Nevermind the man behind the curtain |

Nevermind the man behind the curtain

Autumn Phillips

During the day, David Skipper works as the director of public relations for the Colorado Health Care Foundation, but it’s in the evenings and on the weekends that Skipper truly comes alive — by becoming someone else.

He sheds the mental skin of his own life and steps into the persona of famous literary figures. He studies the records of their lives, their work and their habits, and he brings them to an audience in the traditional style of the Chautauqua performer.

The Chautauqua tradition began during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who invited scholars to impersonate literary characters.

The scholar/actor then would engage the audience in an interactive discussion of the life of that historical figure.

Skipper has been bringing literary writers to life for almost 20 years, simply for the love of doing it.

“You paint a more human portrait of that person and give the audience a deeper understanding of who that person is,” Skipper said. Skipper appeared for Steamboat Reads 2003 as Edgar Allan Poe.

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“There were a lot of myths and misconceptions about Poe,” Skipper said. “People consider him a mad man, and that’s why I wanted to bring that human character to life.

“Yes, he was melancholy, but there were reasons for that. I want people to see him as more than that scary person who sits on the shelves of the library.”

Skipper will return to Steamboat on Saturday as L. Frank Baum.

There are a few silent motion pictures of Baum available, but Skipper didn’t need to see those films to capture the character who wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900. As Skipper talks about Baum and his life, a portrait forms of a man who sat in front of his dry-goods store. Even as the store slowly was going out of business, Baum was more concerned with telling stories for the children who visited him.

“It was through the influences of his wife, Maude, and his mother-in-law that he finally began writing those stories down,” Skipper said. “His mother-in-law was a great suffragette who worked with Susan B. Anthony, and you can see the influence of the women’s movement in his stories.

“Dorothy is very independent, self-willed and driven.”

The Baum that Skipper discovered through research was a gregarious man — a lot of fun to be around — who loved children. Baum was a sickly child, afflicted with a heart condition, Skipper said. “He wasn’t allowed to do a lot of the things other children did. He spent hours in his father’s library coming up with wonderful stories.”

Skipper chooses the characters he plays usually because they are misunderstood.

“Everyone knows ‘The Wizard of Oz’ from the 1939 MGM motion picture. In sentiment, it follows the book but has relatively little to do with the original story, and you’ll find that not many people have read the original story.”

Skipper’s presentation of Baum’s life is designed to appeal to all ages, but Baum mainly would have talked to the children because that’s what interested him, Skipper said.

David Skipper was forced by a snowstorm to cancel his performance April 10. His Chautauqua performance of L. Frank Baum for Steamboat Reads was rescheduled and will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday at Olympian Hall. The event is free thanks to a grant from the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities.