In June, Buffalo was privileged to see President William McKinley, alive again and pressing the flesh. It was Valerian Ruminski, the head of Nickel City Opera starring as McKinley in a new opera. Now, there's a new dead president in town.
Over the last year, actor David Lundy has been transforming himself, bit by bit, into President Harry S Truman. He is playing the president in a one-man show, "Give 'Em Hell, Harry," at the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, from Oct. 20 to 29.
Lundy has admired the play, written by Samuel Gallu, since he was a boy. He had a record of a performance featuring actor James Whitmore.
"My brother and I got the record album and listened to it over and over," he said. He was drawn to Truman's personality and principles. "Here was a guy who always seemed to be trying to do the right thing. He might not always have, but he was always trying to do the right thing. And that was attractive to me."
An intense man with a quiet sense of humor, Lundy has confessed he is amazed by the publicity he is getting. Channel 4's Jacquie Walker did a lengthy segment on him landing the role of his dreams. Inspirational music played, and images of Lundy alternated with footage of President Truman. And as Truman, he was invited to meet with County Executive Mark Poloncarz. Cameras snapped as the two posed together. "I can't believe this is all happening," Lundy said.
With his earnest sensibilities and humble manner, he looks the part of the bespectacled, no-nonsense Midwestern president. But even given these similarities, becoming Truman has been quite the journey.
Lundy retired recently from a job at the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant. He celebrated his newfound freedom by touring presidential libraries. He drove in his newly acquired red mini-Cooper, with rakish, tongue-in-cheek license plates reading "ACTOR." He laughed that as he drove across the heartland of America, motorists kept craning their necks, thinking because of the license plates that he was somebody famous.
"I went to the Ford library first, then the Hoover, then the Eisenhower, then the Truman, then the Clinton library, and then to the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum," he said. After a jaunt to the Benjamin Harrison home, in Indianapolis, Ind., he considered continuing on to Texas, where three more presidential shrines beckoned. But he was traveling solo, and wanted to get back home to his wife, jazz singer Mari McNeil.
He came back with a deepened view of Truman. "The reason for his library was not to glorify him. He wanted it to be a center for young people to come and study the presidency," Lundy said. "He would greet the school groups and give a little talk before they went on to see the rest of the library. He worked at the Truman library until his death."
Lundy was able to perform "Give 'Em Hell, Harry" thanks in part to Channel 7's Mike Randall. Randall, who has portrayed such real-life legends as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, helped him get the rights to the show. Having gotten the green light, Lundy set about assembling things he would need to portray Truman: a World War I Doughboy outfit, vintage-looking suits. He had to look hard to find Truman's signature spectacles.
"We had gone to a bunch of antique malls, and couldn’t find what we wanted," he said. Then luck stepped in. "One night, we were taking my uncle to the Allen Street Hardware. It hadn't opened yet, so we went across the street to the antique shop. Sure enough, the perfect pair of glasses was right there."
Thanks to a pal at the Virgil Avenue Tobacconist, he has an actual Truman artifact. "I have two close friends I smoke with at the cigar bar. They're autograph collectors," he said. "They found one of Truman one day as I was sitting there."
What episode in Truman's life would Lundy like to witness, should a time machine be invented? Might he want to see Truman making the difficult decision to drop the atomic bomb? Or would he like to see Truman post-presidency, looking back on his years in office, and dispensing wisdom? Lundy, perhaps in tribute to his hero, struck a lighter note. He thinks affectionately of the plain-spoken president he describes as "unvarnished."
He said, "I would like to sit around on the presidential yacht with him and Winston Churchill, playing cards."
What: "Give 'Em Hell, Harry"
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 20, 21, 22, 27, 28 and 29
Where: New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 Johnson Park
Tickets: $30 general, students $20