Sunday, March 18, 2001

Mr. Lincoln made to order

Actor and restaurateur tackles his dream role in one-man show at Carnegie

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's the role of a lifetime, Chip Smith says. A charismatic man. Compelling speeches. Fabulous zingers. Captivating theater.

        But, ouch, the girdle contraption.

        Uh, back up, please.

[photo] Chip Smith has worked in Tristate restaurants for 30 years.
(Joseph Fuqua II photo)
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        Mr. Smith is starring in Mr. Lincoln, a one-man show designed to show off the wit and wisdom of our 16th president.

        Wit like this: Mr. Lincoln was once in his office polishing his boots. A snooty English diplomat walked in, gasped and said, “Mr. President, you black your own boots?” The president looked up and deadpanned, “Why yes, whose do you black?”

        And wisdom like this: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”

        “He and I are a good fit,” Mr. Smith says. “Two smart mouths. And, I mean, he was 6-4 and had a craggy face. I'm 6-4 and craggy. He wore a size 14 shoe, I wear a 12. But he was skinny.

        “Me,” he says patting his waist, “I need this girdle contraption. Too many restaurant meals, too many glasses of wine.”

        Mr. Smith, a 50-year-old actor from Madison Place (“call it Mariemont, near”) whose real name is Cecil, is a divorced father of a 14-year old and a familiar figure in Tristate restaurants. Aside from a stint in New York and a recurring role on One Life to Live, he has spent the past 30 years in them.

        A server on the Delta Queen. Ten years at Prime 'n Wine, Dockside VI and Riverview for Frisch's. The Vernon Manor, Furman's Sports Cafe, Covington Landing, Kenwood's reincarnated Prime 'n Wine. Four years as director of the Northern Kentucky Restaurant Association.

        Today, he's co-owner of Blue Chip Catering. “The catering is for paying the bills,” he says. “Lincoln is for fun.”

        He's a lifelong history buff. “About 10 years ago, I started reading all this revisionist stuff on Lincoln,” he explains. “That he was a racist and a power-hungry megalomaniac. That hit me hard, because it was all so out of context.

        “True, he didn't believe as strongly as the abolitionists, but he knew slavery was a horror that had to end. He was just pragmatic enough to know he had to win power to do it, and he couldn't win as an abolitionist.”

        The revisionists had him so worked up that when he got his hands on Herbert Mitgang's Mr. Lincoln script, he went to his friend, local director David Edwards, and pitched a production. “He was incredibly enthused. Couldn't wait to get it all rolling. He found Lincoln that interesting.”

        A lot of people apparently agree. A Midwest tour is being planned for later this year. Next winter, he'll head South. Then it could be Europe: “Lincoln is revered there. We see a huge market because they can't get enough of him.”

        Well fine. But before anyone starts touring, how about answering a few questions?

        “Go for it.”

        Lincoln's best line . . .

        The one from the Lincoln-Douglas debates: “Mr. Douglas accuses me of being two-faced. I put it to you, ladies and gentlemen, if I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”

        One thing people don't know about Lincoln . . .

        How he was so torn by the fact that the insurgents would rend the Union over economics. He was completely taken aback that they would defend such an obvious wrong for money.

        One thing people don't know about me . . .

        That I can still be divorced and be a good father. Parker's 14 and a great kid. I hope he knows how proud I am.

        One thing I wish they didn't know about me . . .

        How many restaurants I've closed. I know it looks like I can't hold a job, but the truth is, I love the creative process of inventing a restaurant, but I hate the business side of running one.

        My dream role . . .

        Because of the huge range involved, Lincoln is my dream role. But I saw my late father play Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady,and I always wanted to do it as a tribute to him. It would be my only musical because I can't sing.

        What sometimes drives me nuts about restaurants . . .

        Some have allowed the service standards to slip to the degree that the separation doesn't exist anymore. Servers get too familiar and too casual.

        Other than Lincoln, the historical figure I most want to meet . . .

        Paul Robeson. Other than Thomas Jefferson, he's the closest to a real Renaissance man this country has seen. A world-class actor, athlete, singer and linguist.

        If I never accomplish anything else, I want to . . .

        It's corny, but see my son become a happy, productive, well-adjusted member of society.

        When a 30-year restaurant veteran goes out to eat it's . . .

        The Phoenix and the Heritage. And Zebo, even though it's in a hotel (Cincinnati Marriott at River Center). Main Street Cafe in Newtown is great, Zip's taken to another level. And York Street Cafe in Newport, nothing better.

        One thing you should have asked but didn't . . .

        Why on earth would anyone want to see a one-man show by an unknown local actor? The answer is, thanks to Edwards, Mitgang and Lincoln, all I have to do is subscribe to the Spencer Tracy theory of acting: Remember the lines, say 'em loud and don't trip over anything.

        Chip Smith performs Mr. Lincoln at 8 p.m. March 24, 25, 30 and 31, and at 7 p.m. March 25 and April 1 at the Carnegie, Scott and Robbins streets, Covington; $15, $12 students. Call 684-4722 for tickets and booking info.


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