MONTVILLE, NJ – Montville Township residents were treated to a visit from “Franklin Delano Roosevelt” when re-enactor Neill Hartley brought the president to the Montville Township Public Library on Feb. 22.
Hartley’s portrayal, including FDR’s accent and wheelchair, were part of a “History Alive!” program by the American Historical Theater.
Hartley set his performance in December of 1940, when Roosevelt had just been re-elected to a third term in office. The Nazis had been invading countries across Europe and Americans were worried that the country would be drawn into war. Hartley set the stage for the evening by describing the average $1,725 annual salary of an American, the 11 cents per gallon of gas drivers were paying, and the Social Security system which had just begun making payments in January. The Pennsylvania Turnpike had recently opened.
“The selective service has been put into place, but only as a precautionary measure,” Hartley as Roosevelt told the assembly.
He told the audience that he would like to read his latest “fireside chat” to them, in order to test it out. No ordinary chat, the speech would come to be called the “Arsenal for Democracy” speech.
“Frankly and definitely there is danger ahead -- danger against which we must prepare,” Hartley read as Roosevelt. “But we well know that we cannot escape danger, or the fear of danger, by crawling into bed and pulling the covers over our heads.”
The speech was designed to explain to Americans the full situation in Europe, while impressing upon listeners that the way to aid allies was to arm and support the nations of Europe. Italy, Nazi Germany and Japan had signed a treaty in September to be allies, and if they were triumphant against Great Britain, “they will be in a position to bring enormous military and naval resources against this hemisphere.”
“You’re thinking, ‘Mr. President, this not our fight, we need to be isolated,’” Hartley as Roosevelt said. “Does this make sense in our era? It’s almost 1941! Can we truly be isolated? This is a global economic world we are in.”
Hartley explained Roosevelt’s lend-lease program and asked for support because of the illegality of a president aiding a country at war. He also spotlighted various programs that Roosevelt began such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built trails across America.
Interwoven into speech snippets were personal anecdotes from Roosevelt’s life while he talked with the audience and called them friends. He described the events surrounding the onset of polio at age 39, stating “But we face adversity as it comes to us, do we not?” He quoted from Roosevelt’s inauguration speech, which contained the famous phrase, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
The question and answer period took a passionate turn when one questioner asked “Roosevelt” about his decision to turn away the St. Louis, a ship filled with Jewish emigrants. The woman became quite agitated with “Roosevelt,” stating that Eleanor Roosevelt did not agree with FDR’s decision refuse entrance to the refugees. Hartley as Roosevelt stated that he shared the questioner’s passion and “When you are president, you make mistakes.” He explained that he faced a vast population that did not want to accept refugees.
“It was a very difficult situation,” Hartley said.
“Abraham Lincoln wanted to do so much for this country but he could not,” Hartley told the audience as Roosevelt. “So we compromise. I try not to be too rigid. I think it’s my job to channel ideas into action. I think it’s important for someone to know that there’s a man in the White House who gives a damn about them. And I do.”
Hartley concluded his discussion by stating, “I may have broken one of the cardinal rules of government: be sincere, be brief, be seated.”
Hartley is an assistant professor of voice and speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia; he is also the artistic director of Acting Without Boundaries, a theater company for young adults with physical disabilities.
The Montville Township Public Library holds programs for children, teens and adults every day, including tech classes, storytimes, movie showings, concerts and lectures. For more information, click MTPL.