|Donald Lewis portraying Jules Lion|
Holiday visitors to the French Quarter do double-takes when Baroness Pontalba promenades around Jackson Square or John James Audubon shows off his prized, mounted American Coot.
During December, historic local characters can be spied recounting colorful stories in the Dauphine Orleans Hotel lobby, taking tea in the Bourbon Orleans or playing Liars Club, a drinking game, at Napoleon House Bar – challenging customers to discern between historic fact and romantic fiction.
Actors with Louisiana History Alive celebrate the season, while educating and entertaining, as part of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation and French Quarter Festivals’ Christmas New Orleans Style festivities.
In a quirky anachronism, the meanderings of these notable 19th century Creoles can be daily traced on facebook. The troupe, which has been performing since 1997, traverse the ancient streets in period costume, frequenting shops, hotels and restaurants. Not only do they look like our predecessors, they channel them.
“We improvise in character in a conversational manner,” said Veronica Russell, the group’s artistic director as well as Josie Arlington, a Storyville madam.
The second floor of Russell’s shotgun apartment is packed with costumes, hoop skirts, bustles, hats, shoes, cravats, parasols and other props. She studied acting and costume design in college, becoming interested in history only after moving to New Orleans.
Claudia Baumgarten, an actor and costume shop owner, said women built the country, but get little recognition. She regularly plays Margaret Haughery, an Irish immigrant who was a successful businesswoman and philanthropist opening four orphanages. Dressed in a bonnet and full-length skirt, she convincingly impersonates the woman known as the “Angel of the Delta.”
“I used to carry a basket and say, ‘alms for the poor,’ but people either gave me money or ran the other way,” she said.
But formal costumes can hold some advantages.
“There’s not a guy who won’t step aside and open the door for you,” said Baumgarten who makes a habit of carrying a flask to ward off the chilly December air.
The actors come together for rehearsals to become familiar with the details of other characters’ backgrounds.
“Jules Lion was always known for his deference to the ladies,” Russell said, nodding to actor and drama instructor Donald Lewis. Lewis aka Lion is ever mindful of carriages that could splash mud on a hem or the contents of a chamber pot dumped from a balcony.
“You must become aware of what’s ahead and behind you to protect the ladies,” he advised.
Lewis has portrayed the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, the dueling artist Basille Crocquere and, more recently, Lion, America’s first free man of color with expertise in daguerrotype, an early photographic process. Lewis dug through archives at the Williams Research Center, learning that Lion had lithographed both Gen. Andrew Jackson and President Martin Van Buren.
“We’re always finding out new things about our characters,” Russell said.
At other times of year, different characters might be more appropriate to a private party or business convention. At Audubon Park’s 125th anniversary party, for example, they developed new characters from the time of Frederick Law Olmsted, its landscape architect. But the naturalists booed the actor playing Audubon, Frederick Mead, when he informed them he consumed his subjects.
“People come up to us and tell us the most amazing stories that relate to the characters,” Mead said.
The great, great niece of Arlington excitedly introduced herself to Russell at a tree lighting ceremony after seeing the madam’s business card. On another occasion, a gentleman confronted Mead’s character, demanding he repay an old debt.
“Monsieur, which one will pay me the $1,000 that Ferdinand still owes me?”