In the absence of a stage, a presidential impressionist brings Washington to the people
For Peter Small, Presidents Day is his time to shine.
For the historical impressionist, who not only dons the costumes of famous figures from history but slips deftly into their lives and times for the sake of a good performance, the annual holiday would normally be replete with bookings.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman are just some of the commanders in chief the Costa Mesa resident has channeled for the likes of schoolchildren, museum patrons and retirement home residents.
In fact, if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t forced the closure of most venues, Small would most certainly be showcasing his talents as Theodore Roosevelt at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, a gig he’s booked each Presidents Day for years.
“Normally, people like me are very busy this time of year,” the 67-year-old said. “But obviously, since March, things have been very different. I feel like I’ve been on forced retirement.”
Undaunted, in the absence of a stage, he is taking his craft to the streets of Costa Mesa on Monday.
His plan is to stand on the corner of 19th Street and Newport Boulevard outside the Triangle Square shopping complex in full George Washington attire. The performance will last from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“I wanted to find something to do to keep myself busy,” said Small, who did a similar show on the Fourth of July. “The reaction [then] was overwhelmingly positive, and people were honking and waving. So, I thought, let’s do it again on Presidents Day.”
Although Monday’s performance is free, the Costa Mesan is hopeful he might drum up some attention for History-Alive.com, a website that promotes his personal cast of portrayals and serves as a de facto clearinghouse for a cadre of “Living Legends” historical impressionists ranging from Abigail Adams to Napoleon to Mark Twain.
Even in sprawling Southern California, those whose mainstay involves the intense study and re-creation of historical people occupy a fairly niche market. Many of them actors, historians or, in Small’s case, erstwhile teachers, their pathways often intersect on the gig circuit.
Huntington Beach actress Gay Storm, who portrays Clara Barton, Mary Todd Lincoln, Lady Bird Johnson and the Statue of Liberty under the production umbrella Hat Box Will Travel, throws herself into the history of her characters, adding stylistic elements that make the impersonations more like scenes in a one-woman play.
Storm met Small seven or eight years ago. She says most players enjoy a camaraderie, despite their different interpretations of the craft.
“Some just have an unbelievable resemblance to characters in history and they’re marketing that. Some are teachers and storytellers, and others, like Peter, just get into the whole history of the thing,” she said. “I’m more of an actor/impressionist than a scholar. It’s a very unique group.”
North Hollywood resident Phil Sionski performs as Benjamin Franklin at the International Printing Museum in Carson, where Small works part time. An actor by trade, Sionski applied for a part-time job nearly 20 years ago and hasn’t hung up his stockings since.
Sionski met Small in 2004, when the museum was looking for a John Adams to play off of Franklin and Jefferson for “The Confounding Brothers,” a witty take on the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. The show was such a hit that each character had groupies.
“Peter’s valuable because he’s like a walking encyclopedia on American history and politics,” Sionski said. “He was a godsend to us when we did the question-and-answer portion — he’s very well-versed at using his education background.”
Sionski said portrayers tend to band together and often keep up with one another. Particularly hard hit by the pandemic, many have turned to virtual performances, but it’s often not enough to eke out a living. That’s why he admires Small’s pluck in hitting the streets on Presidents Day.
“Peter has guts,” he said. “He’s 5 foot 7 and does George Washington — there’s nothing small about him.”
Cardine writes for Times Community News.
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