Since moving to Fairmount, I’ve gotten to know one of my neighbors, Steve Edenbo. His amazing pug, Daisy, was my favorite neighborhood pet, but she was aged and couldn’t walk far, so my daughter and I had the opportunity to get to know him. One time I came outside and saw him walking up to his house dressed as Thomas Jefferson. I figured he was on his way back from a costume party or something. That’s when we found out he actually portrayed Jefferson professionally in a full-time capacity.
I thought that was pretty amazing, so I interviewed him for the site!
How long have you been Thomas Jefferson?
I’ve been studying and sharing Thomas Jefferson’s life & legacy since 1999.
How did you become interested in Thomas Jefferson and the fascinating world of historical interpretation?
I was pursuing an acting career, completely unaware of this specific category of performance & research, when the Kim Hanley, of American Historical Theatre, saw me doing unrelated theater work. She introduced me to the tiny non-profit’s founders, Bill and Pam Sommerfield. AHT offered me my first books, costume, and professional performance as Thomas Jefferson (my first appearance as Jefferson was in Independence National Historical Park, at The City Tavern).
I fell in love with the amalgam of reading, writing, acting, and nationwide traveling. I was drawn to the complexities and contradictions that Jefferson inhabits. In 2007 I dropped the last of my part-time auxiliary jobs and dedicated all of my time to this endeavor, and I’ve never looked back (except to the 18th/early 19th Century of course).
Kim is now the Executive Director of the company, and I am on the board of directors, doing my best to give back to this fantastic organization that gave me my start.
I have to admit. I hated history class all through school. It wasn’t until college, when a professor brought some key historical moments to life and challenged some of the dogma we learned in high school, that I became interested. Discussions got heated at times, but it piqued my curiosity like no lecture ever had. Are there tips for teachers to make history more interesting?
I wouldn’t presume to tell teachers how to do their jobs; they have some of the toughest and least-appreciated jobs in the country. While I do offer workshops —to teachers, museum-studies students, etc.— on incorporating 1st-person interpretation into their curriculum and programming, I realize that what I do is something extra, not the bread & butter of a day-to-day classroom schedule.
I have worked very hard over the years to make my material interesting for audiences across the age/developmental gamut. Even in-costume and in-character, it’s never easy. My presentations are supposed to be theater, which means they are supposed to be entertaining by definition. Teachers, professors, and other classroom educators don’t have the same responsibility to be entertaining, although it sure can help. The first teacher who got me interested in history was Mr. Phillips at Boiling Springs High School. He presented history as human stories, and he was a great story teller. He not only woke me up to history; he woke me up to the possibility that I might be able to live a life as interesting as the people in those wonderful stories he told.
Bill Sommerfield —my first teacher in this craft— always used to say, “Tell them a story!” I am prone to get caught-up in the ideas, and Jefferson was definitely a man of ideas. Consequently, I still struggle with Bill’s advice. For teachers, I imagine that it can be very difficult to focus on the stories amidst the static of standardized testing and the politicization of our history.
What types of gigs does a Jefferson interpreter do?
- schools; usually no younger than class levels who have covered the Revolutionary War, and ranging through college.
- Continuing Legal Education seminars for various state bar associations. Lawyers receive CLE credits for attending these 3&1/2 hour presentations. I also do a variety of other presentations for law firms, law schools, judges’ retreats, etc.
- Corporate & other leadership key-notes and motivational speeches
- historical, patriotic, and lineage societies.
- libraries and community centers
- National Park Service sites like Independence Hall and City Tavern (of course), Federal Hall, and Hamilton Grange National Memorial
- regular appearances for events at Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia
- public and fundraising events at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello
- the very occasional wedding reception or rehearsal dinner for couples who are exceptionally interested in Thomas Jefferson.
- Private events, such as banquets, historically-themed parties, small dinners with as few as 2 or 3 people at the table with me.
- Some tv shows, like the PBS historical cooking documentary “A Taste of History”, by Walter Staib of City Tavern, and a few other documentaries over the years.
