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Lincoln impersonators look for humor in their work
By Robert McCoppin | Daily Herald Staff

Michael Krebs portrayed President Abraham Lincoln for students at Queen of the Rosary School in Elk Grove Village.

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Max and Donna Daniels of Wheaton have been portraying Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln professionally since 1988.

 

Michael Krebs portrayed President Abraham Lincoln for students at Queen of the Rosary School in Elk Grove Village.

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Abraham Lincoln interpreter Max Daniels blows out candles on his cake during a 200th birthday party for the 16th President last week at the Batavia Civic Center. His wife Donna also depicts Mary Todd Lincoln.

 

Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/11/2009 12:01 AM

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Abe Lincolns are a dime a dozen, or so it seems online, where roughly 150 impersonators offer their services.

For an authentic portrayal, physical attributes go a long way. Being tall, gaunt, darkly bearded and with strong features helps. A knowledge of the man and his words is key. But it turns out, impersonators say, that despite Lincoln's grave image, a sense of humor is a must to do the man justice.

As the nation celebrates the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, two veteran suburban Chicago impersonators will offer their interpretations of the president to the festivities.

Their on-the-job training as the 16th president suggests what it takes to do the job right. And one rookie Lincoln impersonator offers his take on his first year on the job.

Max Daniels, 72, of Wheaton

Experience: Daniels has played Lincoln at Naper Settlement and schools throughout the suburbs.

How he got into it: Max tried the role for three weekends in a theatrical production. When that went well, he was invited to historical celebrations, and asked to bring his wife Donna to play Mary Todd. Everyone expected them to know all about the Lincolns, so they were forced to research their roles, and turned it into a full-time occupation.

Key to his performance: A library of 1,200 books on Lincoln.

Birthday activities: Guests of honor at the Lincoln Library and Museum Presidential Ball.

Little known fact: Both Lincoln's biological mother, who died when he was 9, and stepmother were strong women who contributed to his education with only one year of school and helped to form his compassionate character.

Michael Krebs, 52, of Evergreen Park

Experience: Krebs has played Lincoln for the History Channel, the Library of Congress, the Chicago History Museum and C-SPAN. He will perform this week at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, and hopes to meet President Barack Obama at a party there as well.

How he got into it: Krebs was an actor at the New American Theater in Rockford in the 1980s, where his 6-foot-4-inch stature, a Lincoln cameo and his own resemblance to the former president prompted colleagues to urge him to seek a permanent part.

So Krebs moved to the Chicago area and worked with a playwright to create a script based almost entirely on Lincoln's words. His play, with partner Debra Ann Miller playing Mary Todd Lincoln, has gotten them to the point where they can both work full time in their roles, with more than 300 appearances this year.

Key to his performance: "The most important thing is you have to have a dynamite script. Audiences love this script (set on the last night of Lincoln's life.)"

Birthday activities: He'll read the Gettysburg address for a national audience that will attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records mark for most people simultaneously reading a document, via a live Webcast at presidentlincoln.org.

Little known fact: Lincoln may have suffered from Marfan syndrome, which could have contributed to his tall, thin build and unusually large hands and feet.

Chris Kuefler, 33, of Round Lake

Experience: Just started playing Lincoln this year for Historical Perspectives for Children, a Naperville company which provides school presentations by actors portraying historical figures.

How he got into the role: Kuefler worked as an actor in "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" and as an extra for television before beating out about 20 other actors auditioning to play Lincoln.

Key to his performance: Kuefler looks nothing like the mature Lincoln, but his height (he's 6 foot 6) costume and makeup help make up for that. He was chosen for his ability to play Abe not only as president, but as a boy and a young man.

"I try to bring out those inner qualities," he says, "warmth and empathy for other people."

Little know fact: Abe was a poet.

"Teach your beau to heed the lay

That sunshine soon is lost in shade

That now's as good as any day

To take thee, Rose, ere she fade."