Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Yes ... THAT Ford’s Theatre


Sometimes it’s the destination, not the journey, which makes the trip worthwhile. OOIDA Life Member Lee Strebel stopped by last week to chat with us about a run he made from Chicago to Washington D.C.

Strebel, of Peachtree City, GA, is an owner/operator specializing in hauling specialized, pad-wrapped cargo. Last week he pulled into Riverwood Studios in Chicago to pick up just such a load: the scenery for a production of “Hello Dolly” slated for a March 15 opening run at Ford’s Theatre.

Yes, THAT Ford’s Theatre … the one in Washington, D.C. The one where John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Arguably one of the most famous performance venues in America.

“They offered me a load going to Washington, DC, and like most truck drivers it was, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to,’” he said. “But it was paying really good, so I said, ‘OK, you’ve perked my interest.”

The load itself filled only about half the trailer. Strebel said he was in snow from Chicago, all the way to Maryland. The worst part was around Chicago, but “once I got south, it was just more of a nuisance than anything else.”

With a 5 a.m. delivery time to beat traffic on the Beltway, Strebel pulled up to the Ford at about 4:30 a.m. His only company was a series of “No Parking” signs standing as sentinels along the street.

Even though he had the 5 a.m. call time for his delivery, the crew didn’t show up to unload his cargo until about 8 a.m. That’s when things got interesting. Strebel said he was given a guided tour of the theater by a member of the National Park Service, which oversees administration of the historic building.

“He took me up to places they don’t take people on the regular tour,” he said. “You get goose bumps walking in that place and just realizing all the history that went on.

“One of the things they were saying is that not too long after Lincoln was shot there, the theater closed. It was a warehouse for a while; it was offices for a while. In 1964, the National Park Service got that building and took artists’ renditions, paintings and stuff from the theater and they completely restored the theater back to exactly the way it was.”

What stood out most to Strebel was the layout and construction.

“The way that theater was built, it’s just about opposite of the way theaters today are built,” he said. “The seating in the theater on the main floor usually is raked, where people are sitting, but in the old Ford Theatre, the way they built things in the 1800s, the seating was flat, and the stage was raked. So everybody still had a good seat to watch any kind of production. I guess if you’re an actor, you’ve gotta be in pretty good shape because you’re walking up and downhill all day long during the performance. There’s not a level spot on that stage.”

By today’s standards, Ford’s Theatre is small, seating only about 600 people. But Strebel says the front of house isn’t the only area feeling the pinch of close confines.  

“The backstage area, there’s a door there that goes out into the rear parking lot where they load and unload everything,” he said. “There’s really no room; there’s no backstage or anything.”

Unchanged from Lincoln’s era is the loading door backstage. Like an old barn door, it slides open and closed.

“That same door that we opened to move everything in is where he escaped out with a broken leg, and had somebody tending his horse out there in the rear alley,” he said. “You can’t get back there with a truck. They had to unload me off the street and move it all back there with a straight truck.”

Strebel said the thing that stood out most to him was seeing the Presidential Box, where John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln from behind. Strebel said he was not able to go inside the box, however.

“No, no, that door is locked!” he said. “The cleaning crew goes in there maybe once a month to straighten up, but nobody goes in. I said, ‘Well what would happen if one of the presidents wanted to come to a production here?’ (The guide) said the last president who actually came while he was a sitting president to just a general production was George H.W. Bush. He said they sat him on the eighth or ninth row, right on the aisle … That’s the best seat in the house right there. You’re back far enough where you can see the whole stage without looking up. The front row, you’re really looking up.”

The private tour had an added bonus. It kept Strebel off the roads long enough to miss the morning traffic.

“For so many drivers, Washington, DC, and New York City… drivers don’t want to go there (because of the traffic),” he said. “Where I went, it’s two blocks off Pennsylvania Avenue… Two blocks down and six blocks west is where the White House is. That’s how close you are to that theater. Lincoln walked there that night as rumor had it.”

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