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Past will meet present at Riley Christmas


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History lesson: Claire Mercer, in a period costume evoking the 1860s, talks with James Whitcomb Riley Home visitor Kareline Jones. Mercer will portray a character from one of Riley's poems Saturday at the museum's Christmas program.
History lesson: Claire Mercer, in a period costume evoking the 1860s, talks with James Whitcomb Riley Home visitor Kareline Jones. Mercer will portray a character from one of Riley's poems Saturday at the museum's Christmas program.


GREENFIELD — The Riley Old Home Society is doing things a little differently this year, bringing to life some of James Whitcomb Riley’s most famous characters for the museum’s annual Christmas program.

Well-known characters, including Little Orphant Annie, the Raggedy Man and Aunt Mary, are coming back to Greenfield for this year’s Christmas celebration. The characters will be placed throughout Riley’s boyhood home, sharing stories from his youth and reciting portions of the poems that made them famous.

“It’s going to be more of an experience where visitors actually get to meet these people Riley had written about,” explained Brigette Jones, Riley Home hostess.

Jones wrote the script for this year’s program, aiming for a fresh take on the annual event. In years past, while the stories told by hostesses changed, the theme was always “Christmas in 1863.”

This year, Jones said the characters will instead step out of history and into the present day.

It will open fun new opportunities for those who portray the characters, said Claire Mercer. For the last three years, Mercer played one of Riley’s neighbors helping to set up for the 1863 Christmas.

“In the past, we have been in character and it’s been the year 1863 and we had to stay in character and couldn’t talk about anything beyond that time,” Mercer said. “It was a challenge to stay in character. If someone asked me about anything (beyond 1863), I had to say ‘I don’t know about that.’”

Now, though, characters will be free to address the present day.

“We’ve come back from the dead,” Mercer joked.

The poem Riley wrote about Mercer’s character this year – Aunt Mary – was written to commemorate his aunt’s death. Mercer said she’s been able to use to poem to inform the audience about her character.

“In it, James Whitcomb Riley is recalling with his brother all the good times they had out to old Aunt Mary’s,” Mercer said. “She just seemed very kindly and sort of plump … like a kindly aunt that the boys would have good memories of.”

Visitors will wander from room to room through Riley’s boyhood home, meeting people like Aunt Mary and other family and friends.

Mary Alice, the inspiration for Riley’s popular poem about Little Orphant Annie, will make an appearance, as will Elizabeth Anne, the Rileys’ hired help.

“I’ll have all the ingredients for custard pie, and people will help me make it during Christmas at the Riley Home,” explained hostess Gwen Betor, who will portray Elizabeth Anne.

Betor said that while it’s a well-known fact that Riley’s favorite cookie was the snickerdoodle, people forget that his favorite pie was custard. In the poem he wrote for Elizabeth Anne, “Our Hired Girl,” he talks about her famous custard pies.

Many of the Riley’s poems were inspired by the people, places and events that filled his daily life. Using characters from his poems to fill the house will give visitors a chance to hear more of Riley’s work, explained Jones.

“A lot of people don’t realize he wrote based upon things he knew,” she said. “You are going to get historically accurate information, explaining why Riley wrote these poems for these people.”

The self-guided tours will start every 30 minutes from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets cost $4 for adults and $1.25 for children. Reservations are recommended, as spots are limited. Reservations can be made by calling the Greenfield Parks Department at 477-4340.

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