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

Men with Hats explores subculture of Lincoln 'presenters'

By Tim Ghianni

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Nashville’s Elvis Wilson – a veteran of the advertising business in Nashville – hopes Abe Lincoln propels him into the big-time.

Being Lincoln: Men With Hats, the documentary that explores the phenomenon and the subculture in the world of Lincoln “presenters,” as they prefer to be called, is his first full-length feature and something he hopes leads to a career in film.

“I’m trying to make it as a filmmaker of narrative film,” says Wilson, who works for Gannett Client Solutions.

“I decided the best way to do a feature film and live the whole experience, is to do a documentary,” he says.

“My wife (Victoria Radford) wrote a book called Meeting Mr. Lincoln.

“To do that, she researched all these different people who met Abraham Lincoln.”

Exploring the letters and writings left behind by those who met the president, it became clear to her that “they liked the man. They may not have agreed with him politically. But he is man everybody liked.”

That’s when Wilson, 47, and his wife began mulling a film about how interesting it would be to meet Lincoln.

History buffs as well as writers and now filmmakers, they were watching TV news one day when they saw coverage of grand opening ceremony for the Lincoln Museum and Library in Springfield, Ill., the state capital of “The Land of Lincoln.”

“Two of the (living) presidents were there,” Wilson says. But what caught the eyes of the couple were the other fellows in the pictures. “Surrounding the presidents were all of these guys dressed as Lincoln.

“We wondered what official body they belonged to. And we thought ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to do a documentary about those guys?’ ”

That’s what they did, self-financing a four-year project that took them all over the country filming gatherings of Lincoln presenters.

“It was a labor of love,” Wilson says. “It was something my wife and I were happy to work on together.

The film was picked up for distribution by the Nashville-headquartered Documentary Channel and is broadcast frequently. “I search for it occasionally,” admits Wilson, adding he has seen it in the last few weeks.

That channel also distributes DVDs of the film, which is distributed in the education marketplace by the National Film Network. For information on the movie, visit beinglincoln.com.

He says his wife (and film executive producer) is a teacher and “we’re just a very nurturing family. We are drawn to history as a family when we travel.”

Trips to the beach with their two kids just naturally involve side stops at forts and battle sites.

He notes that when he began the film project, he didn’t really have any special knowledge or love of Lincoln. Like all kids, he’d learned about him in school.

His view of the Lincoln presenters evolved during filming.

“When we started doing this, I was excited by the freak show quality of it. But it changed quickly. I came from feeling like mocking them to totally respecting them and loving and rooting for them.

“They sucked me right into their world. I just love these guys and what they do is really important.”

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