybody but Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin,” Gleason said in a phone interview from Philadelphia, where he lives.
“For this particular situation, I believe it’s an hour program. I do about 40-some minutes of the actual program, then we take questions — if any. I start with some poetry, and I have a little banter I do about his life and what’s he up to at that particular point in the twilight zone. I do a reading, a la Charles Dickens, from ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ or ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ unless somebody requests something,” Gleason said. “We always do ‘The Raven.’ People expect ‘The Raven.’ And a couple of others. That generally fills up the time, then we open up the floor to questions.”
Gleason is ready for the questions, which he will answer in character. He works hard to be Poe.
“I read a lot. I get any kind of biographical programs that PBS does just to absorb facts and information and tidbits and bons mots and anything that might come in handy. I just kind of stuff myself full of history so that I can cover eras. Once you have an era under your belt, you can kind of plug anybody into it. The history stays the same, just the names change,” Gleason said. As a matter of fact, he even resembles Poe quite a bit. “It’s sort of my specialty, looking like other people. I’ve got a box full of mustaches, three drawers of wigs, quite a collection of costumes, pieces and odds and ends. I’ve done over than 150 historical characters for one reason or another in the last 30 years. Have hat, will travel.”
Ironically, it was a desire to travel less that led Gleason into his current line of work. “I got my degree in theater and started to pursue it, then one day noticed that I had four children. And with four children you can’t go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for six weeks, they’ll burn the house down. So I had to find something to do that would keep me in the area, and, living outside of Philadelphia, there was a large need for people to do what we call ‘historic interpretation’ as opposed to re-enactors who run around and shoot each other,” Gleason said. “We actually talk, give speeches and get paid.”
It’s not his first trip to Baton Rouge, but it will be his first performance here. “As a matter of fact, I have (been there). Early in the century my son was studying at LSU, and I went down to deliver him and pick up some odds and ends, so I’ve been down that way twice,” he said. “He was studying landscape architecture and now he’s a chef. He had a great time there, just not much of it in the classroom.” Gleason said he would call on his son for recommendations for Louisiana dishes to sample.
He plans on doing some of that when he’s here and expects to have a good time, especially if his audience responds to his performance. “As long as there is an audience and they can hear me, I’m fine,” he said.
“We hope that choosing the works of Edgar Allan Poe for a community reading experience will allow everyone to rediscover his unique and brilliant voice as a writer — and, in many cases, perhaps develop a new appreciation for him and his varied writing,” East Baton Rouge Parish Library director Spencer Watts said. “Often we have read Poe, initially, as a relatively youthful reader, and were struck by the more macabre elements he so skillfully utilized; but, by focusing on his work, themes and literary techniques we can begin to more fully enjoy the complexity of his stories and the timelessness of the fears and human frailties that he so eloquently, and always cleverly, highlighted. In addition, our celebration of Poe gives us an opportunity to take stock of the significant contributions he made to both American, and world, literature. I always feel a special debt to Poe as the creator of the modern detective story, one of my favorite genres,”
East Baton Rouge Parish Library assistant director Mary Stein said the Poe Party is 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Town Square, North Boulevard at Third Street. Gleason’s “Edgar Allan Poe, in my vision” will be presented before 7 p.m. and again before 8 p.m. Gleason will roam the crowd as Poe between the performances.
Free food items including POEboys (sliders with pulled pork, sliced turkey, hamburger, roast beef or tuna), POEtatoes (chips and dips), POEslaw (coleslaw) and POEtions (lemonade or iced tea) will be offered as long as supplies last. A photographer will shoot POElaroid photos (digital photos).
There will poetry and, between Poe and poetry, free music by Dunham Jazz Band, Another Star and the Mike Foster Project.