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VOL. 35 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 29, 2011

Nashville residents find fulfillment as Abe Lincoln

By Tim Ghianni

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John Mansfield, left, and Dennis Boggs of Nashville flank 84-year-old Charlie Brame of California at the recent Association of Lincoln Presenters annual gathering in Greeneville.

Sour cordite clouds of spent black powder swirl around Dennis Boggs as he sets his black stovepipe hat on the camp table and steps into the crowd of saluting Union soldiers and 21st Century admirers.

He pays no attention to the Confederates who await the Union advance up on the ridge atop the Nashville skyline. For, after all, it’s time to earn his keep.

“We’ve got a good crowd here, so gather around,” Boggs says, waving admirers – those with rifles and those with cameras – to step closer so he can get to work.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal….”

While delivering his speech – lifting hearts with his passion – Boggs raises his voice to be heard over the sirens, honking horns and thumping car-bass echoing from urban streets surrounding the Union encampment at Fort Negley.

Voice filled with tears and pride, Boggs is happily lost inside the man whose words form the centerpiece of his honest day’s work. Or perhaps “Honest Abe’s work.”

Standing in for the 16th president, perhaps the most revered man in American history, is more than simply a profession for Boggs.

Yes, he believes that all men are created equal, but he knows he was created to bring life to Abraham Lincoln.

He’s not the only Nashvillian who makes money this way.

But he is the best-known and most-acclaimed and is called on to deliver the Gettysburg Address or other Lincoln speeches or discussions -- for a fee plus expenses – all over the country.

He’s such a popular Honest Abe that in the 12 years he’s been filling the role, he has helped create a small, but flourishing, Lincoln-impersonators industry here in Nashville.

Boggs’ top “backup” is John Mansfield, a 72-year-old retired home inspector, who began appearing as Honest Abe in 2006 “after I retired from my day job.”

Mansfield literally got into the Lincoln game – although he treats it more as part-time employment than profession – when Boggs got overbooked a few years ago.

Both men note that there are at least two other part-time Great Emancipators in Middle Tennessee, many more nationwide.

“There are a lot of us around the country,” says Boggs, 61, a former grocery wholesale worker and Metro school bus driver, adding that about 180 men around the country regularly don long black suits, top hats and the trimmings to do it Abe style.

The mystique of being Abe is explored in the documentary Being Lincoln: Men With Hats, which chronicles an annual gathering of the nine score. Dressed in their “Going to Ford’s Theater” finest, these men swap yarns about the joys and trials of their trade.

Boggs, featured prominently in that movie, is as serious about his work as anyone in the Abe game.

Not just a “weekend Lincoln,” he knows how to breathe reverent life into the historical icon and make a living at the same time.

His fee scale is laid out on his website, meetmrlincoln.com. One presentation is $300, two presentations for the same gathering costs $400. Full days that include up to four presentations cost $575, plus travel expenses.

“I’m a very reasonable Lincoln,” says Boggs, the 2009 National Champion among Lincoln lookalikes and orators at a gathering of the Association of Abraham Lincoln Presenters.

“I’ve been very lucky. Every year my business has increased. Ninety percent of my work is in public schools. I do 250 school programs a year, a lot of times I’ll do four schools in a day.

“I also speak at motivational seminars, at conventions, churches and do Civil War reenactments.

“And Lincoln is very popular at coin show conventions,” he says, the quick laughter breaking the serious visage that resembles that found on the penny and sawbuck.

Ironically, he also is a regular guest at two annual gatherings of Confederate “soldiers” and their descendants. And Mr. Lincoln has been known to don his hat for charity.

“I’m very lucky in that Mrs. Lincoln (Molly Flatt Boggs) has a fulltime job -- administrative assistant for the dean of the School of Business at Lipscomb University -- which really helps, because even an old, dead president requires health insurance.”

Boggs says age has made it simpler to “become” Abe when a workday arrives.

“I don’t have to add the wrinkles anymore,” he says. His wife, a former hair stylist and makeup artist (“that saves us a ton of money”), no longer has to work age into his face. “At 61, I’m quite a few years older than Lincoln was when he died, but what’s good about being a Lincoln presenter, for me, is that even though he was 56 when he died, he looked so much older than that.”

There still is call for his wife’s artistry, as his beard and hair would be naturally white, but “I get a body wave done every eight weeks, color every six weeks. Every four weeks I get a cut.”

His final touches, before going out in public, are to use spirit gum to put Lincoln’s trademark mole on his face and then insert gray contacts over his brown eyes.

Abraham Lincoln ‘presenter’ Dennis Boggs

“A lot of people don’t know that Lincoln had gray eyes,” says Boggs, who stumbled into this career thanks to being involved in local theater.

“My director came up to me one night when I was doing a play at this tiny little theater in Lakewood and he said ‘if you shave your mustache and dye your hair, you could do Lincoln.’”

