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What have you done with Ford's Theater?

Back in the day when dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was one place that captured the imaginations of die hard Lincoln aficionados and casual tourists alike: Ford's Theater. Ford's Theater was widely popular for being what is was: the Place Where Lincoln Was Shot. You go in, and in a small dark basement was The Gun That Killed Lincoln. No one, not even the most jaded, i-pod listening, FBI t-shirt wearing, 8th grader, needed interpretation. There it all was; the gun, the overcoat with the President's blood, the shackles the conspirators wore; all of it, just sitting there. And the kids were entranced. They didn't need themed displays. They didn't want interactive toys. They saw History, and they knew it. Coupled with the excellent restoration of the theater based on pictures taken shortly after the assassination by Mathew Brady, it was an excellent place to connect with one of America's most pivotal moments.

Well, time moves on and the universe continues it's inevitable push towards entropy. The powers that be decided it was time to sink $50 million into bringing Ford's Theater into the 21st Century. Here's a project I enthusiastically supported. The theater needed work. It wasn't ADA compliant, there was no lobby (and hence no bar!), and any time I hear "historic site" and "dated electrical plan" I cringe and feel the need to throw money at it. And, while they're at, if they could fix those chairs that felt as if I was scourging myself for some unknown sin, well, that would be fine too. All in all, my old friend was in bad shape, and I wished her all the best while she had some needed surgery.

It turns out, however, in addition to the needed bypass surgery, my friend had been sold a bill of goods by a plastic surgeon. Face lifts, augmentations, all kids of things were done to her to get her to look younger and hipper. And like so much plastic surgery, it was all so unnecessary. Eager to hear more about the renovations, I attended a public meeting held by the National Park Service and the Ford's Theater Society, the two organizations that jointly run the Theater as both a monument and a functioning theater. What I heard made me cringe.

First off, the Theater will now only be accessible by timed tickets. Previously, you waited in line if you wished to see the Park Ranger give his hourly presentation at the Theater. At times, you got a good one, and the presentation was worth the wait. Generally, it was just some NPS hack up there boring the kids. So I was able skip all of that and take my groups up to the balcony, let them take their pictures, point out a few items, and head down to the museum. It was quick, and it was real. The kids loved it and it was a meaningful and concise visit. Then we would head outside, do a quick tour of the Peterson House (across the street where Lincoln died) and be on our merry way.

Now, we have to get timed tickets. For all of it, including the Peterson House. And you have to suffer through the godawful Park Service presentation in order to see the museum. That's fine for the big tour companies who churn thousands of eight graders through the city (Worldstrides, I'm looking at you here), but for the casual visitor, it kills the drop in visit. So now, if you're coming to DC and don't have Ford's already planned out on your itinerary, it ain't happening. No more quick visits. It's now A Thing. And for us locals, who used to drop in with visitors when we happened to be downtown, the tickets pull Ford's Theater out of the fabric of our city. Now it's a planned event, something that you have to mean to do. It rips away the spontaneity that made Ford's Theater so accessible to us. Now it's like the Capitol, the White House, the Washington Monument; something locals won't do because it's a hassle.

And this may be for the best, because the other great failing in the new plan is the reworking of the museum. The same museum that was one of my favorite haunts has been spruced up. No longer will it be quaint yet meaningful experience of yore. Now, instead of "just" being the place where Lincoln died, they want to tell the comprehensive story of Lincoln in DC. Thanks folks, without you, I just might not notice that Lincoln had lived here. Unless of course I went to any other museum in town! Focus on what you have, the story of the Lincoln Assassination and quit trying to re-teach the whole Civil War.

My final frustration is one that transcends just Ford's Theater. Everyone is trying to be more "interactive" and less static. In the last year alone we've had the Newseum and the Museum of Crime and Punishment open up, to join many other infotainment centers. Now, I like a game room as much as the next guy and both of the places I mention above I heartily recommend. But they have to catch you with bells and whistles because they don't have it. That rare quality of being on a site where History with a capital H happened. Ford's has it, why squander it with touch screens and gizmos? You were drawing in the crowds; why try to compete with the flashing lights?

I haven't seen the Theater yet, as it just reopened and I'll be damned if I wait in line for a ticket. It's like a friend asking you to make an appointment when you stop by. I will swing by next week with a tour group, so I'll give everyone an update with my impressions once I see it. I wish I could tell you when the museum proper opens, but as of today (Feb 21st) the Park Service's website still says that the Theater itself will open February 12th. Crackerjack web presence you guys got there. At least they note that "Winter can bring cold temperatures, frozen precipitation and, on occasions, major snowstorms." Awesome, thanks.

Anyway, as always, if anyone else out there happens across Ford's any time soon, please leave your impressions in the comments. Despite my misgivings, I hope others with fresh eyes have a positive experience there.

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Reader Comments (3)

We went to Ford's Theater on the 12th and appreciated the timed tickets. We got our tickets, went to look for a snack, then came back. No waiting in line, which is great when you've got kids.

The presentation in the theater was so moving that it brought my daughter to tears!

March 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGBK Gwyneth

I'm glad you had a good time. When the presentation is good, it can be really good. And I fully admit, some of it may just be me being jaded from having seen it so many times.

March 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTim Krepp

Hi Tim,

Will be making my first trip to Fords Theater as part of a ride along with World Strides. It will all be new to me as I started doing tour work in D.C. in 2008 when the theater had already closed. Looking forward to adding another location to my repetoire of places to visually and orally educate visitors about in Washington

March 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Di Filippo

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