Last Wednesday I visited the Indiana History Center. Senior archivist Barbara Quigley encouraged me to visit the IHC’s special “You Are There” exhibit. I am going to use the word “exhibit” to talk about it in this post, but really it is a visitor-led experience, and a wonderful form of interactive theatre/storytelling. It is free of charge, and it is fascinating.
An old-timey photo of a grocery store was projected on…a sort of waterfall of vapor.
“Walk through the mist,” Barbara said.
We both did and suddenly, we were in the photograph. The grocer from the photo, Mr. Zwerner, was behind the counter wearing a butcher’s apron. Another shopper (besides us) wearing a blue-flowered scarf tied over her hair was looking at a shelf of canned goods.
“You’re in Terre Haute on January 20, 1945,” Barbara told me.
It really felt as if we were! I started to look at the links of sausage and other items in the refrigerated case. Mr. Zwerner came over and said, “Can I get something for you?”
“Well,” I said, trying to imagine what I might say if I were actually grocery shopping in 1945. “I guess I’m trying to think of what to have for dinner. Do you have any ideas?”
“Did you bring your ration book with you?”
“Uh….no. No, I’m afraid I didn’t….”
“Well, that’ll limit you to chicken, vegetables…”
“In fact, I don’t actually know what you mean by ‘ration book.'”
He led me over to the counter where the non-electric cash register was and showed me some ration books he had there. The books held different colors of paper stamps. He explained which ones were for meat and which ones were for other things.
He also told us where to get the ration books. He told us not to be too worried if the women there asked a lot of questions before they gave out the books. “They always have to know everyone’s business,” he said.
I tried to think of other questions to ask him. “Are you married?”
Ooops! Judging from his lifted eyebrows, I guessed that that was not a very polite question to just blurt out back then, any more than it is now, but I was curious.
After he got over his shock, Mr. Zwerner said that yes, he was married, but that she was mean.
That made me laugh, but then feel shy. I turned to the other shopper, Mrs. Watson. I can’t remember how I knew their names. Maybe Barbara told me. Whereas Mr. Zwerner’s strong, masculine demeanor made me feel safe and a little flirtatious, Mrs. Watson’s gentle bearing made me feel protective.
“Mrs. Watson, isn’t it? How are you today?” I asked.
She told us about hearing from her son, who was serving on a Navy submarine. She showed us photos of him.
I wondered if Mrs. Watson had a job or kept house fulltime. I didn’t want to be rude, but I asked her anyway.
She told us she worked as a copy editor for the local newspaper. “I’ve worked there ever since my husband stopped living with us.”
That’s all she said about him. However, she conveyed a world of delicately shaded meaning in her tone of voice. I understood that her husband was not dead, and although she was not going to use the word “divorce” in polite conversation, she was not ashamed of her situation. She would not speak ill of him, and she had had a challenging life raising a child on her own, but she was better off without him. I began to realize that she, too, was strong in her own way.
We somehow got to talking about Judy Garland movies. Mrs. Watson showed us a “recent” article about the movie star in Life magazine.
Both the grocer and Mrs. Watson were very natural in their conversations with Barbara and me. I learned things about the historical time and place without really even registering that I was learning. It was fun to walk around that store with its 1945 labels and prices, too. I wished that I could bring my mother through the mist and hear what childhood memories the store brought back for her.
“Usually the usherette from the theater across the street stops by around now,” Mr. Zwerner said. “After the movie has started.”
“And sometimes Grandpa Zwerner helps out behind the counter,” Barbara said.
But even though we lingered, we didn’t see either of them that day.
After feeling so completely and comfortably immersed into 1945 Terre Haute, it was odd to step back through the door, back through the mist, back into 2008 Indianapolis.
In the hallway outside the exhibit, we happened to see Dan Shockley, the coordinator of interpretation for the IHC. Barbara introduced me. I felt lucky to have the chance to learn a little about how the exhibit – and really it is so much more than an exhibit – is managed.
“There are two different actors for each role,” Dan told me. “Michael Redmond is playing Mr. Zwerner today. Carol Shaefer is playing Mrs. Watson.” The exhibit is open Wednesday – Saturday. Each actor works a 6½ hour shift.
“There is only one Grandpa Zwerner, though. He is played by Hal Fryar. You may remember him as Harlow Hickenlooper from his TV show for kids.” This page from his website lists the days and times that he will appear at the IHC.
“We now have six interpreters (actors) and seven facilitators (people who answer questions here in 2008),” Dan continued. “This is a new kind of work for all of them. The interpreters mostly come from performing arts backgrounds. The facilitators mostly come from education backgrounds. This is a different animal from what they know. But they have really taken to it, and to each other.”
As he talked, I remembered a conversation that I had had several weeks ago with one of my favorite local actors, Erin Cohenour. She told me that she had found her dream day job, working at the Indiana History Center. Dan confirmed that she is one of the actors playing the usherette, but that she was off that day. I am sorry to have missed her!
In 2009, most of the Indiana History Center will close for extensive renovations. When the building re-opens in the spring of 2010, there will be space for three “You Are There” exhibits at once. Dan plans to expand his staff from 13 to 25 members.
Dan said his goal is to have a kind of repertory company – a team of people that work well together and take turns doing everything. Each member will rotate: three months as an interpreter, four months as a facilitator, and so on. The facilitators will also work in the IHC’s History Lab and at kiosks around the Center. Dan would like the company to be multi-generational and multi-racial. He will not hire the extra members until December of 2009, but people may contact him any time at the Indiana History Center to ask him questions or to send him their resumes.
In addition to hiring and training the staff, Dan writes the stories from which the actors work. He did not know anything about the woman in the 1945 grocery photo until three days before the exhibit opened, so he based her story on his own grandmother’s. However, just before the exhibit opened, the newspaper in Terre Haute ran a story with the photo in it. Mr. Zwerner’s relatives came forward to identify Mrs. Watson!
One photo that he is already working to bring to life for the “You Are There” exhibits in 2010 is of a clean and pretty 19-year-old girl surrounded by the men working in her father’s auto garage in the 1920s.
I imagine that it, too, will make me feel an emotional, personal connection to history.
“You Are There: 1945 Hoosier Homefront” continues 10 am – 5 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays at the Indiana History Center through January 3, 2009. There is no charge. You do not have to make a reservation. Parking is free in the IHC’s lot. Be sure to get a paper with the code-of-the-day on it from the welcome desk so that you can exit the parking lot.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com