Boggs’ interest was sparked. Sure, he’d learned about Abe in school, like all American kids. “But I began studying him. I read a lot about him and to be honest with you, I found a lot of things I could relate to in Lincoln’s life and in my own life.”

When the theater piece lowered the final curtain on his Lincoln presentation, Boggs realized he had found his calling.

Besides that, he needed work. His retail grocery career had ended after his boss “made some bad business decisions.”

Portraying Lincoln in the theater even prepared him for his next job, driving a Metro school bus. “My looking like Lincoln was a real advantage: The students seemed to respect Lincoln. They called me ‘Mr. Abe.’

“Then I had shoulder surgery and it was really bad. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong. I couldn’t lift any more. And I couldn’t drive. But I still could talk.

“It kind of grew from there.”

He was well into his career as Lincoln when, at the Men With Hats filming he met Mansfield – a Lincoln impersonator by hobby -- and urged him to venture into the trade.

Mansfield already had literally grown into the Honest Abe persona.

“I grew the beard in 1975, strictly because I didn’t like to shave. And with the (1976) Bicentennial coming up, I decided that was a good excuse.”

The home inspector shaved off his beard one time, only to get less-than-glowing reviews from his family.

“My daughter (Sonya, then 7) said ‘I liked you better with the beard. Grow another one.’

“And my wife (Betty) said ‘you got a sharp chin and an ugly face, so you should grow that beard back.’”

The bearded home inspector didn’t perform as Lincoln, but the resemblance was uncanny, and “for the next 20 years, people always referred to me as ‘Abe.’”

The resemblance led to him being urged by Nashville-based filmmaker Elvis Wilson to attend the Lincoln Presenters gathering at the president’s birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky, where Wilson was filming scenes for his movie.

Mansfield’s first encounter with Boggs is captured in Wilson’s Men With Hats documentary that explores the Lincoln-presenters’ phenomenon.

“My beard was a little more gray than it is now,” Mansfield adds.

The meeting with Boggs opened commercial doors for Mansfield, who prior to that film had only portrayed Lincoln occasionally and for fun.

A few years ago, Boggs was contacted by someone who desperately needed a 16th president. Already booked, Nashville’s best-known Lincoln recommended his pal.

Mansfield isn’t a fulltime Lincoln like Boggs. But he does keep busy. “I do 30 or 40 presentations a year. I’m not pushing it.”

There is potential danger to this job, it should be noted.

“Sometimes people approach you with a very angry attitude,’ Mansfield says. “ They don’t like Lincoln.“

There have been less-than-veiled threats and guns pulled on him and on Boggs during reenactments and other public events. But, he notes that most people – even the most ardent Confederate re-enactors – appreciate Lincoln’s role in history and welcome Abe to his gigs.

Many of those appearances come around the Feb. 12 birthday of the President. An indication of the economy is perhaps the fact that Lincoln birthday biz slacked off this year.

Mansfield’s prices are flexible, depending on what a person wants. For example, $100 is pretty standard for a single local presentation, $150 if there’s a meet-and-greet afterward. A full day’s work goes for $400, plus mileage.

Want to throw in a first lady? Betty Mansfield sometimes portrays Mary Todd Lincoln, for $50 additional for a meet-and-greet and $200 for a whole day.

“I’m sort of the new Lincoln on the block,” says Mansfield, who won the 2006 and 2008 Lincoln lookalike contest, held at the president’s birthplace. He also was runner-up when Boggs won the orators and lookalikes national championship in Illinois. He can be reached at (johnaslincoln@live.com).

That Boggs calls on him as a backup is high praise. For example, Boggs was supposed to walk in last year’s Veterans’ Day parade, but broke a bone in his foot and couldn’t walk.

Some suggested that Boggs/Lincoln simply ride, which was an unacceptable solution to Honest Abe.

“Mr. Lincoln would not ride,” Boggs said. “He would walk.”

So he called on Mansfield.

“Most people probably don’t realize what a call there is for Lincolns around here,” Mansfield says.

While the money is fine, these men clearly do not regard that as their only motivation.

“The thing that touches my heart the most is Lincoln’s legacy of love,” Mansfield says. “When you look at Lincoln’s life, you get what I consider a picture of true love, the kind of love that goes into selfless service.

“Lincoln did everything because of his love of country. He wanted it to stay united.

“That love somehow transfers through the image of Lincoln and people have that feeling about the man, even today.

“The thing that touches me most is you get a 6- or 7-year-old who hugs your long legs and looks up to you with admiration in their eyes and has love for the person you represent.

“You’ll have black men and women of various ages coming up and thanking me for what you did, helping free the slaves.

“Of course, they aren’t thanking me, but the person I represent,” he says.

“It’s more than just a tall guy in a tall top hat.”

Tim Ghianni spent about 3½ decades as an editor and columnist at daily newspapers in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. Now a freelance writer and journalist-in-residence at Lipscomb University, he and his family live in Nashville’s Crieve Hall neighborhood.

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