Journey back to the Revolutionary War this summer at New-York Historical Society. A Museum-wide celebration, Revolutionary Summer transports visitors back to a time of militia drills, cavalry, metalsmiths, and spies as they explore the Continental Army encampment in our outdoor courtyard. The centerpiece of the exhibition is George Washington’s Headquarters Tent, a detailed replica on loan from the Museum of the American Revolution. But no visit to the Revolutionary era would be complete without meeting the man himself, as portrayed by Michael J. Grillo, a historical interpreter and educator with the Van Cortlandt House Museum who’ll be dropping by New-York Historical throughout the summer. Grillo has portrayed Washington for over 20 years, researching many facets of his biography in order to personify the first American president. We talked to Grillo below about what it takes to play a founding father.
Experience both Grillo and Washington’s Headquarters Tent again over the weekend of July 26–28. And stop by New-York Historical through September 15 to experience every twist and turn of
DiMenna Children’s History Museum (DCHM): How would you describe a Living Historian? What is Living History?
Michael J. Grillo: They bring the past to life. They are any individuals who dress in clothing and accessories that are appropriate for the character they are portraying. Living History is bringing that character off of the pages of history and breathing life into them. It helps people understand history better when they can actually see, touch, or feel the past!
How did you become a Living Historian?
I started scoping out reenactments in 1992 while I was living in Washington Heights, just blocks north of Bennett Park, the site of the Revolutionary War’s Fort Washington. The largest reenactment was the Battle of Monmouth in Freehold, New Jersey. I’ve always been interested in England, so I was attracted to a very large group on the battlefield: the recreated 23rd Regiment of Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and the first group that I joined that fought for the British! I was with the unit for 20 years. Recently, I joined the recreated 42nd Regiment of Foot, a Scottish unit that fought for the British and is popularly known as “the Black Watch.” I’m also part of the 2nd New York Regiment, a unit that fought for the colonies.
Tell us how you started portraying George Washington. What other characters do you bring to life?
To date, I have 24 different uniforms, both American and British, as well as civilian apparel. I enjoy making my own clothing, as well as props for students and visitors, and will research what I need for a portrayal or performance by reading biographies and hopefully finding an image and then tailor it. I know it will come out right after the numerous tailoring courses I’ve taken over the last 20 years.
Since 1998, one character that I’ve chosen to reenact is Washington. In order to portray him, the most obvious choice was to reproduce one of the uniforms that he wore during the American War for Independence. I picked one that he is shown to be wearing during the Battle of Princeton. (I love the scalloped cuffs!) Since then, I’ve made other outfits for Washington, including a coat based off of a British Dragoon officer’s coat that was the first regimental coat Washington ever had made; his black suit that he wore as President; and then the brown suit he wore during his inauguration. I researched and made the last one when the National Park Service asked me to reenact the inauguration of Washington at Federal Hall on April 30, 1789.
At Van Cortlandt House Museum, I portray two characters. In a program called “Growing Up in Lower Yonkers,” I play Mr. Crickett, a clerk or man servant who works for the owner, Mr. James Van Cortlandt. I use surroundings that are familiar to kids and bring them back to the 18th-century geography of New York City using period maps. For that program, I wear my gray wool gentleman’s suit and a heavier, black suit in colder weather. In the other program, “The Recruiting Sergeant,” I have a far more elaborate persona. I use the same name, but am a soldier named Sgt. Crickett who arrived in North America in 1755.
I’ve also been performing as General or President George Washington at other venues like the Jacob Purdy House of the White Plains Historical Society, the New Utrecht Historical Society, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Hamilton Grange, and John Jay Homestead.
What do you notice that is different about portraying famous people like Washington as opposed to more anonymous Revolutionary War soldiers?
There is a tremendous amount of research involved portraying a famous figure. Portraying the average soldier takes less work, and less research needs to be put into the character. You can take information about a soldier’s life and create your own biography. I take aspects from my real life, such as where I live. I can tailor clothing in real-life, so my historical civilian profession is a tailor. Since I have re-enacted the French and Indian War, and I’m old enough to have fought in a war 20 years earlier, I put that into the biography, too. I use the fact I have a family. I’m creating my own 18th-century biography.
Why do you dress up in historical clothing when you teach?
I find it to be a unique way to bring the past alive—the way you can bring someone off the pages of their biography and recreate them in the flesh. I’ve been working as the Museum Educator at the Van Cortlandt House museum for 16 years now. When I first started working there, they had a rudimentary school program. They were getting maybe 1,500–2,000 students per school year. Over the years, I’ve revamped and renamed the programs themselves. My goal was to turn Van Cortlandt into a mini, one-man Colonial Williamsburg. I’ve been able to increase visitation by students to 6,500 per year and more than 258 classes.
You “live history” in a lot of different places! Do you have a favorite?
My favorite place? Well, I actually I have a few. I love to perform at Federal Hall on Wall Street. You have the opportunity to meet a wide range of tourists who are visiting there from all over the globe. I enjoy a crowded audience, too. I liked appearing at the opening of the exhibit Discover the Real George Washington at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on July 4, 2011—just the chance to be performing in the city that started our independence is exciting! Samuel Fraunces Tavern holds a special place in my heart, too. It’s where I met my wife, Maria, who was volunteering as a grant writer. And of course, I truly enjoy meeting and greeting visitors to the New-York Historical Society. I get to speak with visitors who are really interested in history and come from all over the world!
Written by Jenn Tham (original interview by J.M. Wasko)