Gigs I don’t do: advertisements/endorsements for products, politicians or political agendas, anything that appears to be harmful to the dignity of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy.
What can you tell us about Jefferson that’s not commonly known?
He introduced the rutabaga to America. He kept pet mocking birds, which he allowed to fly around the early version of the “oval office” and sing to him while he worked. He loved counting things and recording data; among other examples:
- he once calculated how many peas would fill a pint jar (2,500)
- he recorded the weather at least 2x/day for 40 years
- he calculated measurements to 5 decimal places at a time when it was impossible to build anything to those specifications
Who was Jefferson’s greatest foe? Have you ever had to duel his 21st century representative?
It wasn’t John Adams; they were friends in the beginning and friends at the end, with the conflict happening in the middle. Lots of people think of Alexander Hamilton as having been Jefferson’s “greatest foe”, and the conflicts between these two continue to be monumental in both our history and our current national conversations. However, Jefferson eventually came to respect Hamilton and to agree a little more with Hamilton’s ideas —sadly, only after Hamilton’s too-early death.
Jefferson’s conflicts with John Marshall, however, were far-reaching, vitriolic and deeply personal. What’s more, Jefferson and Marshall never, ever approached anything that could be considered a rapprochement. As Jefferson, I debate all three of these individuals, among others (in the forms of their 21st-century representatives).
I always have to do a double take when I see Thomas Jefferson walking down our street. What kinds of questions do you get from people?
When I’m walking on the sidewalks of Philly, I am often asked if I’m “Ben Franklin”. Sometimes they don’t ask; they just roll down their car window while driving-by and yell “YO, BEN!!!”, or words to that effect. It always makes me smile. I love this town.
For the aspiring historical thespians in our midst, how would you recommend someone become a character ripped from the history books?
I do get questions from young aspiring 1st-person interpreters. In addition to continuing their avid study of history, I make recommendations in 2 primary categories: 1.) theater 2.) business. Regarding theater, I recommend taking classes in vocal technique, because you can injure your vocal chords if not using good technique, in addition to at least some practical acting classes.
Regarding business, I cannot recommend strongly-enough the learning about accounting and basic business, including marketing. I think this applies to anybody who wants to turn their passion into a living. Much, much more of your time than you can possibly at-first imagine will be spent on the business side of your craft. At least half of show business is the business. If you don’t embrace and master the business, you will severely impair your ability to put on the show. I continue to learn this lesson the hard way. I wish I’d had someone to give me that advice when I was starting-out in acting, and then I wish I’d listened. If you want to be an actor, historical or otherwise, you will help yourself a lot by thinking of yourself as a private business owner from the get-go.
What was your most embarrassing moment as Jefferson?
There have been so many of them. It’s like John Gorka sings, “I go about my work, making my mistakes out loud/ Maybe everybody’s failures are in earshot of the crowd”.
I suppose the worst were when I was just getting started, because there was so much I did not know. At first, people would ask me what I now know to be obvious questions, and I simply did not know the answers. And it was clear to all that I had no idea. Fortunately, this was well before the presentations for the continuing legal education seminars or Monticello. After each of those experiences, I went home and researched the thing that I’d discovered I needed to know.
After all these years, I have a much better view of the vast and impossible field of knowledge I do not and will never fully know. With Jefferson, the further into the forest you go, the bigger the trees get. Now, when I do not know an answer it’s usually very obscure or nebulous. I freely admit to my audience that I “cannot seem to remember that”, and I offer to help the questioner find the answer after the presentation. I tell them that they can contact me and I’ll do my best to look it up. This has happened a few times with researchers working on very specific projects, and I’m glad to be able to offer them a service.
Because of my changed perspective on the never-ending learning process that permeates what I do, I’m no longer very embarrassed if I don’t know an answer. This humbling process has taught me that my job is not to be the smartest person in the room; it’s to tell Jefferson’s story in a way that entertains and inspires.
Thanks for bringing such history to our little pocket of Philadelphia, Steve!