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Thursday, July 7, 2005 07:18 am

Will success change Ted Keylon?

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“A total convert”

Ted Keylon is still trying to change the world. Just ask him. Go ahead.

The 37-year-old musician/artist/television host/producer/underground zine publisher/poet/dishwasher/paperboy and semicelebrity has never needed much prodding to get a lecture going on his ideas to improve society. For the last dozen years or so, Keylon has worked the scene in Springfield, performing at nightclubs, crashing parties, marching in protests, and debating the issues.

Except for a brief stint in the Army spent traipsing around the Arizona desert near Nogales, Keylon has been in Springfield, trying to make his mark on the local music scene since he was a teen. He’s performing in seven different bands, including such notable groups as Laughing Boy, elevator shoe, Black Ops, and his current band, Liquid Sun, all the while schlepping his way through the typical tawdry litany of minimum-wage work despite possessing a bachelor’s degree in visual arts from the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“At one point I couldn’t get any more dishwasher jobs and had to start leaving the education off of the job applications,” Keylon says. “Folks won’t hire you for menial labor if they think you are too smart.”

A wraith with the energy of five men, Keylon will talk to anyone who will listen — and many who would rather not.

Right now he’s talking to a couple thousand people each day, telling them about the importance of human rights over states’ rights and the need for all people to be free.

Then he politely encourages his listeners to continue their tour in the next room (but does not add that they should stop by the gift shop on their way home). Even though many of the themes are the same, it is not your typical Ted Keylon spiel — but this is not a typical Ted Keylon tale.

Sure, anyone who responded to the question — will success change Ted Keylon? — with an emphatic “I sure hope so!” has a Ted story to tell. There’s one about him preaching the gospel to the graveyard-shift crowds at the Illinois State Fair when he was supposed to be selling them sandwiches. And then there’s the time he showed up at the Old State Capitol Art Show, wearing a sandwich board advertising a competing art show to protest capitalism in the capital city. But now Keylon has come up with his most outrageous incarnation yet: state worker/actor — no joke.

That’s right, keepers of the indie-cred flame: As of January 2005, Ted Keylon works for The Man — represented by the brand-new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Employed as an actor and as a lip-syncher, Keylon alternates between the two human acting roles amid the museum’s massive and flashy exploration of the life of Abraham Lincoln.

Keylon had not expected to get the job or to love it as much as he does.

“In Springfield, you get to a point where you think of Lincoln as boring,” he says, adjusting the frock coat that is part of his “Cabinet Room” costume. “You basically don’t even want to hear any more about him unless it’s bad — but I was in there applying for the job, and in less than a half-hour I was a total convert.”

“The best actors”

The presidential museum has been making plenty of converts. Since its gala opening, complete with crowds from around the world and a guest appearance by President George W. Bush, the museum has been a runaway hit, with more than 100,000 visitors in less than two months. Setting the tone for the times, it includes virtually every presentation method known for entertaining and enlightening the public about the life of your obedient servant, A. Lincoln, short of carnival rides and rubber chickens.

There are actual artifacts from the Lincoln Home and scale sets based on key locations in Lincoln’s life. There are mazes and interactive touch screens, swelling music and running visual motifs, flashing lights, gaudy colors, and a cacophony of taped voices. There are explosions, lifelike Lincoln characters, and full-size trees inside the building.

Museum director Richard Norton Smith’s concept for the museum was so incredibly multimedia that it inevitably had to incorporate actual actors strutting and fretting upon the stage. Fifty-five actors auditioned to fill the two roles, but just six were selected.

The chosen six represent an interesting assortment of Springfield talent.

In addition to Keylon, the other full-time hire is WQLZ (92.7 FM) DJ/freelance photographer Patrick Russell. The four part-time actors include perennially popular Springfield entertainer Rick Dunham, loved for his numerous stage productions but especially as his alter ego Elvis Himselvis. Also on hand is Randy Erwin, the singing cowboy/trick roper who did the yodeling for the 2004 Disney cartoon flick Home on the Rangeand gives concerts in schools and libraries across the state. Rounding out the troupe are two local theater hounds: Jason Goodreau, youth theater camp director at the Hoogland Center for the Arts and Sacred Heart-Griffin technology director, and Dennis Rendleman, a lawyer. Starting in February, these six men ground their way through six weeks of rehearsals for the two roles, either of which makes for what is essentially a grueling acting day.

