GREENSBURG – Famous poet James Whitcomb Riley recently visited the Greensburg Adult Center.
Speaking to a group of about 14, he shared details about his life and recited excerpts of his poetry.
Of course, since he’s actually been dead for almost 100 years, he needed the help of a talented actor with local roots to portray him. And that man was seasoned actor Jeff Kuehl.
“I was doing a play in Indianapolis at the Children’s Museum,” Kuehl begins as he recounts the beginning of a long, intimate relationship with the famous poet.
Working on a preschool play called “3’s Please” and playing characters like the Big Bad Wolf, the actor caught the eye of the museum’s theatre director.
Through the many different changes the Indianapolis Children’s Museum has undergone, an actual working Children’s Theater was once a part, and Kuehl was a member of the troupe there.
She came to me and said she wanted to see me, that she had something she wanted to discuss with me, Kuehl explained.
Dreading the meeting for fear he was being reprimanded for something, he reluctantly went to the directors’ office.
She told Kuehl of her plans to undertake a play about James Whitcomb Riley and that she wanted him to play the lead role.
Growing up in Iowa, Keuhl’s response was, “Who’s James Whitcomb Riley?” But after researching Riley’s poetry and colorful life, Keuhl agreed to take the part.
“I remembered ‘The goblins’ll gitcha’ and ‘The Raggedy Man” and ‘The frost is on the punkin.’ I related to this guy,” Keuhl said.
And Riley’s life was indeed colorful.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the nation was still in its infancy. Many of the Midwestern states were only recently incorporated and much of the territory between Indiana and California was only moderately settled.
California began to be known for progressive mores even then, while the East Coast was adopting a more conservative approach. But the Midwest had no literature, history or character to call its own.
Until James Whitcomb Riley.
According to Wikipedia, “Riley was among the most popular writers of the late 19th and early 20th century, known for his uncomplicated, sentimental, and humorous’ writing. Often writing his verses in Hoosier dialect, his poetry caused readers to recall a nostalgic and simpler time in earlier American history. This gave his poetry a unique appeal during a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization in the United States.”
He published more than 50 books, mostly of poetry and humorous short stories. By selling millions of copies of his literature and poetry, he is considered the true Hoosier poet.
While writing in his most successful phase, he lived in Indianapolis at the current James Whitcomb Riley residence.
“It still amazes me when I meet folks who’re not familiar with JWR’s poetry or legacy. They run through a strong vein from my childhood, even though I wasn’t a Hoosier,” Kuehl said.
Kuehl has performed as JWR since 1999 and lives in Atlanta. A friendship with Adult Center Monty Shields brought Kuehl to Greensburg with his spot-on characterization.
Kuehl performs this coming weekend at the James Whitcomb Riley Festival in Greenfield, the largest festival in Indiana boasting more than 400 vendors.
“I think his most creative time was in the latter part of the 19th century, and he was at one time the highest paid performers in the country,” Kuehl said. “He was a world-renowned celebrity and he could’ve lived anywhere he wanted, but he always chose to live Indiana. It’s just who he was.”