Every Christmas there’s a reenactment of the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River on the way to attack the Hessians at Trenton, and one lucky guy gets to portray George Washington. I’d always assumed the organizers got their Washington the same way other museums and historic sites find people who do first-person portrayals—just flip through the Rolodex and make a phone call. Back when I was in the Lincoln museum business, we had a couple of go-to guys we used for this sort of thing. (There is, in fact, an Association of Lincoln Presenters in case you need somebody to show up at an event and deliver the Gettysburg Address.)
But it turns out the organizers of the Delaware crossing reenactment pick their Washington through a formal audition process every few years. Think American Idol, except with middle-aged men in tricorn hats. It’s the subject of a short documentary produced by The Star-Ledger.
I recommend watching the film, not just because it’s a fascinating glimpse into the commemoration of the Revolution but also because it’s surprising to see how fierce the competition is and how passionately these guys want the role. There are Rev War reenactors for whom this is the holy grail of living history, but of course only one guy is chosen, and there are some bitter feelings when the winner is announced. Of the competitors featured in the documentary, I think the guy who bore the strongest resemblance to Washington was the winner, but the film doesn’t really show any of them in character except for a few brief speech excerpts.
Portraying Washington at an event seems like it would be pretty tough, at least if you were really trying to get it right. Doing first-person interpretation to a crowd requires you to be engaging, but Washington was famously reserved. He was also a rather bland public speaker, at least when using a prepared text. I’d imagine that playing somebody more personable, like Franklin or Lincoln, would be a lot more fun.