SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 4, 2010

'President Taft' returns to summer home

By Paul Leighton
Staff writer

BEVERLY — Every summer from 1909 to 1912, President William Howard Taft escaped the oppressive heat of the nation's capital for the cool, ocean-side breezes of Beverly.

A century later, Taft will return to his summer hangout in the person of Boston-area actor Dan Dowling.

As Taft, Dowling will give a speech and hold a press conference in an event designed to raise money for the renovation of the Lynch Park carriage house, the only building at the park remaining from the days when Taft used the location, then a private estate, as his summer White House.

The event, set for Thursday at 7:15 p.m. at Endicott College's Center for the Arts, will again focus attention on one of the most interesting facets of the city's history.

The fact that the president of the United States chose Beverly as his summer destination was not as unusual as it might seem. Beverly was part of what was known as the Gold Coast, a string of waterfront mansions that attracted the country's rich and famous. Among the dignitaries already summering in Beverly was the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, whom Taft had served as secretary of war.

Dowling, who plays Santa Claus at the Stone Zoo's annual holiday lights show, says he has the body type to play the 300-pound Taft. But to prepare for Thursday's press conference, he's had do some extensive research on the 27th president's life and career.

How did you get this job?

A man named Bob Murphy, who is an actor, is a friend of Lee Yaffa (one of the event organizers). Lee said to him, "I'm looking for a President Taft," and Bob suggested me because I'm about the same shape and size and age of President Taft — although I've never been stuck in a bathtub. They actually had auditions and interviews, and I impressed them enough to get the job.

Have you ever played Taft before?

No, I haven't. When I first started at the museum (Boston's Museum of Science, where he works as artistic coordinator), I was an actor in their programs, and one of the first things I did play was Galileo in a live show at the planetarium. It's not that I usually do historical characters unless it's in the context of a play. I had to do a lot of research on (Taft).

What's the most interesting thing you discovered about him?

I never knew Taft's summer home was in Beverly. Like most people, I knew he was a really big guy who got stuck in a bathtub in the White House. He also got stuck in a bathtub on the presidential yacht while it was in Beverly Harbor. He was also the only president to serve on the Supreme Court.

What kind of person was he?

From an acting point of view, the best thing is that he seems to have been an extremely likable person. I read a lot of comments about how he was friendly, accessible, human, jovial — phrases you never really hear with politicians anymore. He had a fantastic laugh. He loved humor.

Are you going to imitate his voice?

It's not like he had an unusual voice. He didn't have the Boston accent of a Kennedy or the southern drawl of a Carter or Clinton. What I went for is the old-fashioned oratory approach, the way people spoke before they had microphones. They had huge crowds in front of them, and they had to speak without amplification.

What about dress?

They hired a costume designer, so I sent her my measurements. I found measurements for Taft online. They published his measurements when he ordered his White House pajamas. It's a formal outfit, a morning suit kind of outfit. I'm still trying to find a top hat that fits my head. I had to shave my beard off. I'm not sure I'll have the handlebars like Taft had, but I'll have something. I'm surprised I do kind of look like him.

What's your next role after this?

I will be at Reagle Players in Waltham in "Hairspray." I'm going from President Taft to Edna Turnblad (the plus-sized mother played in the movie by John Travolta).

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

Highlights of Taft's summer stays in Beverly

Worked at an office on Cabot Street, above a dentist's office. The office was apparently too noisy for Taft, who moved to another office on Lothrop Street.

Attended services at First Parish Church on Cabot Street, where a plaque marks the pew where he sat.

Laid the cornerstone for the Cabot Street YMCA building.

Visited by former President Teddy Roosevelt.

'Evicted' from the Evans estate (now Lynch Park) after two years by Maria Antoinette Evans, who owned the land and refused to extend his lease due to the commotion his visits caused. Evans had Taft's 14-room cottage cut in half and shipped by barge to Marblehead. Taft spent the next two summers in an estate off Corning Street in Beverly.

If you go

What: President Taft Returns to Beverly

When: Thursday, 7:15 p.m.

Where: Endicott College Center for the Arts, 376 Hale St.

Tickets: $10 for general admission; $50 for premium seating, also allows for a question to be posed to President Taft and attendance at post-event reception. Tickets available online at bevrec.com or at the door.

To benefit: Renovation of Lynch Park carriage house.