The “Ghosts in the Library” performance is one of themuseum’s main attractions and one of its most elaborate creations, mixing 21st-century computer-generated technology with old-school sleight-of-hand. A character named Thomas the Librarian lectures the audience on the importance of studying history and maintaining archives, using examples from Lincoln’s life, including the mystery of the lost letters of Mary Todd Lincoln, which son Robert collected and burned.During the show, Thomas interacts with smoke effects, ghostly illuminated figures, and other tantalizing phantasmagoria through the magic of scrim curtains and high-tech front-and-back projection, though the show’s best special effects rely heavily on good old-fashioned smoke and mirrors. The special effects in the routine are so intricately tied to a precisely timed script that a totally live performance was ruled out early on in rehearsals. The performance lasts about 10 minutes, plays three times an hour, and requires both lip-synching and precise body placement for correct interaction with the various programmed special effects.

“The Cabinet Room” sketch, a two-page monologue, runs about four minutes and is dense with exposition. Based on an actual historical figure, the painter Francis Carpenter who was commissioned in 1862 by the White House, the script gives museum-goers a backdoor look at the process of Lincoln’s hammering out the Emancipation Proclamation. After the briefest scheduled five- to 10-second break, the next crowd shuffles in and the whole thing begins again. Whoever is in the role performs the monologue continuously for an hour, then gets a half-hour break before resuming. In the course of an eight-hour day, the actor working “The Cabinet Room” could give his performance nearly 100 times.

According to Keylon, each of the perform-ances has its obstacles. “The Cabinet Room” performances are far more physically demanding but come with the reward of playing to an up-close live audience whose members are often only a guardrail away. The “Ghosts in the Library” routine is much more physically exacting because of the demand that the actors move with precision.

Dunham, for one, agrees with Keylon that the “Ghosts in the Library” routine is by far the harder assignment. “It’s incredibly tough. You have to be right in these certain spots, and your body has to be poised just so,” he says. “The worst thing is, you can’t see the audience, so you don’t get their feedback. ‘The Cabinet Room’ is better because of that live-audience factor.”

Even though the sheer number of repeated performances required by “The Cabinet Room” role might seem mind-numbing, for Keylon the repetition is “no different from being a musician and playing the same set every night.”

Three of the actors are singers or musicians, but Phil Funkenbusch, shows manager for the museum, says that that wasn’t a factor in the hiring decision: “I just looked for the best actors, the people who best responded to the roles and the challenge of this environment.”

And it seems that in Springfield today, the “best” includes Ted Keylon.

“Blow something up”

Of course, the only way to truly understand the total museum experience, or the massive remake his latest gig is giving Ted Keylon’s image, is to view it firsthand.

Funkenbusch greets me at the ticket gate, then leads me through the museum, diving headlong into the teeming crowds like a salmon fighting its way upstream. He is in his element. Having previously worked his magic at the Lincoln’s New Salem State Historical Site, as well as amassing an impressive list of local-theater credits on his résumé, Funkenbusch was hired by Illinois Historic Preservation Agency to develop shows for various sites before getting the position he considers the plum of his career. “It’s working full-time live theater and entertaining on such an enormous level,” he says. “Anyonein the arts would love this opportunity.”

As Funkenbusch hustles me past gawking families waiting their turns to pose with the cluster of Lincoln family figures in the museum’s main plaza, I ask about him about Keylon, who had never acted before applying for the museum job. Funkenbusch says Keylon has “great instincts and energy. He is totally professional; in fact, Ted goes above and beyond the duty of duty and never asks for a day off.”

Funkenbusch leads me through a side door of the gargantuan White House exhibit, and again we work our way against the current of tourists. About halfway through the maze of interconnected galleries, we come around a corner, and there is Keylon, in character as Francis Carpenter, the host and tour guide of “The Cabinet Room.”

The set is a green-wallpapered, high-ceilinged room strewn with maps, including some that the patrons can, and often accidentally do, touch. Lincoln stands at the head of a large conference table, striking a pontifical pose. Outside the prop window of “The Cabinet Room” set is an impressionistic backdrop of the city with the unfinished Washington Monument in the background. The scene is of a cabinet meeting on June 22, 1862, during which the president negotiates the language and ideas behind his magnum opus, the Emancipation Proclamation.

Seven impeccably re-created cabinet members are slumped, apparently despondent or pensive — except for Postmaster Montgomery Blair, who is angrily stabbing at the Commonwealth of Kentucky on a map in the middle of the table with his finger, and that ever-lovable radical-Republican rogue Edwin Stanton, who seems poised to slap that stubborn ol’ Honest Abe right out of this whole emancipation mess.

