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Thursday, April 7, 2005 08:32 pm

The man who played Jesus

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Larry Kramp portrays Jesus in St. Aloysius Church’s 1935 Passion play. Kramp, now 91, says he was young and innocent back then.
PHOTO BY HERBERT GEORG/FROM THE COLLECTIONS OF THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY

The terrible fire that gutted the Herbert Georg Studio in downtown Springfield in February 1980 was very nearly thorough in its destruction of the studio building and its contents. Only about 9,000 usable negatives survived the catastrophe. Readers of this column know of the esteem in which we of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library now hold this precious archive of 20th-century images of Springfield. Fortunately, many of the negatives that did make it through the fire survived with their identifying inscriptions still legible. The only information on the sleeve that protected the image that accompanies today’s column was “Mr. Kramp, April 5, 1935.”

Part of the pleasure of working at the library is interacting with the collections themselves. I’m a history nut and love poring over old books, documents, and photos. The real value, for me, is when these inanimate objects open the door to the past by illuminating the lives of ordinary people of previous generations. I love the mystery of the past, but I love it more when the past is made known to me. And so I was pleased and surprised recently when a chance encounter with my high-school classmate Jim Kramp led to the pleasure of a meeting with his father’s cousin Larry, who played Jesus Christ in the Passion play to benefit St. Aloysius Church 70 Easters ago this month. Kramp, now 91 and living in Bloomington, was then a 21-year-old amateur-theater player who, he says, was drafted into the production by the Ladies Sodality Society.

“I didn’t know I was capable of acting, but they persuaded me that I could,” he says with a laugh.

St. Aloysius Parish, which was organized in 1929, erected a church two years later, but by that time the Great Depression had set in and there was virtually no money with which to pay for the church or the operation of the school. During the Lenten season of 1932, the parish’s dramatic group, under the direction of Leon White, successfully staged the play and was thereafter urged by Father Ernest Burtle, pastor of the parish, to continue to produce it annually. In 1935 it was staged with a cast of 300 at the Knights of Columbus auditorium at Sixth and Edwards streets on April 14-16. Music was produced under the direction of Thomas Mahoney and the choir of Blessed Sacrament Parish.

Kramp was three years out of Springfield High School when the photo was taken. (Incidentally, the makeup man for the production was Romain Proctor, profiled in the March 24 “History Talk.”) In fact, Kramp had acted in several local amateur theatrical productions with Henry House, who at that time was a well-known player on the local arts scene and who portrayed Pilate in the Passion play. Kramp, who was from a religious family, had a good religious education at home and at Sacred Heart Church and School, which was just across the street from his home at 13th and Cook streets.

“Yes, I would say I was religious. I was hardly a renegade; I was pretty faithful. I was even scrupulous, back then,” he laughs, looking at the picture. “I was young — and innocent.”

He says that his recently deceased wife, Mary Agnes (née Kunzweiler), who was also in the Passion play, was his neighbor and classmate at Sacred Heart, although, he says, “We never paid any attention to each other — I should say that she never paid any attention to me. I knew her in school, and she lived at the other end of the block. Then, when I joined the Army, she’d walk by the house and talk to my mother.”

Before World War II, Kramp was a disc jockey for radio station WCBS, earning $12 per week.

“That was when a disc jockey was just a disc jockey. We put on the platters and read the news and the commercials. We had no personality.”

After the war, Kramp went to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign on the GI Bill and graduated with a journalism degree. He says that he and Mary did not marry until they were both 35 years old.

“We had more sense, even though we had less money. We were married 56 years.”

Kramp worked for the Associated Press, mostly around the Statehouse, for 25 years. The last 10 years of his working life were spent at the Statehouse, working for State Capitol Information Service. He and his wife retired to Concordia Village, where they lived until December 2003. They then moved to Bloomington to be nearer their son.

Kramp has a crucifix on his living-room wall and is watched over by a statue of the Blessed Mother. He wears a cross around his neck and says that his faith has helped sustain him these many years, particularly since the death of his wife. He has found a home at St. Patrick’s of Merna Church, where, he says jokingly, they have accepted him as a member and he is no longer on probationary status:

“There is a lot I do, but the church is my rock. I don’t know what else there is, actually.”

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