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Portraits of the Past: Leslie Goddard brings history to life

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By Maureen Callahan

Most of us dream of finding an occupation we love- something for which we have a heartfelt passion while still making a living. Leslie Goddard has managed to do just that. This home-grown historian brings the past back to life – in a fun and entertaining way – through character impersonations and lectures.

Goddard as entrepreneur and fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer

History has always been special to Goddard. After earning a BA from Stamford, this Hinsdale Central graduate earned two master’s degrees- one in Theatre History and Literature from the University of Illinois and a second in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester, UK.

“I knew, however, if I ever wanted to teach, it would be history,” said Goddard.

That led to the final stop on her educational journey – the Interdisciplinary PhD program at Northwestern, where she graduated with a doctorate in U.S. History, Women’s History, American Studies, and Theatre.

Time spent as the Director of Oak Brook Graue Mill confirmed her path. “I used to imagine how great it would be to live there,” Goddard laughed. “I really loved it.”

Stints at other suburban history museums helped her hone her curatorial skills. One day at Evanston History Museum, co-workers learned she had studied theater. She was asked to portray a local woman who had been active in the temperance movement for an upcoming exhibit.

Goddard as Betty the Pan Am Stewardess

Goddard was fascinated by the 19th-century fashions that accompanied the role and made compelling arguments for the temperance movement to the audience rather than just presenting it as a lecture.

The presentation turned out to be Goddard’s aha moment. “I learned there was a market for living history,” she said. “I started getting offers from women’s clubs and book clubs to deliver portrayals of historical characters.”

In the beginning, Goddard chose the characters she portrayed and historical lecture topics based on her own interests. A few years in, however, she realized the value of specialization.
While some of her historic characters go back as far as Louisa May Alcott and Amelia Earhart, Goddard has come to find a niche in mid-century American history.

Amelia Earhart is just one of the first-person portrayals performed by Goddard.

She keeps a steady rotation of historical characters in her repertoire. At any given moment, about a dozen or so significant women from the past can be met through Goddard’s performances. “It takes me about a year to get another personality researched and cued up to present,” she said. “I find my costumes and accessories on eBay and in vintage stores. I have an entire garage full of props, too,” she laughed.

Among the current characters on the docket is Pan Am Betty, a stewardess who can tell you about the strict height and weight requirements of 1960s flight attendants, along with the hijinks that ensued while transporting celebrity passengers. Julia Child is happy to relay her misadventures of learning to cook in Paris in an almost entirely male industry. Have you ever wondered how the huge collection of Tupperware stuffed into a kitchen drawer in virtually every American home got there? Shrewd saleslady Brownie Wise can provide that answer, along with the story of her rise from single mother to head of Tupperware Home Parties.

Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, and Georgia O’Keefe are also available for hire. Fashion mogul Lilly Pulitzer is the most recent leading lady to have found her way into the lineup.

When asked her favorite character to impersonate, Goddard laughed as she replied, “I can’t choose. It would be like picking a favorite child.”

In addition to her mid-century characters, Goddard also lectures on historic pop culture, such as Riverview Amusement Park, Chicago candy companies, and historical retail stores. Elmhurst History Museum will host “Lost Chicagoland Department Stores” from October through January.

This nostalgic exhibit will bring visitors back to the era of in-person shopping in Chicago department stores. Through photos, memorabilia, and artifacts, visitors will be whisked back in time to Marshall Field’s, Sears, Carson Pirie Scott, and the other usual suspects that were part and parcel to seven legendary blocks of shopping in the Loop.

The exhibit promises to be a fun stroll down memory lane for visitors, and one which Goddard enjoyed creating. It evolved from research performed during the pandemic. Like many others, Goddard found herself with time to finally delve into a project. “My grandfather worked at Marshall Field’s for most of his career, so I had his stories to work with,” said Goddard, “but I needed more.”

With historical archives shuttered, she began reaching out to people of that era to hear their personal stories. She found that in addition to the merchandise people took away from the store, they acquired just as many memories.

“Everyone seemed to have a story about Marshall Field’s at Christmastime-dressing up and taking the train into the city, admiring the windows and, if they were lucky, having lunch under the Christmas tree in the Walnut Room,” said Goddard. “I realized that these department stores provided the backdrop for memories made by thousands of Chicago families. They’re a sort of thread that binds Chicagoans together.”

Enough research was gathered about Marshall Field’s alone to create Goddard’s first book, Remembering Marshall Field’s. Readers are offered an up-close look into the gone-but-not-forgotten era of the city’s retail icons in “Lost Chicago Department Stores.” Chicago’s sweeter past can be relived- from Frango Mints to Lemonheads and everything in between- through the pages of Chicago’s Sweet Candy History, a book dedicated to the Windy City’s chief confectioners.

The Elmhurst History Museum’s exhibit, “Lost Chicagoland Department Stores,” in collaboration with Goddard, will be on display at the museum through Jan. 28, 2024. Visit elmhursthistory.org for more information. For more information on Goddard and her list of engagements, visit lesliegoddard.info.

The Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s in 1945
A Sears Department Store in downtown Elmhurst

 

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