austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

They said I've never done before

The obvious thing to do was spend another day wandering the Smithsonian, although I felt maybe I should break out of the Air and Space cliche for my personality type and while looking at subway maps the evening before I'd noticed something which looked interesting: Ford's Theater. I wasn't sure I'd ever seen it --- Washington was the default family trip, when I was a kid, because my mother's parents lived nearby, so we saw a lot of things now blurred together --- and, why not?

It turned out one needed to get tickets to go in, for set presentations, and the line outside Ford's Theater was frighteningly long. I accepted this, though, and stood on the end of the line which ... did not seem to be moving. And some of the people in it seemed to have tickets. Eventually, and this is the sort of deep thinking that earns people mathematics doctorates, I realized everyone here had tickets and was waiting for the show; the tickets themselves were from a completely different line which was inside. Inside there was almost no line at all for tickets, and I got ones for the noon presentation. I also noticed they offered the chance to stamp one's tourist attraction passport, which I didn't have. But I did have my Letterboxing log book as given by bunny_hugger, and while the stamp from a Historical Monument is not a proper letterboxing stamp, the stamp of somewhere interesting I'd been seemed within a broad view of what might be acceptable. They weren't interesting stamps, just the names of Ford's Theater and of the Petersen House, with the date, in letter-received format.

I got a seat near the back --- first one available --- although with a good view of the Presidential Box, and there was a steady flow of people wandering around to take pictures of whatever they could. The park ranger gave what I found a disappointing review of the events of Lincoln's murder, streamlining the story so very far as to omit what I think of as critical side points --- the attempted murder of Seward and the comic relief aborted murder of Andrew Johnson. She also played up how utterly non-funny the ``sockdolagizing old mantrap'' line on which Lincoln was killed is to modern ears, without explaining what was being said or why that would be a funny line. (As it is, I hear it as Jim Jordan --- Fibber McGee --- would have delivered it, and get a giggle for myself.) I overheard people expressing their disbelief at how the audience when Lincoln was murdered stripped the theater bare taking souvenirs, although that's actually one of the handful of things 19th Century people found normal that seems to me like things anyone today might understand.

The ranger did get around to explaining how the stage, seating, Presidential Box, and all that were ... let's call them reconstructions rather than simple lies. The building was taken over by the Federal government and used as office space, until the top floor collapsed, after which it was used for storage for decades. Alongside the many photographs taken I heard a strange ratcheting noise which sounded somehow familiar; eventually I realized, it was the sound of a film camera being wound. Manually wound. Apparently one really does step back in time at these things.

After the presentation we were allowed to roam over the upper levels, although not into the Simulated Presidential Box --- apparently that's an option in the winter when there's smaller crowds --- and I discovered the creepy giant brass Lincoln head tucked away on the second floor. From the right spots on the lower level it looks eerily like a giant green Conan O'Brien peeking out over the first balcony. I also discovered the first balcony level is not actually level, but rises in the middle for reasons which probably make sense to the theatrical architects of 1863.

An odd thought which came to me was this: there were a lot of theaters in the 19th century, almost all of which have closed, from all cities. Ford's Theater exists today and as a working theater, not just a museum, because it was reconstructed in the 1960s. Had Lincoln not been murdered there ... what would have been the chances that the theater would survive, much less be known as anything other than a footnote, today? It spent nearly a century nonexistent, but it could have spent forever that way.

The Petersen house, across the street, where Lincoln was brought to die, had much less space and so the crowd needed longer to see all there was to see, which might actually be comparable to what's in Ford's Theater if you count the number of scenes at which one can point a camera for something interesting, with the main attractions being the waiting room where Mary Todd Lincoln mourned, the room where Edwin Stanton directed the search for John Wilkes Booth, and the bedroom with the very tiny bed where Lincoln actually died. The house was, once one was admitted, un-guided by anyone present and I appreciated that. It let me wander at my own relaxed pace, taking in each angle and each room until I felt I had truly been there.

Also curious to me was that we leave --- well, I left --- the room through the back, and along an alley beside the building. It seemed oddly secluded, even obscured, in this position. I don't know that the bricks lining it were those from a century and a half back, but they felt like they could have been, and that conveyed a feeling to me I don't suppose I can convey in turn.

Trivia: The government restored control of Ford's Theater to John Ford on 7 July 1865, which was also the day Booth co-conspirators Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were hanged. Source: Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln's Killer, James L Swanson.

Currently Reading: Lost In Space, Dave Van Arnam, Ron Archer. Yes, it's an original ``novel'' based on the TV series, although it's more several short stories placed in order; one was a single chapter long. It does manage to outdo Josie and the Pussycats In Outer Space for feebleness of excuses that aliens who could practically help Team Lost get back to Earth use to not be helpful, though. Also a lot of muttering about how being a Scientist means you have to do the stupid thing, like plot the dissection of the telepathic entities trying to help you get home.


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