Lonn Pressnall, Larry Elliott, Murray Cox in Life as Lincoln
Lonn Pressnall, Larry Elliott, Murray Cox in Life as Lincoln Credit: Caitlin Grogan

It wasn’t easy for Caitlin Grogan to address the assembled ranks of the Association of Lincoln Presenters at their annual convention in Maryland last April. “It’s quite intimidating to stand up in front of a room full of men dressed as Abraham Lincoln and women dressed as Mary Todd and focus,” the 25-year-old filmmaker says.

Having already won formal approval from the ALP leadership, Grogan needed to win the rank-and-file Lincolns’ confidence and secure their cooperation for her first feature-length film, a documentary about Abraham Lincoln impersonators called Life as Lincoln, which premieres at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, February 12—Lincoln’s 201st birthday.

She knew many of the Lincolns were leery of the project, and she understood why. In his first segment for The Daily Show, Ed Helms had lampooned their 2002 convention with an “uplifting” report about living with a disease he dubbed “Lincolntism.” “Almost every Lincoln who was around for that convention mentioned it to me as an explanation for their hesitance to talk to me,” Grogan says. “They’d trusted [The Daily Show], and they’d had their trust brazenly abused.”

Grogan persuaded them that she was on the up-and-up. “Once they saw that we wanted to tell Lincoln’s story in a new way—to explore what he means to people—they realized that what we were doing was not exploitative, that it was in line with their mission.”

Grogan could relate to the Lincoln presenters. She’s had her own thing for the 16th president since she was a kid. “I had this image of Lincoln and I getting along very well,” she says. “I would almost venture to say I had a little bit of a crush on him.”

History has always loomed large in her family. Her father is an American history buff who collects Lincoln books and memorabilia and identifies with the Great Emancipator as a fellow lawyer from a humble background. Grogan, who writes about home design for kitchens.com and its sister site, iBaths.com, was born on the North Shore. When she was three her family moved to Lebanon, Ohio, into a house built circa 1847. The day after they arrived, the Ohio Valley Civil War Association held its annual reenactment on their street. “We woke up, exhausted from the move, to cannons going off,” Grogan says.

The house was full of antiques. Weekends and vacations were spent visiting battlefields, preserved villages, and historic homes, including those of 16 presidents. When her older brother joined the army, Grogan helped her dad convert the empty bedroom into an American history library.

Grogan came back to the Chicago area to attend Northwestern, graduating in 2007 with a bachelor’s in journalism. She’d taken plenty of history classes, and she wanted to tell stories that connected past and present. “The distinction between past and contemporary is never black-and-white for me,” she says. “I think of American history as being a story that we’re still very much a part of. To tell a story from the past is not so far removed from the story of today.”

Considering this notion of living history, Grogan thought back to her childhood and wondered about the Civil War reenactors who spent their days trying to bring the past to life for their audiences. “When they take off the corset at the end of the day, what is life like?” she wondered. “And what if you’re representing a superstar of history like Abraham Lincoln?”

Grogan contacted Murray Cox, who’s on the board of the ALP, which counts 166 active members in 38 states. (Their motto: “We Are Ready, Willing, and Abe L.”) Cox was gun-shy—in the Daily Show segment Helms had affixed a gold star to his cheek, as if he were a kindergartener who’d gotten a perfect score—but her sincerity won him over and he helped introduce Grogan to the Lincolns’ world.

Springfield native Dennis Belogorsky was looking for a project to mark Lincoln’s bicentennial—something, he says, “about the presence and effect of Lincoln today”—when he met Grogan at a July 2008 “friendraiser” for Split Pillow, the nonprofit production company he runs. He signed on to produce and edit Life as Lincoln, and after securing support from Split Pillow’s board in January 2009, they filmed from February through July.

Grogan focuses on a presenter in each of the three states where Lincoln lived before he went to Washington: Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. She filmed them performing—in classrooms and hotels, at Boy Scout functions, on the street—and reflecting in intimate ways on what Lincoln means to them.

Her Indiana Lincoln is Cox himself, who works as comptroller for the White’s Institute, a juvenile shelter and social service agency based in Wabash. A bachelor, Cox has been foster father to six boys and adopted one. “He’s a quiet guy,” Grogan says, “but when he puts on his Lincoln gear he lights up.”

Then there’s ALP treasurer Larry Elliott, who lives in Lincoln’s birthplace, Hodgenville, Kentucky. “In 2005, when I learned that my great-great-great-grandmother Mary LaRue Enlow was the midwife who helped deliver Abraham Lincoln, I knew this vocation was for me,” Elliott writes on his Web site. “This,” he declares in the film, “is my destiny.” His wife, Mary, recently began performing as Mary Todd Lincoln.

Early on Elliott donated his Lincoln-related earnings to Focus on the Family, to help fund an antiabortion program. When he revealed this during a performance at a retirement home, the “director made me stop” the performance, he recalls in the film. It was his “most embarrassing moment.” He learned that he had to “keep Lincoln Lincoln and not bring my personal things into Lincoln.” Still, he says, “I know he was consecrated to Christ.”

Grogan’s third Lincoln, Lonn Pressnall, has a different take on Abe: “Lincoln was naturally Christ-like, but he didn’t like dogma or institutionalized Christianity.” A playwright and retired theater professor, Pressnall has a wife named Mary, proudly proclaims that he was born in a snowstorm like Lincoln, and lives in Forsyth, the central Illinois village to which the Lincoln family moved from Indiana. The film shows him repeatedly resisting audience attempts to get him to endorse contemporary Republicanism. “I know Lincoln presenters in California who are convinced he’s a radical,” Pressnall says. “I know a lot who are convinced he’s an ideal Christian. I know a lot who think he’s an archconservative. I look at the evidence and say he’s a lot of things, but not any one of those things purely.”

The three Lincolns each relate in their own way to the blows and demons Lincoln overcame—his troubled relationship with his father, loss of a brother in childhood, bouts of depression, and thoughts of suicide. Elliott, for instance, talks of feeling “tremendous hatred” during a divorce and being “suicidal.” But the example of Lincoln’s “patience with people,” he says, showed him a better way. “It took me studying Lincoln to see that what I was doing didn’t work. . . . It’s allowed me to change as a person.”

“Lincoln gives them meaning,” Grogan says. “They try to live by the principles that Lincoln lived by. . . . I hadn’t realized that Lincoln shaped them to such a degree that studying Lincoln might change their behavior, but having spent time with them, I realize how it absolutely would.”