In the frozen moment, Keylon, thin as a department-store mannequin, struts about in a well-tailored 1860s-era suit.Francis Carpenter was apparently an extremely prim character, and Keylon cleans right up, with his trademark goatee in place but his typically wild mane is coifed and tidy. His hands and eyebrows punctuate every sentence; his eyes demand every audience member’s rapt attention.When he ushers the crowd out to the next exhibit, you can almost feel the audience lunge for the door in unison. Keylon turns and composes himself, occasionally rinsing his throat, then whirls to face his next audience, a mere three feet away: “Come on in. Beautiful, isn’t it? . . . ”

All told, I watch Keylon perform “The Cabinet Room” eight times straight. The four-minute monologue involves a full room pass, crowd control, exposition, rhetorical questions, and heavy emoting. In that workmanlike demand of playing the exact same routine, continuously, “The Cabinet Room” routine really isn’t much different from a song running about four minutes.

Keylon stays committed to the script and doesn’t skip a beat until, starting the sixth run-through, he points to the unfinished Washington Monument in the background. The script calls for him to sigh. After listening to the routine five full times, knowing it now and empathizing with it, I, too, inadvertently sigh heavily on cue, so much in tune with his sigh, that it catches Keylon up and throws him out of character. He pauses for a second, then continues. For the next two run-throughs, Keylon skips the passage of the monologue that triggered our cluster-sigh, and we do not make eye contact again while he is in character.

Between acts, Keylon is hoarse but animated, explaining how he sometimes gets a headache from the sore eyebrow muscles that come from ferociously acting for an hour straight.

Fellow actor Erwin calls Keylon a natural: “He’s exactly what an actor needs to be: all over it. He’s like a bunch of energy corked up in a bottle, ready to go all the time. He’s very much into the material and the whole idea of the place.”

To say that Keylon’s into the material and the museum may be understatement.

Keylon strenuously supports the theatrical element of some of the museum’s major productions, such as the “Lincoln’s Eyes” multiscreen theatrical video experience, which features massive smoke displays that shoot across the room and seats that shake and vibrate when bombs explode on screen.

“The effects are geared to kids today,” Keylon says. “You have to blow something up every now and then to keep their attention.”

It seems to be working. From the larger-than-life log cabin of Abe’s childhood to the scaled-down but still labyrinthine replica of the White House, the place may exude a certain “It’s a Small World” Disney feel to some critics. Keylon’s not among them.

“The museum presents the history in a way that moves people to tears,” he says. “It’s not a Disneyfication of Lincoln at all. They stop short of going too far.”

“These folks were dying”

Regardless of whether Keylon’s art has changed as a result of his latest gig, his newfound steady flow of money is making a huge difference in his day-to-day existence. He slips me backstage as he prepares for his lunch break. For a musician used to getting paid $5 a night and all the beer he could drink or an artist bouncing around between dishwashing jobs to afford his next tube of paint, the state-contract wage of $18 an hour feels like a massive infusion of cash.

The money, he says, is “finally repairing some of the damages done by the ravages of poverty.” He laughs when he’s asked to explain. “Well, for example, I can afford to eat now. People are now coming up to me and asking for money and favors. Also, I got some dental work done at long last, thank God. My glasses used to be held together with tape, and now I’ve got new ones.”

Lounging backstage in the actors’ dressing room amid such luxuries as a VCR, video games and a computer, Keylon reveals the biggest bombshell of his new “Ted Keylon, actor” image:

“Yes, it’s true — I’ve bought a car. I’m still working on the plates and insurance, but can you imagine me with a car?” It is indeed hard to imagine as Keylon strips out of costume for lunch and steps back into the cargo shorts, T-shirt, and bike helmet that have come to define his look when he’s not onstage.

In case you were wondering, you don’t have to scratch very deeply into the new Keylon to find that his passion as a social activist is one thing that hasn’t changed. The second he sits down, Keylon launches into his trademark high-speed, high-energy rant on world affairs.

“Ironically, being heremakes me a more powerful activist than I’ve ever been. This has shown me the importance of action in activism. I mean, these folks were dying — dying— for what they believed in. It has given me a total awareness of apathy’s role in our current oppressions.”

Meanwhile, Russell and Rendleman come in wearing identical Thomas the Librarian costumes as Keylon takes off. The two are swapping the role at lunch. Like Keylon, Russell has seen his life take a tremendous turn since officially becoming a professional actor. Before getting the museum gig, Russell supported his freelance photography dream through his WQLZ job, eBay auctions, and publicity work for the band Enamel. Then, during the rehearsal phase, he went through a divorce. Though Russell still does the PR work in his now-rare spare time and still works for the radio station, the steady money is changing his life as well: “This is such a really cool job, I’ll stay as long as they’ll let me, hopefully for a long, long time.”

