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Uncommonwealth: As Henry Clay, Georgetown professor is the 'poster child for Kentucky Chautauqua'

ctruman@herald-leader.comApril 28, 2014 

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    Information about Chautauqua: Kentucky Humanities Council, (859) 257-5932. Kyhumanities.org

    About Henry Clay (1777-1852)

    The 19th-century Kentucky politician served in the U.S. House and the Senate, was speaker of the House and was Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams. Clay moved to Lexington in 1797 as a young lawyer. He was elected to the Kentucky General Assembly in 1803. He was appointed to the U.S. Senate at age 29 and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1811. Abraham Lincoln referred to Clay as "my beau ideal of a statesman."

— You can call George McGee a Henry Clay for all seasons.

Also, just about all locations.

McGee has sweated through the Great Compromiser's black wool suit in Kentucky's steamy summers. He has found himself arriving in the nick of time at an elementary school that the global positioning system forgot. He has performed for audiences that loved to play along, who greeted the opportunity to stand in for the other characters in the Clay narrative. Among them, he gives good sport points to House Speaker John Boehner, who responded on point to a McGee inquiry about how things were going in Washington at a 2013 meeting Derby Weekend at Henry Clay's Ashland estate.

He has found himself talking to audiences who just looked at him funny when he tried to draw them in. He adjusts. He improvises. It was the essence of Henry Clay, after all, and McGee is a drama professor.

Sometimes a student at Georgetown College, where McGee teaches drama, will remember seeing McGee's Henry Clay performance back when they were in elementary school. It makes his day.

McGee is what Kathleen Pool, the associate director of the Kentucky Humanities Council, calls the "poster child for Kentucky Chautauqua." He has appeared in 691 Chautauqua presentations since 1992, has had a total audience of close to 66,000, performing in 87 Kentucky counties as well as Washington and New York.

And that's just as Henry Clay. Before that, McGee was Elijah Craig — the man who donated the land for Georgetown College and founded a distillery in what is now Scott County — for the Chautauqua program, which is a series of one-actor shows featuring historical figures from around Kentucky, from Daniel Boone to Rosemary Clooney to Adolph Rupp.

Chautauqua characters such as McGee are provided with a scholar and drama consultant and get a year to prepare their presentations, which are then listed in the Kentucky Chautauqua catalog. Chautauqua characters are available to appear before schools and community groups.

A Vietnam veteran, McGee graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University with a bachelor of fine arts and got his master's degree in acting/directing from Florida Atlantic University.

When he first moved to Georgetown in 1984 to teach, McGee's wife Cathy remained back in Florida to pack up their house, and McGee found himself with time on his hands to learn about his new home. Initially he discovered Craig.

Lexington businessman Brack Marquette, then on the board of Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, spotted McGee, noted his resemblance to Henry Clay and invited him to greet people at an open house as Henry Clay.

"The only thing I knew about Henry Clay is that he was a loser," McGee said, citing Clay's recurring losses in his bid to become president, but his enduring popularity nonetheless. "I was scared to death that people would ask me a question that I did not know."

But visitors liked the Clay they met, and McGee acquired a new character for his repertoire and the chance to immerse himself in the study of Clay.

"Elijah Craig was a regional character," McGee said. "But it amazes me how many towns and I cities I go to, and they have a street named after Henry Clay. ... As my wife says, it's the role of a lifetime."

Why he continues to play Clay comes down to two words: Kenny Delmar.

Delmar was a voice actor who appeared on the radio as "Senator Beaureagard Claghorn."

He told a young McGee, now 67, that "No matter how high you get or how far you go. ... there will come a day when the phone won't ring."

"Thanks to the KHC, the phone still rings for Henry Clay," McGee explained.

In person, McGee is unassuming: If he were your professor, you'd find yourself in luck. He is encouraging, appreciative, kind and funny.

But when he slips into Henry Clay mode — "a duel, sir!" — even the lines in his face seem to shift. His posture stiffens. His voice drops into a threatening sternness. His hands prepare to slap the lounge sofa at Anderson Hall.

Slipping into the costume and persona of Henry Clay have become the stuff of his life.

"I am basically at school from 8 to 5 p.m., home for dinner, then back to school for rehearsal from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m.," McGee said. "Today I had one class this morning at 9:30 a.m. I scheduled a Clay this afternoon at Crawford Middle School, then went back to school, checked mail, calls, graded papers.

"I also have a performance next week at Jesse Clark Middle School. When school is over in May I will have seven more Clays lined up. Summers are Clay, spring break is Clay, sabbaticals include Clay weekends, travel for Clay."

Who's his inspiration? Singer Bobby McFerrin — of Don't Worry Be Happy fame — who McGee says excels at getting people actively involved in his performance.

For McGee, getting his viewers to experience the show for themselves is a challenge. How does he get them in to the world of 19th century politics?

"It's about what we are doing, not just me," McGee said of his philosophy of one-man performance. "Sometimes I feel like an Elvis impersonator up there. If you can sing, you just enjoy the music."

Clay died at 75. McGee hopes to continue with Clay for at least another eight years.

"Clay really is the role of a lifetime," McGee said. "What would I do if I didn't have Henry Clay? I do not know."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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