Fritz Klein had had the same job for over 35 years. He worked as a landscaper in Hawaii and did theatre on the side until one day in 1976 when he met a man who changed his life forever. A director, who saw him during one of his performances, saw another man instead of Klein, noticing a resemblance Klein had never seen. He saw Abraham Lincoln.
Since that moment, Klein has travelled all across the country re-enacting Abraham Lincoln’s life— his presidency, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and his assassination.
To mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, the National Parks Service has put up an event that follows the journey of the president’s funeral train across the country. And Fritz Klein is once again at center stage. Spanning over a month and 15 cities, Klein has performed at historical sites in D.C., New York City, Philadelphia, and will end his tour in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln is buried.
“Our intention was to have a program in the cities that had the Lincoln funeral,” said Timothy Good, the management assistant in the National Park Service.
In New York on Friday morning, Klein did not break out of character for a moment during his performance. He talked about the abolition of slavery, the Congress and the amendment to the U.S. constitution.
“I don’t find it difficult to differentiate between myself and the role I play for a living,” he said. However, during family photographs a common complaint goes around. “What is wrong with you? Why are you not smiling?” he added with a laugh. Permanently settled in Springfield, Klein has a stream of performances lined up to keep him busy.
Choosing Klein to play Lincoln during the anniversary program was not a hard decision. “I would describe Fritz as intense. He has studied books on Lincoln and is very well versed in the subject,” said Timothy Good, the management assistant in the National Park Service.
Dressed in black coattails with Lincoln’s signature stovepipe hat and spectacles, Klein consults his pocket watch and announces that the end is near and he is ready to take some questions. He replies with confidence and clarity—and his
familiarity withLincoln’s thoughts soon becomes apparent. As he poses to take photographs, Klein quotes Lincoln and talks about Lincoln’s wife, their marriage and the heartbreak she suffered after Lincoln died. “Did Mrs. Lincoln accompany him on the entire funeral train?” an audience member asked Klein. No, she stayed at the White House through it all. After all the suffering she had been through, his death snapped something for her, Klein explained.
“Fritz knows his [Abraham Lincoln’s] words very well. He separates his thoughts while he answers to these questions,” said Good.
Lincoln’s popularity was apparent as over 30 people sat loyally to watch the re-enactment at the Federal Hall National Memorial on a Friday afternoon and rushed to have their photographs taken at the end and ask Klein more questions. One of the people in the audience had seen Klein’s performance in D.C. and had followed him to New York for a repeat.
Good has orchestrated the logistics of the entire program to match the exact journey of the funeral train through location, geography and even, the time of the day the train passed through the city. The program is scheduled to end in Springfield at the beginning of May. Next stop: Albany, N.Y., for a new and enthralling performance.