For Rendleman, a 20-year local-theater vet, the money hasn’t mattered as much as the chance to work with Funkenbusch, his long-time friend, and getting to perform in a challenging role in the most technologically advanced theater in town. The sentiment is echoed by Jason Goodreau. “I really wanted to be a part of this really technologically cool theatrical project,” he says. “There’s nothing like it in the Springfield area and only a handful around the world. I had to know what it was all about.”

Russell, like Rendleman, loves the sheer magic of the live theater: “You can see the show six times with the six of us who are all greatly different actors, and even though it is the exact same script, it’s a totally different experience.”

I decide to put that assertion to the test and come back to see how the character of Thomas the Librarian looks in a pair of blue suede shoes and catch the performance once more, this time in hands of Elvis Himselvis.

“Fun to be interested again”

Once again Funkenbusch slips me through a back door into the glass-fronted theater with wide wooden benches that were built to accommodate 250 and frequently do. I ask the two staffers who maintain the theater and usher the patrons in and out if they know the actors, but they don’t. I have a second to adjust to the glass and series of curtains before the next Lincoln-hungry horde bursts through the door and floods the theater. The lights go down, the music comes up, and Springfield’s own nationally renowned Elvis impersonator, Rick Dunham, steps onstage. He marches his way confidently through the performance without a hitch or even one accidental pelvic thrust.

After a quick lunchtime change, Elvis leaves the building, and Dunham and I hustle over to the Old State Capitol Plaza so that he can scarf down a quick sub between sessions and I can get a peek at what it’s like to be Elvis Himselvis. In the short three-block walk, five people make eye contact with him and two women stop to flirt. Dunham handles it all with the ease of an experienced celebrity. I ask him how it feels to be so widely known, and he says he hadn’t noticed.

Certainly the veteran thespian of the ALPLM acting troupe, Dunham began acting in 1980 and has appeared in more than 65 productions in addition to performing his Elvis act in more than 30 states. Dunham, like Keylon, is a Springfield native, though he grew up in the Tri-City area of Buffalo, Mechanicsburg, and Dawson and earned a degree in musical theater from Millikin University. He’s been performing regularly as Elvis around the country since 1985 and has seven or eight gigs booked each month, every month, for the foreseeable future.

But things weren’t always so bright. Dunham’s also had his share of unsatisfying jobs, trying to make ends meet while pursuing his acting and musical career. When I ask Himselvis whether the success of this acting gig has changed him, the ever-cordial Dunham is quick to respond. “Well, the money is the biggest thing. I tell you, I’ve had some ups and downs trying to survive while doing this. I’ve slept in mycar. There are so many wonderful actors in this town, and there are so few opportunities to earn any money from it,” he says. “Even though I’m not full-time and don’t get benefits, this is clearly the best job I’ve ever had. I’m going to hang on to this as long as I can.”

Like Keylon, Dunham has taken from the museum experience a new appreciation for our most famous citizen.

“In a way, the experience has revitalized my interest in Lincoln. Here in Springfield, let’s face it, you get burned out on Lincoln. It’s fun to be interested again.”

“Everybody grows up”

So the story is hopeful, but in the end we are still left with the question: Will the role actually changeTed Keylon? Though it may be too early to answer, it certainly isn’t too early to ask.

Local artist/activist Bill Crook chuckles at the question. “Will success change him? For the better, we hope,” says Crook, a frequent Keylon collaborator. “It is bound to be a maturing experience for him. Everybody grows up.” Keylon, Crook adds, has been “a tireless promoter” for activist causes, and Crook doesn’t expect that to change.

Crook’s wife, local feng shuiconsultant and spiritualist Wendy Allen, takes it even further, calling Keylon “a brilliant guy, an urban shaman who looks around at the urban landscape, reads its symbology, and tries to interpret it for the public, metaphorically. I think he’ll be more peaceful and more at peace with himself.”

As for Keylon, he’s not too concerned about changing:

“I used to worry about selling out in one way or another all the time, but I think I’m growing past that. People worry about selling out on the one hand and turning into a mercenary on the other; then they end up doing nothing. Artists I know and I found ourselves fighting over whether or not making money corrupts art. I have to run with making money so you can afford to do your art.”

Keylon’s on break, and he’s in a hurry. He hopes to grab some lunch and work some more on getting plates for his new car. Out of costume, he moves through the museum’s crowds without attracting attention.

You can’t help but be struck by the thought that the new Ted Keylon looks and acts a whole lot like the old Ted Keylon, except with a better haircut. He only has an hour; then it’s back to the daily grind: the Cabinet Room, the crowds, and being Francis Carpenter, 12 times an hour, 40 hours a week.

And Ted Keylon could not be happier.

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