The readers of this site have been introduced to the wonderful Kurt Epps numerous times, mostly as his character of New Jersey’s last Royal Governor, William Franklin. As a member of the Board of Trustees for the Proprietary House, which served as his mansion from 1774-1776, I had a chance to meet some very unique people, including Kurt, and have a chance to participate in the re-enactment of the Governor’s arrest in June.
But Kurt is not only a reenactor, or historian, but also an accomplished actor, writer, and speaker, who has also contributed reviews to the Beer Advocate, as well as maintaining his own blog, The Pub Scout. No matter what his ventures are, though, he will always be the governor to me, and as Woodbridge, NJ town historian Jeff Huber once said to me, regarding Kurt and his character, “Once he goes, he does not come back.”
Kurt Epps takes his role very seriously, but he has fun along the way. A former teacher, I can only imagine what his classes would have been like. It is because of people like him that the past is kept alive for future generations, so that we may know what came before us, and why it is so important.
I had a chance to sit down with Kurt and talk to him about his role as a living-historian, what he does for the Beer Advocate, and much more. Below is our conversation:
GC: You have become a local celebrity for your portrayal of Royal Governor William Franklin at the Proprietary House and other Perth Amboy events. When did you first start this portrayal, and why do you love to do it so much?
KE: “Sure I have. I’m a legend in my own mind. I moved back to Perth Amboy, which was my hometown, in 1987 just prior to the birth of my eldest son, Brett. A dynamic, wonderful woman I had known since my youth from my church, Mrs. Alma Cap was deeply involved with the saving and restoration of the House, and she convinced me to get involved. I became a member, then eventually a trustee. During that time, Mrs. Cap, who put her heart and soul into saving the House, concocted the idea of reenacting the arrest of Governor Franklin. She knew that I had some experience acting and asked if I’d portray the governor. I agreed. I’ve been doing it ever since—nearly a quarter of a century. I’m the most arrested recidivist in Perth Amboy.
Mrs. Cap also spearheaded a number of other dramatic events involving the governor and his rebel father, Benjamin. Perth Amboy’s famous actor Charles White (his sister was Ruth White, also an esteemed actress) and I did shows at the house—sometimes with scripts, sometimes improvisatory—which highlighted the diametrically opposite positions each man had with respect to the “troubles” between England and her colony. Charlie White was a quintessential professional who made it very easy to interact with him in such scenes.
Once, a large group of students was scheduled to visit the House and tour the rooms and grounds. Mrs. Cap thought it would be wonderful if Charlie and I—as Ben and William—would make an appearance while the students were there. So, in full costumes and with no scripts, we waited upstairs for the group to assemble, and when we felt the time was right, we just came down the stairs arguing about the revolution as though no one else was in the House. All conversation stopped and all eyes focused on us. We’d move from room to room, with the multitude of students following us to “eavesdrop” on this historic confrontation. Of course, we pretended to be oblivious to them. It was absolutely riveting theater—due in large part to Charlie’s great timing and theater sense. We just “clicked” together every time we were in costume in the House. There was humor, pathos, anger and screaming—during which the students—and their teachers– stood frozen with mouths agape. When we concluded the scene (it lasted for about ten minutes) we both stormed out of the house in different directions. There was TOTAL silence in the House for at least 30 seconds, and then a thunderous applause began. It was thrilling.
Another time, writer Robert Collins of Metuchen contributed a play entitled “Poor William” to the House, and I performed it a number of times it with two different professional actors playing Ben, my father. The entire play was set in candlelight, and traced the relationship of the two men from the time William was young until he died in England, never having reconciled with his American father. The performances with the outstanding actor J.C. Hoyt drew overflow crowds on successive nights, and got rave reviews. JC and I became friends as well.
You have witnessed some of the “electricity” that happens there when regular Joe’s like us try to make history come alive. That House is such a treasure and has left us a wonderful legacy to pass on to future generations. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy it so. It’s weird and not easily explainable, but when I’m in my Franklin regalia, I become William Franklin. I can “feel” his presence, especially when I’m there in the House, especially when I’m performing. I believe the Governor, Ben’s bastard son, to have been a semi-tragic figure whose real story is not known by enough Americans.”
GC: What were some of the other events at the Proprietary House in the past that you were involved with?
KE: “The Proprietary House Association used to have wonderful events that not only brought recognition to the House, but actually made it come “alive.” As Governor Franklin, I greeted Former NJ Governor Christie Whitman when she came to the House, and, believe it or not, she was the first NJ Governor to do so! When she and her entourage arrived, I greeted her at the door, by bowing and kissing her hand, and exclaimed, “My dear Mrs. Whitman! Welcome to my home. It figures it would take a woman to make history by visiting here!”
