By Stephen Seitz
Photo One: The National Guard honor guard takes a wreath to the grave of President Calvin Coolidge for the annual memorial ceremony.
Photo Two: Actor Jim Cooke in his last performance as Calvin Coolidge.
PLYMOUTH NOTCH – Longtime Calvin Coolidge impersonator Jim Cooke chose the Fourth of July, Coolidge’s 143rd birthday, to give his final performance.
“I’m glad to bring it to a conclusion,” Cooke said after the show. “It’s been wonderful to perform as Coolidge. As Coolidge himself put it, ‘Get out while they still want you.’”
The final performance of “More than Two Words” fell on the 30th anniversary of the first, in 1985, this time to a packed house at the Plymouth Union Church in Plymouth Notch.
Amity Shlaes, chairwoman of the Coolidge Presidential Foundation, said, “We did not choose to see him go.”
Cooke’s show focused more on Coolidge’s personal life than his public one, and he presented Coolidge as exactly the sort of pragmatic Vermonter one would expect, one who never let anything, not even the presidency, go to his head. Though stories abound about Coolidge’s legendarily laconic responses in person, he was also a prolific writer, newspaper columnist, and wrote an autobiography not long after leaving the White House. The material is all in Coolidge’s own words.
“I think I’m the only one” impersonating Coolidge, Cooke said. “He was a character no one had ever done, and that interested me. I was born in Vermont, and I was once cast as Coolidge in a play.”
Though he lives in Quincy, Mass., now, Cooke was born in Montpelier in 1936, and grew up in Vermont. Coolidge is not Cooke’s only historic character. He also portrays American orator Edward Everett (who preceded Lincoln at Gettysburg when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address), New Hampshire statesman Daniel Webster, and President John Quincy Adams.
According to his official biography, Cooke taught theatre at Emerson College, Regis College, and Boston University. In 1975, he was cast as Coolidge in “The Calvin Coolidge Follies,” which won good reviews. He first performed “More than Two Words” ten years later, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Cooke also founded “Solo Together,” an organization comprising fellow one-man actors in support of one another. The characters run the gamut from American presidents and similar types to female luminaries such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Bourke-White and Amelia Earhart.
After the performance, Laura Trieschmann, Vermont’s historic preservation officer, read a letter of commendation for Cooke from Gov. Peter Shumlin, and Cooke will be feted at a special Coolidge Foundation dinner on Aug. 1.
“I thought it was his best performance,” Shlaes said. “He does other characters, like Daniel Webster. He’s a good actor. He’s kind of an inspiration, and he gave me a good sense of the President.
Those who would like to see Cooke in action can go to the Coolidge Historic Site, which has an interactive exhibit featuring Cooke answering questions as Calvin Coolidge.
Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States, and the only President born on the Fourth of July. For more information about the Coolidge Foundation visit coolidgefoundation.org. For more about Cooke and his shows visit, www.crankyyankees.net.