TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? — Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart”
The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is mad, but the storyteller who created him is not that man. The writer, Edgar Allan Poe, explained he was stepping into character as he began a public reading last week at the Barton County Historical Society. The clarification was needed because Poe himself was a character in this program, presented by Ellinwood resident Mike Westerman.
Westerman taught English classes and 20th Century Popular Culture at various points in his 39 1/2 years at Ellinwood High, from 1970 to 2009. He often taught a unit on Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), but his role as a Poe impersonator came later.
“The first time I wrangled together the Poe costume was for a Halloween party some 15 years ago,” he said. “Then about five years ago, I was asked to do a Poe show (with a reading of ‘The Raven’) as entertainment for a Great Bend club meeting. That led to performances at the Congregationalist Church’s October Fun Night, Park School, St. Rose Hospital, Great Bend High School, and Great Bend Rotary Club, all over the last several years.”
Slipping into character doesn’t take long. “(I) slap on the black wig, tilt it back on my bald scalp to mimic Poe’s receding hairline, anchor the wig to my glasses, and darken my eyebrows and mustache,” he said. With a skull, a stuffed raven and other props, he brings to life America’s master of the macabre.
Poe’s personal life was tragic and dissolute. His parents died of tuberculosis, as did his wife Virginia, a first cousin who was 13 years old when they wed.
The writer was found dead on Oct. 7, 1849, at age 40, in Baltimore. The cause of his death is unknown, but theories have included alcoholism and rabies. Some believe he was drugged or forced to drink excessive amounts of alcohol and taken to vote at multiple locations as part of a ballot-box-stuffing scam.
Before each Poe performance, Westerman re-watches the Arts and Entertainment Channel’s documentary on his life. He reads biographies, including some of the newer ones, and likes to view any movies featuring Poe as a character.
Westerman himself has never taken an acting class. His acting experience was limited to high school plays at Halstead in the mid-’60s and some Ellinwood melodramas and summer shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But he also portrays some characters for events in Ellinwood. During the city’s Christkindlmart he plays the German St. Nicholas and Black Peter: “Santa Claus’ sinister, bad-tempered, switch-wielding assistant from Dutch, German, and Austrian folklore” on Christmas Eve. He’s appeared as Sandhill Mike, an old Kansas bootlegger, at the Historic Wolf Hotel’s Underground Saloon. This month he also played J.H.D. Bosse, an early-day entrepreneur, during the Ellinwood Historical Society’s Cemetery Walk.
Aside from his acting, Westerman is a substitute teacher at Ellinwood High School, Ellinwood Grade School and St. Joseph’s School; he takes care of the foliage in the brick planter boxes on Ellinwood’s Main Street; and he drives the public transportation van two or three days a month.
“Helping out my daughter in Larned and my granddaughter and her family in Great Bend also keeps me busy,” he said.
Asked why Poe’s writing continues to fascinate audiences, Westerman said, “Well, as Alfred Hitchcock used to say, ‘Even little children enjoy being scared from time to time.’ There seems to be a universal fascination with the horrific and the grotesque. Plus, self-destructive celebrities (like Poe) always provoke interest.”