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Presidents and First Ladies pay state visit to RW-C

by Kelly Vance

Two U.S. presidents and their First Lady wives made a special visit to Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury last week, and the Secret Service was nowhere in sight.

Why not? Well, the two First Couples have been dead for more than a century.

Presidents James Monroe and William McKinley, bedecked in period clothing and accompanied by their wives, Elizabeth and Ida, were brought to life in a dramatic presentation by an Ocean City, Md. couple who travel the country portraying 32 of the nation’s most famous White House occupants.

William and Sue Wills, who ran a theater company in the Maryland resort city for more than 20 years, have played presidents and First Ladies from every historical period and every political stripe—from the popular Washingtons, Lincolns, Roosevelts and Kennedys to such lesser-known personages as the Fillmores, Hardings, Tafts and Coolidges.

Their most modern recreations? The 50-year marriage of Richard and Pat Nixon.

The Wills perform more than 300 times each year, including at Presidential Museums, other historic sites and even on cruise ships. Their Hoover and Coolidge programs were featured on C-SPAN’s “American Presidents Series.” It was their 13th visit to Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury.

“I have seen Mr. and Mrs. Wills perform many times, and each time it gets better,” said Amy Lewis, who hosted the RW-C performance. “I didn’t think anything could beat John and Jackie Kennedy, but the Monroe-McKinley program was even better. I learned so much.”

At RW-C, the focus of the evening was on the only two U.S. Army majors to be elected president—Monroe and McKinley. Monroe’s wife Elizabeth, having to follow in the footsteps of the charismatic Dolly Madison, was presented as struggling with her public image as First Lady but is remembered notably for the heroic way in which she saved the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette from the guillotine.

The story of William and Ida McKinley focused on their love story. A handsome Civil War hero, McKinley married the belle of the town, but after losing two young children, Ida suffered a series of seizures and required constant care. The care and affection that McKinley lavished on his wife made him among the most beloved presidents.

RW-C resident Bob Butler is a big fan. “What intrigues me is that through makeup, gestures and speech, they look exactly like the people they are portraying,” Butler said.  “I’ve seen them before as the Kennedys, Nixon, even Hoover, and they fit right in to any character they are portraying.”

Butler said that when it came to the dramatic portrayal of McKinley’s assassination, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium.”

posted 03.30.2009

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