Patrick Garner / History's Alive
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Patrick Garner / History's Alive

New York City, New York, United States

New York City, New York, United States
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"Happy Birthday, Thomas Edison"

Thomas Edison Meet Me at the Corner takes a virtual field trip to the Thomas Edison National Historical Museum in West Orange,New Jersey.. Young Carter interviews Patrick Garner who portrays Thomas Edison who talks about his early life and his many inventions. - Meet Me at the

"The Wizard of Menlo Park"

Valley View students were treated to a presentation by Patrick Garner about Thomas Edison's life. In an informal and fun-filled lecture, Garner talked about the life young Edison, his inventions and some of his life lessons that students should adopt in their own lives, such as not being afraid to make mistakes and to always be curious. Taking part in the presentation were Matthew McPhail, Julianna Trezza and Gianni Hurley.

- Neighbor News (Montville Edition)

"The Smell of the Greasepaint, the Roar of Those Third Graders"

Beneath the blazing lights of the Broadway revival of ''Gypsy,'' Patrick Garner, playing a weary theater owner, snarled at Bernadette Peters: ''I told you this morning, I told you this afternoon, and I'm telling you now. If there's anything I hate worse than kids, it's kids on stage!''

Early the next morning, in October, Mr. Garner stood on the stage in a gym packed with elementary school children in Bloomfield, N.J. But instead of sneering at them, he invited several to join in as he demonstrated the wonders of electricity using a candle, a Hula-Hoop and the clatter of young voices shouting out the dots and dashes of Morse code. This time Mr. Garner was playing Thomas A. Edison in a one-man show meant to bring history to life.

Mr. Garner, 45, is one of a growing number of actors who have looked beyond the footlights to a humble, yet meaningful sideline: developing educational shows on historical characters. In creating this double life, he and others have found that educational theater offers a way to supplement their income without waiting on tables or tending bar.

After 20 years of supporting roles in plays, television shows and commercials for companies like Kmart and Wendy's, Mr. Garner said that stepping to the center of these school stages also lets him use his skills to help children, who, he said, ''will catch you in a second if you're not real.''

At Demarest Elementary School in Bloomfield, the children shrieked with laughter when Mr. Garner's Edison, wearing a gray lab coat and a pocket watch, forgot to plug in the first light bulb. But Mr. Garner turned again and again to the deeper messages of the inventor's life, like working hard and learning from mistakes.

''I never met a dead guy,'' Michael Hiel, 8, a third grader, said. Now, he added, ''I'll never forget him.''

While no one knows for sure how many actors are touring schools in these lesser-known equivalents of famous solo shows like Hal Holbrook's ''Mark Twain Tonight,'' nationwide estimates range in the hundreds. And educators say they are turning to actors to enliven the biographies of historical figures.

''It is so much more interesting to see someone standing in front of them in a costume than just reading a book,'' said Jeanne Aiello, head of the programs committee for the parent-teacher association at Demarest.

And yet there are challenges for the actors. Laurence Luckinbill, 68, who has spent 44 years in film, television and theater, has portrayed Clarence Darrow for elementary schools. He said it was difficult to teach young students about complex topics, like Darrow's arguments in the Scopes trial for the right to teach evolution. In many cases, Mr. Luckinbill said, ''You can't talk honestly about American history.''

Other actors say that just humanizing the legends can be enough. Denise Burse, who spent three years touring a one-woman show about Harriet Tubman, the former slave who led hundreds to freedom on the Underground Railroad, said, ''It gave everyone a chance to see Harriet in the three-dimensional form, as a woman, not just a heroine.''

Some have turned historical interpretation into a sort of mini-industry. Mobile Ed Productions, based in Redford, Mich., does 6,000 school shows each year, according to its vice president, Joanne Love. It keeps a stable of 28 full-time performers, including seven Martin Luther Kings, five Abraham Lincolns and two Thomas A. Edisons.

Three years ago, when the Screen Actors Guild went on strike against the advertising industry, Mr. Garner's income plummeted. To support his wife and two children, and hold on to his house in Montclair, N.J., he tried everything from acting at corporate trade shows to writing children's textbooks. After some soul-searching, he said, he hit on doing a children's show, and he picked Edison.

Mr. Garner spent the summer of 2002 writing his 45-minute program, after reading half a dozen Edison biographies. He tested the play, ''Thomas Edison: Inventor, Lecturer and Prankster,'' on his own children and in their classrooms.

That fall, he created brochures on his home computer and sent them to schools in New Jersey and New York. Since then, he has done 30 shows, charging $600 for one and $800 for a double-header.

Last May, he also got the job in ''Gypsy,'' as an understudy playing as many as four minor roles in a night. So Mr. Garner's life is now a whirlwind of different eras, settings, lines and characters.

At 9 on an October morning, less than 10 hours after the curtain on ''Gypsy,'' it is show time again for Mr. Garner.

As hundreds of children take their seats in the Demarest school gymnasium, Mr. Garner conjures up Mr. Edison's candle-lit era, one without Game Boys or Yu-Gi-Oh cards. When he asks for volunteers, a sea of hands wiggle in the air. He chooses by tossing tennis balls, spray-painted dark orange, and three children trot up. They play Edison's assistants, ''the insomnia squad,'' who spent tireless nights inventing with their boss.

Before long, Mr. Garner has taught them a chorus of mottos to shout out, hammering home what he sees as Edison's four mottos: work hard, learn from mistakes, look at problems from a different angle and (Garner's own favorite), ''Find something you love in your life and do it for your whole life long.''

As the three volunteers lean in close, Mr. Garner counts down to the lighting of the first bulb. But when one assistant flicks the switch, Mr. Garner surprises him and everyone else with an electric sparkler. The student jumps. The audience roars. The light is illuminated.

Mr. Garner recently teamed up with the Edison Preservation Foundation, which is raising money to restore Edison's lab in West Orange, N.J. It is also seeking corporate sponsorship so that schools will no longer bear the cost of Mr. Garner's shows.

One reason that Mr. Garner keeps going is that he knows firsthand how useful his hero's perseverance can be.

''When things got real bad,'' Mr. Garner said, ''I was using the four lessons of Edison myself.'' - The New York Times


Programs for Young Audiences:








PATRICK GARNER is a twenty-year professional actor whose credits range from street fairs to Broadway. Most recently a cast member of Broadway's GYPSY starring Bernadette Peters, he has performed opposite such stars as Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, Kelly Ripa, Kevin Kline and John Lithgow. Mr. Garner starred as "Wilbur the Pig" in the world premiere of the Lincoln Center Institute's CHARLOTTE'S WEB, the only version authorized by E.B. White. He has toured school's all over the country performing Shakespeare and Moliere. Mr. Garner's work as a writer of children's history books for AOL Time/Warner's TIME FOR KIDS and ancillary worksheets for textbooks led him to found HISTORY'S ALIVE!, the school assembly production house that brings history's greatest figures into your school!