Wheaton couple the face of Honest Abe, Mary Todd
As the nation gears up to celebrate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, Wheaton's own "Mr. President and First Lady," Max and Donna Daniels, will find themselves wearing beaver top hats and hoop skirts in well over 200 appearances this year as Abe and Mary Lincoln.
The couple, who have been portraying the Lincolns since 1987, met in 1984 while performing in "The Rainmaker" at the Albright Theater Company, then located in Warrenville. At the end of the second act, their characters ended up together, and at the end of the play's run, Max and Donna ended up together.
But it was during a later play in the River Front Theater in Aurora that Max's starring role as Abe began. The play took place during the Civil War.
"When we walked in and the director saw Max, his eyes lit up," Donna recalled.
At 6-foot-3, just one inch shorter than Lincoln, with a black beard and thin frame, Max soon was typecast. Someone who saw the play asked him to take part in a pageant. Then he was asked to appear in a parade. Then someone asked, "Can your wife show up as Mary?"
The couple borrowed costumes from the two theater troupes' wardrobes and began to appear together. But, soon people starting asking them questions about the Lincolns and they didn't know the answers.
"We needed to do our homework," Max admits. "First we found the answers to the most frequently asked questions. Then we found a lot of neat stuff. We realized that this would make a good program for schools."
When Max took early retirement from Central DuPage Federal Bank in 1994, they began to take their shows on the road.
The Daniels now have several school programs geared to the students' interest levels and attention spans. The topics range from life in a log cabin to the causes and effects of the Civil War. Their most popular program for all ages is "An Evening with Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln," which takes place just before they leave for the Ford Theater.
The Daniels began to develop a reputation through participating in Civil War re-enactments.
"Some of these events get very involved," Max said. "I may do the Gettysburg Address or explain the Emancipation Proclamation while Mary (Donna) narrates a fashion show or puts on a tea, quite a social event in those days. We have a lot of photo ops."
While Max usually appears in a black suit, vest and top hat, Donna's wardrobe is considerably more complicated.
"I know several women whose business is to make period costumes," she said. "They want to say, 'I work for Mrs. Lincoln.' I may have the more extensive wardrobe, but he has all the books."
Between 10,000 to 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln. Max owns about 1,000. He is constantly doing research and passed along this bit of Lincoln trivia: Abe's dog, Fido, was the first presidential dog to be photographed and also the first to be assassinated. Fido was shot by an angry neighbor because he was barking too much.
While 90 percent of their work is performed together, they also have developed individual programs. Donna often narrates a Civil War fashion show for women's groups and was commissioned by the Batavia Heritage Committee to perform a program on mourning and the last 17 years of Mary's life after the assassination, some of which was spent in Batavia.
"Mary's death date is in July," Donna said. "Every year a group of us Marys lay a wreath on her tomb on that date."
Max often narrates Copeland's "Lincoln Portrait" with various bands. They are both affiliated with the 1st Brigade Band of Wisconsin and the 33rd Volunteer Band of Bloomington. At Cantigny's Fourth of July celebration, Donna, as Mary, was serenaded with the "Mary Lincoln Polka," a recently discovered band piece last heard in 1862.
What began as a hobby has become a full-time occupation for the Daniels. They have appeared on Japanese and Irish television, performed at the Smithsonian, and given shows in California and Florida as well as every Midwest state. They will have 50 performances this February alone.
"The first half of the year will be a blur," Donna said.
Their first DVD, "An Evening with Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln," is due for release this month. For information, visit prairiestarproductions.com.
• Sharon Huck writes about Wheaton on Tuesdays in Neighbor.