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Freedom Trail tour guides lead a double life

Posted by Lara Salahi  December 18, 2012 12:49 PM

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By Dillon Rand

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After returning from a tour of some of the city's historic sites, Rachel Revere, second wife of Paul Revere, sits on a couch in the Downtown Boston office of The Freedom Trail Foundation and begins thumbing her iPhone. Here she is, draped in 18th century garb from head to toe, and yet she finds herself tapping away at a 21st century device.

Straddling the modern world and America’s Revolutionary era is not an uncommon experience for Freedom Trail tour guides as they make their way through a contemporary city in clothes from the Revolutionary-era.

“I sometimes do tours that take me all the way to the North End and occasionally I’ll hop on the train to come back [to the office],” said Elissa Forsythe, the actress who portrays Revere. “Some people try to pretend they don’t notice you’re dressed from another century and just kind of look the other way.”

Those who have spent time in downtown Boston, at some point or another, likely have encountered a few men and women dressed like Forsythe. These are the Freedom Trail tour guides, who dress to portray 18th Century Bostonians while leading tourists through 21st century Boston, sharing stories and historical context along the way. For native Bostonians, they barely warrant a second look.

“We’re just these weird, odd people that are a regular part of the city,” said Nate Gundy, a Cambridge-raised guide who portrays Robert Newman, late 18th century sexton of Boston’s Old North Church. “If you work in the Financial District or Downtown, you’re kind of used to seeing people in Colonial costume about eight months out of the year.”

Under the thick, heavy coats and tricorn hats of these guides are thoroughly contemporary Bostonians. Josh Rudy, another guide at the office (which also serves as a giant costume closet and changing room), has gotten himself out of costume and into his street clothes: a black ZZ Top T-shirt and black jeans.

“I generally wear black,” Rudy said. “And as the old joke goes, I only wear black until they make something darker.”

When he’s on the clock, his name is Daniel Malcolm, the ringleader of The Liberty Affair in 1768 among the other things that made him what Rudy describes as “a thorn in the British side” (his gravestone is full of bullet holes because the British used it for target practice).

But after hours, Rudy is a mid-30s, Jewish actor who loves rock music.

“Metallica and Guns N Roses were my two favorite bands for years and years and years,” he said.

Rudy rides the T to work from Braintree, where he lives currently with his fiancee. He met his fiancee at a renaissance fair where they both worked, and the two are tying the knot next July. When asked by friends if they’re planning a costumed wedding, Rudy is quick to tell them they’re playing it straight for once.

“Being in costume is something that we’re long versed in. So the LAST thing we want to do is go to our wedding in costume,” he said. “I’ve got to wear a tux, and that’s a costume for me.”

When Rudy and others come to the Freedom Trail Foundation looking for jobs as the loud and proudly costumed revolutionaries, the man they have to go through is Sam Jones, the creative director of The Freedom Trail Foundation.

The guides are actors and academics with extensive historical knowledge (including a retired school teacher, who is said to be one of the most popular and requested guides). Jones said it’s currently about 70 percent actors and 30 percent academics. To get a job as a tour guide and the privilege to don the costume, Jones said he needs to be convinced that applicants have a foot in both worlds.

“One of our big taglines is ‘We bring history to life,’” he said. “The actors, when they come in [for an audition], I want to see how they can do the history part. The academics, when they come in, I want to see them do the ‘bring it to life’ part.”

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