Local man revisits American history through iconic figures

Robert Tidwell and wife Marina attend a 2019 event as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and wife Eleanor (Robert Tidwell)

His name is Robert, but on any given day, he willingly answers to Woodrow or Franklin — as in Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, both former U.S. presidents. 

On a day of military significance, such as (but not limited to) Memorial Day,  Robert would appreciate being addressed as General — as in five-star general, Douglas MacArthur.

Robert Tidwell has never met these men of past American history, yet he knows them so well that he can recite their speeches, mimic their mannerisms, share their facial expressions and nearly walk in their shoes.

By avocation, Tidwell is a historical impersonator.

By shared opinion, he is the embodiment of these men, both in spirit and appearance.

The longtime Culver City resident portrays MacArthur, FDR and Wilson at venues such as school assemblies, veteran’s events, parades and historical re-enactments. 

Tidwell said he has a longstanding fascination for each subject; summoning their personalities and sharing their historical significance in either the military or the executive office.

Each man’s idiosyncrasies, which Tidwell has down pat, adds to the richness of his performances.

“What I do (requires) being part historian and part actor,” Tidwell, 66, said in a recent phone conversation. “There are those who are one or the other. I think I’m 50-50. I’ve been studying these men since age 16.”

He has portrayed Gen. MacArthur about 125 times since 2012. In more recent years, he has included Roosevelt (6 to 7 performances) and Wilson (three times) to his repertoire of personality impressions.

But the pandemic year shut down live performances and Tidwell found himself grounded.

His appearances dropped from more than 30 annually to mere smatterings when America locked down in March 2020.

While other actors and performers turned to social media platforms such as YouTube or Instagram to reach their audience, Tidwell chose to ride out the pandemic until California and the LA County could reopen.

One of his best virtues (or curses) is being a stickler for details. He tailors his performances for each audience.

“I will go online and find an FDR speech, then edit it for length, then rehearse it,” he said. “I know enough of the figures I portray to know their personal mannerisms, such as when to drop my head or when to raise an eyebrow.”

Tidwell enlists the keen directorial eye of his wife Marina in shaping his performances.

“She’s the only director I’ll listen to,” he said with a chuckle.

Marina Tidwell attended the USC School of Cinema Arts while on scholarship in 1983. Her background includes a sprinkle of acting, but primarily directing. Today, she is the administrator at Grace Lutheran Church in Culver City.

They met at Coronado High School in San Diego in the early 1970s, where they bonded over movies and theater.

Marina said Robert requires little acting direction in his impersonations.

“He has encyclopedic knowledge of the men he portrays and a fine sense of drama, so he doesn’t need a lot of input,” Marina Tidwell said. “I’ve helped to edit some of his material, talked through ‘character’ in the sense of what laymen might most want to see or be curious about, and coached him on vocal clarity and projection. That’s it.”

Growing up with a love of both American history and the theater, Tidwell dabbled in a bit of impersonations when he was in his early 20s. He impersonated Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts of America.

But life, work and family put his impersonation career on hold. 

In 2000, he attended an Old Ft. MacArthur Days reenactment event at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, Tidwell said. He took note of a man at the event who impersonated Gen. Douglas MacArthur and was mildly impressed.

“I thought when this (impersonator) retires, I’ll take his spot,” Tidwell said with a laugh. “But it would be 12 years before he retired.”

During the 12-year wait, Tidwell began preparations for his role as the noted five-star general who was well documented during World War II and the Korean Conflict.

The first challenge was to create a field marshall cap that MacArthur was famous for wearing.

Years of fruitless searching for an authentic reproduction led Tidwell to one conclusion: the cap would have to be custom made.

His wife Marina, who had learned embroidery skills from her grandmother, and with the aid of old photographs, was able to fashion a MacArthur cap that Robert says is “probably the  best one out there.”

That cap is still part of his costumery.

In 2012, Tidwell approached the organizer of the Old Ft. MacArthur Days, but his offer to be the new MacArthur was met with skepticism. He was directed to work with a Phillippine Boy Scout  troop, which welcomed Tidwell with open arms.

MacArthur had served as the field marshall to the Philippines during World War II and is considered something of national hero to that country, according to printed historical sources.

