Ford's Theater Redux.....again

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For many years now, tourists and other visitors to the famous Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC have thought they were walking into the original theater, seeing the original stage, the original famous box were President Lincoln was shot, and even that they were sitting in the original seats. Truth be told, the seats FELT like they were the originals.  Well, none of it was true.

Now the Theater is going through another renovation, another iteration of the original, and will be closed for the next few months for this rehabbing,  is slated to re-open on February 12, 2009, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.

While reading the fine print of tourist handouts and booklets, one might realize that this shell of the theater contained nothing original save the bloodstained coat of the president in a glass case,  great pains were taken to restore it to its original look and feel.   The current impression dates to a 1960s renovation, and had become a tad ‘tatty,’ shall we say, through the years and years of use.  Numerous plays were held there even in recent years, and the countless feet and bodies passing through its portals had taken their toll.

A million  tourists each year pass through its doors, sit in the old style seats, and look up to the Presidential Box draped in flags where Lincoln and his wife sat, having no idea that the box is a 1960s reconstruction, and even John Wilkes Booth would not recognize the stage now, to which he jumped after fatally shooting Lincoln, with his famous cry of “Sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants.)  It’s a scary thought, that you are sitting in the midst of actual history, and crumpled into those old seats, the ring of authenticity has always been there.  I last saw a musical there, the “Civil War Story” which was well done, and the same old thoughts raced through my mind even though I new it was all a replication.

The newest version will have new seats (thank heavens),new stage equipment, new restrooms (again, thank heavens) a new air conditioning system and an elevator, among other attributes.  There will be a gift shop, box offices, and a tall cylindrical case in which the coat will be visible even to the passerby outside, all day and night.

The building, originally a Baptist Church, was purchased by John T. Ford in 1861.  That many consider it a “cursed building” is up for discussion, but it was destroyed by fire a year later, and was rebuilt.  Another year later, when it was being utilized as an out building for clerical help, there was a major wall collapse,killing some 22 people and injuring 60 more. But it was rebuilt and open for business within a year.  From that time it was basically a storage facility  until the 1950s when the National Park Service decided to revamp it and turn it into the national treasure it is today.

Interestingly enough, though nothing remained of the original facility but exterior walls, the theater was painstakingly reconstructed inside with the use of Matthew Brady’s period photographs — making it a latter day re-creation that even CSI would approve of.  This type renovation does not come cheaply;  the government estimates it has a $50 million dollar price tag, of which the Feds will provide $8.9 million. Dig into your pockets, folks, and help preserve the old theater which will raise the money to complete the job.

And yes, in the words of the  song, “everything old is new again.”

[Thanks to Michael E. Ruane’s Post article for much of the information.]

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Martha M. Boltz

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