Under Mrs. Cap’s watchful, creative eye, we also had events like “Servants’ Night Out” which allowed the Servants the run of the House, as the Governor was supposedly away in Burlington or Rancocas. It was an event open to the public for a fee, offering a discount if you arrived attired in period dress, and featured period food, music and grog. Fun was an automatic by-product. Ditto food and music events that saw the House decorated for Christmas and me entertaining guests from the public. All this was done to raise public awareness of the House, and, of course, to help raise funds to restore it.”
GC: In working at the house for a long time, have you ever had any paranormal encounters of your own?
KE: “There have been a few times when I’ve sensed other-worldly “presences” while in the House. One time there was a very discernible cold presence that brushed by me while I was standing at the bottom of the staircase on the main floor. The “cold” lingered around me for a few seconds, then dissipated. While there have been many summer reenactments where I prayed for a cold presence to surround me, this wasn’t air-conditioning, because it happened in the Autumn. I also usually get some vibrations when I enter the Wine cellar and the servants’ room opposite it.”
GC: You also find time writing about beer. What do you think constitutes a good beer, and what is your favorite brew?
KE: “I have posted reviews on the Beer Advocate, but most of my writing is now available on my blog. As a freelance writer, I have written for a number of major “brewspapers” however. Celebrator Beer News on the Left coast and Ale Street News on the East coast are two. But I got my start with the Beer and Tavern Chronicle. As to what constitutes a good beer, it comes down to styles. There are many styles of ales and lagers, and they all have nuances. If a beer is true to style, it’s a “good” beer, unless, of course, you don’t fancy that style. Beer is not a snobbish beverage by any means, and no expert should purport to tell you what you should and shouldn’t like. Personally, I’d drink water before I’d drink a Bud, a Miller or a Corona, but if others like them, I’m not about to look down my nose at them.
My favorite brew is kind of like my underwear: Depends.
Depends, that is, on many things…what season of the year is it? Every season brings a wonderful array of beers that match it. In a week or so, for example, the true Oktoberfest beers start making their appearances, and they are most enjoyable to me. In the Winter, Belgian Dubbels, Trippels and Quadrupels call my name, as do Stouts, Scotch Ales, double-bocks and spiced beers. In the Spring, nothing makes me happier than a good Maibock, and in summer, IPA’s, witbiers, farmhouse ales and hefeweizens get my attention.
What food is being served with it? Different beers complement different foods—and vice versa. There’s even a good beer for chocolate cake.
What activity am I doing or have I just concluded? After mowing my lawn, A Wild Blue or a Sam Adams Blackberry Wit hits the spot. After stopping at a pub during a hot motorcycle ride, an IPA is absolutely refreshing, and if the time is right (and the bar has clean beer lines) a Trappist Ale like a Chimay is worth its weight in gold.”
GC: In your spare time, you enjoy riding motorcycles. What kind do you own, and how did you become interested in this activity?
KE: “I’ve been riding motorcycles on and off for over forty years. Before my sons were born, I’d think nothing of jumping on my bike and heading from NJ to Montauk Pt., NY for a beer, then turning around and coming home. Raising kids, however, puts some limitations on that kind of spontaneity. Now that they’re older, I have more time to myself. I currently ride a Honda VTX 1300R, but I’ve had many bikes in my life. I started riding a Yamaha when I was 18. I’ve always loved the sense of freedom a bike provides. Riding through the countryside and using all my senses (except taste, unless a bug flies into my mouth) to enjoy the experience is both exhilarating and calming. I’ve had Suzukis, Hondas and Kawasakis, too. In fact, I used to sell motorcycles, and I taught Don Imus how to ride back in 1974—or at least I tried to. Though they are beautiful bikes, I’ve never been captivated by the Harley mystique. I did rent a big one in Hawaii once, and it was fun. If somebody gave me one, I sure wouldn’t turn it down. But I’d rather have a Gold Wing. There’s a saying: “Four wheels move the body; two wheels move the soul.” There’s just something about motorcycling that both lights me up and puts me at peace.”
GC: As a former teacher, why do you think it is so important to keep the past alive? Do you think the interest level in the subject is higher or lower that when you were in school?
That said, I do not believe that history—especially American history—is being taught sufficiently these days, and worse, the attempts to rewrite history to serve politically correct goals is an abomination. Entire generations of kids have grown up with the notion that only blacks were slaves and only America had them. That’s patently absurd, as slavery is as old as warfare. When you conquered an enemy, you enslaved them—and their women and children. Being descended from slaves myself (my ancestors were American Indian slaves of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Maria), I can attest that not all slaves were black.
It is incredibly important to preserve our sense of history, especially in our young people. They must know it and share it with their children, and they with theirs. For once it is forgotten, our remarkable story will have ended.”
I would like to thank Kurt for taking the time to conduct this interview. No matter what the topic, his words always seem to find a way to hit home. Please make sure to check out the Proprietary House, by clicking the tab at the top of the page. History is such an important part in both our lives, and it is of the utmost importance that we keep it alive. I will end this interview with two quotes: the first by William Shakespeare, “What is past is prologue.” and the other, by author George Santayana, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”