Walking into the auditorium was akin to stepping into a time machine. 1930s-era radio tunes were playing, and the vintage beauty of The Paramount Theatre amplified this illusion. If not for the soft glow of people on the cell phones, one would never know what year it was. An anticipation was building as we knew showtime was approaching, and the buzz of seating patrons was growing. He, after all, is a man with a reputation that far precedes his entrance into a room. A legend in his own time, with a strong personality that seems far bigger than the corporal vessel to which he is confined.
At that moment, I realized that statement could apply to both the man performing that night or the role portrayed. Franklin Roosevelt was an incredibly powerful President, but was crippled by his battle with polio. He never let that get in his way, and projected strength while helping our country back on our feet. Similarly Ed Asner, now in his eighth decade, refuses to slow down. Although showing signs of age, not one spark of his power or energy can be diffused. Asner may be older and more frail, but I assure you his voice hasn’t lost one bit of its power.
A one man show, FDR is an account of Roosevelt’s years in office told from a memoir point of view. As Roosevelt, Asner would address the audience, and then at certain points would retreat into the setting behind him on stage, dressed to represent the Oval Office. At that point, the story would become reenactments of key moments in FDR’s life and administration. Conversations transpire with invisible characters, but it never felt forced or awkward. The transitions were seamless and, despite no visual cues or lighting changes during these shifts, there was never a sense of confusion on the part of the audience.
I know what you’re thinking. Asner is not the ideal man to match the physical depiction of FDR. Personally, I always picture Roosevelt as long and sickly (probably based solely on the famous photo of him, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta). Ed may be short and stocky, but his age and demeanor fostered a balance of power and frailty that capture FDR’s essence. What I’m trying to articulate is: Asner may not have looked the part, but I can think of no one better to embody the spirit of the 32nd President of the United States.
One could tell that Asner, a life long liberal political activist, had a blast taking shots at Republicans while in character. Heck, I’m willing to wager that poking fun at Conservatives was part of the allure for Asner to tackle the role in the first place. The digs were never mean-spirited, but were a cocktail of equal parts respect and pity. There was a particular fondness for Republican Wendall Willkie, his opponent in the 1940 Presidential election. Despite a venomous campaign, FDR lamented to the audience, “I liked Willkie, just not the company he kept.”
Regardless of your own political affiliation, the evening was far from polarizing. If anything, reminded us that the course of history is shaped by flesh and blood people. We may see them now as statues of granite and marble, but they were human like us when at their best and the worst. The lasting memory that night was easily the most powerful scene. It is Dec 7, 1941, and the tranquility of Roosevelt’s morning is interrupted by a historic phone call. When he took the call that notified him about Pearl Harbor, it was like the air was sucked out of the place. Everyone in the theatre was holding their breath, each imagining the terrible dialogue on the other end of the phone. When he finally hangs up and slumps in disbelief, we feel everything: the anger, the pain, and the weight of the world on his shoulders. We all were left in respectful awe, every one of us with a lump in our throat.