Historical Show

James Gooden embodies FDR in 'The Fireside Chats' at Comedy Playhouse

Everyone has a tradition for celebrating the Fourth of July; barbecues, fireworks and other outdoor activities usually top the list.

But the Comedy Playhouse celebrates with an annual play—The Fireside Chats With FDR. Performed by James Gooden, with his wife, Elizabeth Gooden, the show dramatizes some of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's iconic radio addresses to the nation.

Gooden bears a striking resemblance to our 32nd president, and the show, now in its sixth year, is his brainchild. He's long been fascinated by FDR, he says, and felt that the numerous public talks the progressive president left behind could be turned into a dramatic performance.

FDR reached out directly to the American people in 30 "chats" delivered between 1933 and 1944, via the relatively new medium of radio. Roosevelt aimed to reassure a troubled populace during the Great Depression and World War II. Reaching the American people in their own homes, his radio addresses became a defining feature of his presidency.

"When he started talking on the radio in the fireside chats, everyone was sitting around their living room, listening to the radio," Gooden notes.

It was this personal connection to the public that helped make FDR a beloved American figure.

"There's been discussion over whether FDR actually did anything to bring us out of the Great Depression," Gooden says. "And I think you can make that case, but what he did do that was significant was that he let the American public know that he cared about them. And I think that was huge at the time. So successful or not in fiscal policy, he gave the country a sense of hope."

Indeed, that personal connection to the American people was evident from FDR's very first fireside chat in 1933, when he explained to the nation why there had been an emergency bank closure. FDR addressed his listeners as "my friends" and said he considered the support of the American people key to solving the financial crisis.

"After all," the president said, "there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people themselves."

Gooden began to piece together a one-man show from the "wealth of material" that was available, and in 2007, he gave The Fireside Chats its first performance. Elizabeth joined the following year as FDR's wife, Eleanor.

Gooden has performed the show every year since, and he always adds and cuts different selections. In addition, he performs several other FDR speeches.

A highlight is FDR's first inaugural address, in which the president uttered the famous line, "First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Gooden also performs the president's declaration of war, which opens chillingly: "Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan."

These speeches about sacrifice, war and financial crisis seem far from historical in today's climate.

"Problems with the economy, problems with war ... those things haven't changed," notes Comedy Playhouse's proprietor, Bruce Bieszki, who has collaborated with Gooden since the show's inception.

The Fireside Chats is simple to produce; Gooden performs as FDR at his White House desk for the chats, and at a lectern for the speeches. This means it's been easy for Gooden to take the show on the road, and he's performed as FDR around the Southwest.

The touring element of the show was not planned, but happened organically, Gooden says. He was first asked to perform by the Vail Preservation Society, for an audience that included Nina Roosevelt Gibson, FDR's granddaughter.

Since then, he's done the show several times a year in addition to the annual Fourth of July performances. At Colossal Cave, he performed for the unveiling of a monument to the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program FDR created for unemployment relief. Members of the original CCC were in attendance as Gooden read a letter that FDR had written to thank the men of the corps.

"It was a transcendent moment," Gooden says.

At every performance, he relishes hearing feedback from the audience, many of whom have their own FDR stories to tell.

"I always try to take enough time to listen to the stories that I get after the show," he says. "They're always fascinating stories."

Eventually, Gooden began adding these personal anecdotes to the show.

"I would get a little tidbit that I could make a moment out of," he says. "So the show became much more dramatic as the years went on."

With the addition of Elizabeth Gooden as Eleanor, The Fireside Chats evolved to include a more-intimate perspective on FDR. It's a one-man, one-woman show, although the focus remains on FDR and his public oratory.

The show is still "85 percent James," Bieszki says, but having Eleanor as a character makes FDR "more human. He wasn't just a president. He was a man; he was a husband; he was a father; he was a nephew."

Bieszki and Gooden enjoy presenting the show annually—it gives them the opportunity to provide a tradition for audiences as well as a chance to tweak details. For instance, this year, Gooden is excited to have located a pair of pince-nez (earpiece-free glasses) to increase the historical accuracy of his costume.

Gooden's enthusiasm for portraying FDR has remained undimmed through years of performance.

"It's been a real privilege," he says, "to be able to delve into this historical figure, this monumental historical figure, from a dramatic point of view."

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