GREENFIELD — Donning the signature top hat and pince nez glasses, Jeff Kuehl thinks he’s a dead ringer for James Whitcomb Riley.
But every time the Greensburg-based impersonator makes an appearance, he hears all sorts of guesses about his character’s identity – most of them not the Hoosier Poet.
“Last year, somebody bellowed out, ‘Look, there’s a guy in a top hat!” said Kuehl, 49.
During the Riley Festival Parade Saturday, one of Kuehl’s three appearances during the weekend, the Riley impersonator joked that he was grateful for the nameplate on the side of his convertible.
Of course, it didn’t make a difference for children too young to read it.
Some along the parade route guessed Kuehl, who was wearing an authoritative-looking suit, was the mayor. Another, thinking of the character from the famous board game, thought he was “the Monopoly Guy.”
Kuehl, who has a degree in theater from Winona State University, takes as much ribbing as anyone featured in the parade each year. Folks are always telling him how good he looks for his age – Riley would be 163 today – or for “a dead guy.”
Kuehl reflected briefly during the parade on how long he plans to go on portraying the poet, who died at 67. Kuehl will be 50 on Sunday (He notes that his and Riley’s birthdays are just a week apart).
“Your era’s almost over,” joked Kuehl’s chauffeur, Chuck Anderson, executive assistant to Greenfield Mayor Dick Pasco.
Kuehl, who is originally from Iowa, has about 10 Riley poems memorized that he can recite upon request and entertained Saturday’s crowd by performing a few favorite lines.
While Riley is less well-known to those outside Indiana, his influence is seen in literary works still popular today, Kuehl said.
Riley’s “The Nonsense Rhyme” uses much of the patterned rhyming Dr. Seuss is famous for, and Kuehl wonders if perhaps J.K. Rowling’s beloved wizard, Dumbledore, from the Harry Potter series is a spinoff of the character, “Bumblebore,” from Riley’s “Jack the Giant Killer” poem.
While Kuehl is well-versed in Riley poetry today, his part-time gig isn’t derived from a longtime love of the Hoosier Poet but a job portraying him at The Children’s Museum in Indianapolis in 1999.
In fact, when Kuehl was asked if he’d be interested in being part of the cast, he admits the poet’s name didn’t even ring a bell.
“I said, ‘Well, who’s that?’” he said. “I didn’t grow up here.”
But the more Kuehl recited Riley’s poetry, the more he fell in love with its style. He admits it’s easier to hear Riley poems aloud that to read them silently.
The Riley play was a hit, and Kuehl’s character was requested at various events and gatherings of history buffs.
Today, Kuehl makes about a dozen appearances as Riley.
“It’s really turned into a great part-time job, especially in the fall,” said Kuehl, whose full-time profession is serving as a grants administrator for the Columbus Area Arts Council.
Of course, it has its hang-ups.
Coming to speak to a historical society or group that specializes in Riley poetry, for example, means Kuehl is almost guaranteed to run into someone who knows more about his character than he does.
In moments like those, he depends on his background as a performer.
“You have to bring the essence of that person,” he said. “There’ll always be some expert who knows more than you do.”
As far as local experts, Kuehl points to the hostesses of the James Whitcomb Riley boyhood home on Main Street. He first met most of them more than a decade ago, when he was doing research for that part in The Children’s Museum play.
Their dedication to preserving Riley artifacts and keeping the poet’s memory alive is something Greenfield should be proud of, he said.
“The work that those ladies do and the passion they have to do it, it’s well worth it,” he said. “That’s, indeed, a gem.”