Two first ladies portrayed in San Juan College chautauquas
FARMINGTON — Ruidoso resident Kay Sebring-Roberts Kuhlmann got into the acting business relatively late in life — in her early 40s, in fact. At an age when many actors find themselves competing in an ever-shrinking universe of roles, especially paying roles, Kuhlmann realized she was likely to have a difficult time scratching out a living in her new field.
So she decided to go in another direction and craft characters, and work, for herself through the world of chautauqua performances.
Chautauquas typically are one-person stage shows in which actors take on the persona of a significant historic figure, performing a 45-minute or one-hour production based on that person's life. They are popular attractions for state arts and humanities councils, libraries, nonprofit organizations and other groups that work to promote the kind of historical perspective and reflection such productions are known to provide.
Kuhlmann realized quickly she could stay plenty busy by crafting a stable of characters based on the wives of American presidents, or first ladies, as they are known. But when she wrote and produced a chautauqua based on former first lady and now Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, she saw her theory about the marketability of such characters hit a bit of a snag.
The unpopularity of Clinton and her husband, the former president, in certain quarters left the actress on the receiving end of the kind of negativity usually reserved for politicians themselves.
"I realized it can be a real challenge to portray people who are still alive," Kuhlmann said by phone last week from Ruidoso, explaining that some audience members appeared to be so upset by her Hillary Clinton characterization that it made her wonder if they had mistaken her for the actual person. "So I guess there's a reason people don't do living characters."
There will be no such worries in regard to the two chautauquas Kuhlmann will perform this weekend at San Juan College. In "Wild About Harry: Bess Truman" and "Mamie Eisenhower," she'll be attempting to shed light on two of the least-controversial and lesser-known first ladies of the 20th century.
In "Bess," Kuhlmann will portray the wife of Harry Truman from the perspective of the president's retirement in 1952, following his seven and a half years in the Oval Office. In "Mamie," she will portray the former Colorado debutante who built a life with the man who served as the supreme Allied commander in World War II before serving two terms in the White House.
Neither chautauqua is new, as Kuhlmann wrote "Mamie" in 1990 and "Bess" in 1992, so she's very comfortable with both of them.
She's particularly well acquainted with "Mamie," as she wrote it for the 100th anniversary of Ike's birth — he was born in 1890 — and performed it more than 300 times in 1990.
"Every small town in Kansas," she said, referring to the circuit she traveled in Eisenhower's birth state that year.
She later performed "Mamie" at several presidential libraries, having developed a friendship with historian and author Richard Norton Smith, who served as the director at six of those institutions.
"Every place he's been, he's brought me in," Kuhlmann said.
Her "Bess" chautauqua followed a couple of years later and has proven to be just as durable. She performed it at San Juan College five years ago, and Jimmy Miller — the former SJC history professor who is the longtime coordinator of the series at the school for the New Mexico Humanities Council — was among those who witnessed it. He said he won't mind seeing it again this weekend, along with Kuhlmann's interpretation of Mamie Eisenhower.
"I told Kay at the time it was one of the very best (chautauqua performances) I have ever seen," Miller said, referring to her 2010 show. "She's a very, very talented actress, and she knows Bess Truman inside and out. She also has a wonderful rapport with the audience."
The subject matter is especially interesting to him, he said, because he teaches a course in first ladies at the college. Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower aren't the first names that come to mind when most Americans think of presidential wives, and Miller said that has much to do with the fact that they served shortly after the lengthy tenure of Eleanor Roosevelt, perhaps the most assertive and well-known first lady of all time.
Bess Truman, he said, hated the Washington lifestyle and preferred to live a much quieter existence in Missouri, while Mamie Eisenhower was more of a classic military wife, viewing it as her job to stand by her husband's side, no matter what.
"Neither one was the dominant, activist first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was," he said.
That might seem to make them less-than-obvious choices for chautauqua characters, as Kuhlmann herself acknowledges. But later, she changed her mind.
"The fact I didn't find them both interesting initially is what attracted me to them," she said. "They were the last two first ladies who didn't feel obligated to have some public cause. Both of them viewed themselves as extensions of their husbands."
The more digging Kuhlmann did in regard to both women, the more intrigued she became.
"Mamie understood part of her job was to make everybody who came near her comfortable and welcome," she said. "Bess was intensely private and wouldn't answer questions (from the media)."
That was in strong contrast to her talkative husband, who was the last president who was willing to sit down with members of the Washington press corps for informal weekly chats. While it might seem odd that two people with such different levels of comfort with reporters would build a lifelong partnership, that was exactly the case with Bess and Harry Truman, Kuhlmann said, explaining that they played to each other's strengths. Harry, the consummate politician, loved chatting up reporters, while Bess took it as her duty to protect him from that whenever possible.
"I think that's the case with lots of couples who are together for a very long time," Kuhlmann said. "One gets to be the bad guy or the enforcer."
And even though Bess Truman was apolitical, that didn't mean she didn't have strong beliefs, Kuhlmann said.
"I was really surprised Bess held such specific opinions about the issues of the day," she said.
Before Harry Truman became president, Bess was on his payroll, working as a staffer in his U.S. Senate office — an arrangement that raised a number of eyebrows.
When Harry was asked about it, Kuhlmann said he responded his typical blunt, Midwestern fashion: "Because she won't work for free," he snapped.
And when she felt the need to step in, she certainly had her husband's ear, Kuhlmann said.
"She was a major adviser to him, as opposed to Mamie, who didn't care one bit about politics," Kuhlmann said. "Mamie cared more about creating an environment in which her husband could succeed and remain healthy."
Mamie Eisenhower certainly had things she felt strongly about — her well-documented dislike of Richard Nixon, for instance — but she had her own issues to deal with. Namely, that consisted of the numerous and persistent rumors about her husband's relationship with his female driver during World War II.
Kuhlmann said she was surprised by how Mamie chose to handle those rumors. Recognizing she was powerless to do anything about what people said or think, she simply waited for her husband to come to her and address the rumors himself. That eventually happened in written form, Kuhlmann said, explaining that his response is featured in collections of his correspondence to his wife. Mamie's responses aren't included in those collections, Kuhlmann said, but she added it's relatively easy to tell what she said by the things Ike wrote to her.
Not all of Kuhlmann's chautauqua characters are first ladies. She's also portrayed such female trailblazers as a Rosie the Riveter character and the first woman dentist; Russian empress Catherine the Great; legendary country singer Patsy Cline; Marion Sloan Russell, the daughter of a wagon train cook who traveled the Santa Fe Trail many times over the course of her life; and even western film star and cowgirl Dale Evans, who was particularly interesting to her, Kuhlmann said.
"I was always a little bit suspicious of her because of her Christian evangelism," she said. "But I came to find out her faith was borne out of actual experiences, and that caused me to have an appreciation of other people's faith journeys, no matter how valid or invalid they look from the outside."
Evans was also perhaps the first famous person in America to write about her personal life in a public way, Kuhlmann said.
"Now, we have a little too much of that," she said.
The attention-seeking, bare-all behavior of too many people in the public eye these days makes the gentile and modest nature of Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman all the more appealing, Kuhlmann said.
Miller said the SJC Chautauqua series has generated a loyal following, and he proudly counts himself among those ranks. He's very much looking forward to Kuhlmann's presentations this weekend.
"It will be a real treat for the community — I can guarantee that," he said.
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