The success with the scouts helped Tidwell segue his role as MacArthur into the Old Ft. MacArthur Days.

“Over time, we just developed the (event’s) opening program, which included a bugle call, raising colors and massing of the troops, and I would give a short biography about Arthur MacArthur, which I took from MacArthur’s memoirs — by the way, the fort was not named after Douglas MacArthur, but his father, Arthur MacArthur,” Tidwell said with machine-gun precision and accuracy.

Tapping into history is just as much a passion for him as performing the characters.

In fact, recalling the history of his subjects has Tidwell regaling tales and exact details to anyone within earshot. This is how he describes the men he portrays:

— “(Douglas) MacArthur is what I like to call the ‘American (Winston) Churchill.’ Just an incredible, incredible orator and an absolute pleasure to read. His knowledge of the English language was absolutely phenomenal.

“He was very much an autodidact. I go back and use examples of men like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, in that MacArthur was an extremely well-read man.”

— “FDR is someone I’ve wanted to do since high school. He is an actor’s dream. Of all the characters I portray, FDR was not the brightest guy… his intelligence was not the incisive intelligence like MacArthur or Woodrow Wilson — who by the way was the only PhD. to become president — but FDR was an individual who had an incredible ability to connect with people. He was very people-smart.

“Years ago, someone wrote an article in Time Magazine, which (reported) psychologists saying his ability to work with people was just as effective a form of intelligence as problem solving.

“If you were introduced to him at the White House, FDR was the very first president to greet you by your first name: ‘How do you do, (John or Mary).’ No president had done that before. FDR was charming, funny and very playful. A lot of his speeches had quips and humorous anecdotes.

“(Woodrow) Wilson is one of my favorites. But he’s not getting much love these days because he was a segregationist. It’s no secret. He doesn’t get (me) invited to a lot of speaking engagements. It’s really a shame. Wilson is the first president that made the Federal Government a part of everybody’s lives.

“In 1913, Wilson gave us the federal reserve system, the federal income tax, the eight-hour day, sweeping changes to the labor laws and 1916, he gave us the National Park Service, which a lot of people (give credit to) Teddy Roosevelt.

“Wilson has a lot of layers. In private, he was extremely humorous. In fact, silly. He had silly walks, silly expressions and that’s a part of him that people don’t know. He was (known as a) very stern professor at Princeton, but very much loved by students. His father and father-in-law were Presbyterian ministers. And having been raised a Presbyterian, I can tell you that they aren’t known as fun-loving people.”

On the topic of details, Tidwell had leg braces designed for his portrayal of Roosevelt and a collapsible wheelchair is in development.

FDR was inflicted by polio and left permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

His performances can range in time from 25 minutes to mere seconds. Pay can peak at $300 a performance to zero dollars. Tidwell said about 75 percent of his appearances are for photo ops — such as at conventions or parades, with no dialog required.

Tidwell, whose lanky 6 foot 4 inch, 220 frame would actually tower over some of his subjects (Wilson was 5 foot 11 inches), but his long, thin face fit the men he portrayed.

In 2019, Marina joined the act by portraying Edith Wilson or Eleanor Roosevelt at her husband’s performances. Since large and sometimes fancy hats were fashionable among women in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Marina can show up as “eye candy” for photos.

“At the 4th of July Parade in Huntington Beach (in 2019), she came as Elenaor Roosevelt,” Tidwell said. “She got more attention than me. They love Eleanor Roosevelt.”

After some performances, Tidwell would reserve time for a Q&A session, especially popular with a young student audience. He would stay in character as he answered questions.

He said the most intriguing and challenging question he has been asked is FDR’s signing of Executive Order 9066 in 1942. This order authorized the military to round up and incarcerate people of Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens.

Tidwell said he is prepared to answer such questions, but has to do so diplomatically and fairly. And stay in character.

During the lockdown, the Tidwells toyed with the idea of creating a performance of FDR and the pandemic.

“I thought about putting together a newsreel as if the coronavirus struck the nation in 1937,” Tidwell said. “But the fact is I would be urging the nation to take measures not popular at the time. It seemed too divisive.”

As the County reopens, Tidwell said he will make an appearance at the Julian Dixon Library for a July 4 celebration.

Robert Tidwell can be reached at his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/robert.tidwell3