In living history
Mary Geach isn’t looking to star in the next Oliver Stone biopic or win an Academy Award. She does, however, strive to accurately depict Sacramento life in 1906, right down to her spectacles. Geach has been a historical re-enactor for the California State Capitol Museum for 20 years, devoting more than 6,000 hours of her time. She’s recreated the earthquake of 1906, for example, and will lend her acting chops to the 1906 Election Day Living History event on November 1. For Geach, being a re-enactor means being her own historian, hair stylist and costume designer. Geach sews her own costumes and even purchased a pair of 1906 glasses from an antique store and had her own lenses inserted into the frames. Now that’s attention to detail.
What characters do you typically play?Well, let’s see. The one coming up I’m playing Ms. Martin, who was a Sacramento Bee reporter. And I’m interviewing one of the [gubernatorial] candidates.
Do you enjoy history? Is that why you got into this?Well, yes, I taught U.S. history. So it just kind of fell into place. And then I brought [my husband] along with me to take the classes, and so he kind of got involved in it, too. So we learned an awful lot. And the classes that we do, the training for the volunteers, is very good. We have excellent presenters.
Do you ever have somebody try to ask you something about the present day?Oh no, no. They never have done that. Of course, being a tour guide here we have to be apolitical. We are not allowed to give our opinions of present-day situations at all. Even if they ask us, we say, “Well, that’s a very good question, but I can’t answer that one.”
What kind of parallels do you see today?Well, back then [Gov. George] Pardee particularly was concerned about the natural resources. He was very big on conservation. They, back then, had the water problem of [Los Angeles] wanting our water down south. And there’s still that situation today, where they need the water to go down south. Taxes, debts—I mean, they had it then and we have it now. Not as big. Then it wasn’t as big, but they still had tax questions and problems.
So, it’s kind of like the same issues just rising up again?Right. And particularly when we do the election one, the candidates in their talk, it just brings things to mind right now—and it was back then in 1906. It was the same problems. And of course the biggest problem was women’s right to vote. They didn’t have the right to vote. So in our play, we have suffragists who carry banners and wear “votes for women” [sashes] and they ask the candidates, “What do you think about the right for women to vote?” Well, [James] Gillett says, “Well, I just can’t answer that,” and went right on, just ignoring it.
Are the speeches from 1906 very similar to the speeches politicians give today?They make promises and they do this and it’s just a little bit different era, but it comes down to the same ideas. It’s fun and it’s interesting.
What’s your favorite character you’ve played?I’ve been tour guide most of the time. Well, oh yes, my favorite: Mrs. Gage, Governor [Henry] Gage’s wife. What was her name? Gosh, it’s been a couple of years. Not Henrietta. Anyway, [my husband] plays the governor and I play his wife. That’s my favorite.
Why?Oh, I don’t know. She was an interesting person. She was backing her husband and he wasn’t too popular of a man. He was not a good politician. And when he ignored people in the audience, I said, “Well, some of these people would like to talk to you.” [And he said], “Well, make an appointment.” I said, “Well dear, they’re here just for the day and they are voters.” Get with the program. So then he gets up and gives a glad hand and [says], “Oh yes, voters.” So, that was a fun one. We haven’t played that, gosh, for quite a few years.
What do you think most people can glean from watching a living-history event?It is entertainment, but in a kind of educational way, because I think it makes them aware of the importance of listening to candidates, to hear what they have to say and then weigh-it-with-what-you-feel type of thing. I think it gets people, hopefully, out to vote. And then we do have them vote [during the living-history event]. After the scene is over, they bring them back down to the basement, which is back to 2008, and then we have a table set up and they have ballots. And they mark, from listening to the candidates, who they would vote for. And then we have a board and they tally all the [votes]. Gillett, who actually won the election, has never won. People do not like him. … But, back then the railroads really controlled who was governor, and they wanted Gillett, and Gillett became governor.