Axios D.C.

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February 18, 2024

Happy Presidents Day weekend!

👋🏻 Anna here with some behind-the-scenes historical fun.

🎂 Happy birthday to our Axios D.C. members Brian McLaren and Tracy Barber!

Situational awareness: We're off tomorrow for Presidents Day, but look out for a special edition newsletter from the larger Axios newsroom. Excited to hear what you think!

Today's newsletter is 842 words — a 3-minute read.

1 big thing: Mount Vernon's leading man

Tom Plott in character as Washington's doctor and friend. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon

You probably know Mount Vernon as George and Martha Washington's historic estate near Alexandria, but it's also one of the D.C. area's largest living stages.

Why it matters: A cast of six "historical interpretive actors" keeps 18th-century history alive through a nuanced form of acting that's part method, part improv, and all rooted in PhD-level research and accuracy.

The intrigue: One man runs the whole show (as well as playing two leading roles himself). Meet Tom Plott, Mount Vernon's "manager of character interpretation."

Zoom in: You'll often find the 59-year-old dressed in a dapper wool or linen suit as James Craik, Washington's longtime physician and best friend. Or as James Anderson, a prominent farm manager at Mount Vernon whose character guides tours of the grounds and heritage-breed animals.

  • They're both Scottsmen — an accent Plott keeps for eight hours a day. "Sometimes I maintain it for 12 hours, and my wife is very upset when I get home because I'm still speaking Scottish," the Alaska-born actor tells Axios.

Zoom out: As the head of character interpretation, Plott helps direct a rotating cast that varies by season and programming — George and Martha, yes, but also Tobias Lear, George Washington's personal secretary, or Ona Judge, an enslaved woman who escaped to freedom from Mount Vernon.

  • "It can be anything from working on scripts to performing myself, giving walking tours, or talking to school groups," he says.
  • The research in the estate's library is never ending. "We're always discovering new things that are added in, which gives a more rounded performance."
Plott talking to a school group at Mount Vernon
Plott in action. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon

Between the lines: Historical interpreters aren't the only actors to perform at Mount Vernon. Big Hollywood names like Denzel Washington have filmed at the Potomac River estate.

Driving the news: Plott will lead the hunt for a new big man on campus, George W. himself. The criteria sound arguably harder than running for president: An in-depth knowledge of Federalist-era America. Laser-sharp historical accuracy. And a master of 18th-century dialect and mannerisms.

  • "You need the knowledge and improvisational skills to talk off the cuff," says Plott.

As he embarks on his search, we caught up with Plott about the role of a lifetime.

🎭 How it started: Plott's a classically trained actor with a Shakespeare-heavy résumé. It was a natural progression that led to him playing roles as Leonardo da Vinci, John Wilkes Booth, and other historical figures. When a job opening came up at Mount Vernon, he jumped.

Work BFF: Aladdin the Christmas Camel, a local dromedary who plays one that Washington summoned in 1787 to entertain holiday guests. "Aladdin and I both started in 2008, and he was just a little fella then," says Plott. "He remembers and will nuzzle up to me. It's like having the biggest puppy in the world come visit."

Aladdin the Christmas Camel outside Mount Vernon with Tom Plott
Besties: Plott and Aladdin. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon

👞 Least favorite part of the job: Federalist footwear. Mount Vernon's costume department hand-makes period clothing, but when it comes to the shoes, "I will cheat," says Plott. "Being an old man, I'll put insoles in so I'm not just walking on flat pieces of leather."

Biggest challenge: Telling historical truths. "Everyone expects the perfect history — we've been taught for so long how perfect the first president is. But one of the big difficulties is that George Washington is like everyone else."

  • "He's had bad things that he's done in his life — great things and mediocre things. The trick for us is to include all of that truthfully and not biased, and to make sure the truth of George Washington is told."

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2. George Washington's birthday parade

Ready to march. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The annual George Washington Birthday Parade is back in Alexandria tomorrow — a tradition now in its 101st year.

Why it matters: The Presidents Day procession is always a festive time in Old Town, and this year everyone's going extra big for Alexandria's 275th anniversary.

What's happening: The theme is "George Washington: Alexandria's Living Legend." (Did we mention they're going big?)

  • The parade usually includes thousands of freemasons—it started in 1923 to celebrate the founding of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial — antique cars, local politicians, floats, youth groups, military units, and Washington character interpreters.

Details: The parade starts at 1pm and its route travels around Old Town until approximately 3pm.

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3. ICYMI: The week's hot stories

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

🧊 What's going on with the deal to move the Caps and Wizards to Alexandria? Well, as of this week, it's on ice after a key Virginia senator took a hard stance on the legislation.

🚨 D.C. stores are beefing up security — some in new ways — as the city continues to struggle with crime.

💰 Take a tour of D.C.'s most expensive home sales for January, including a Bethesda pad with a hammam and steam room that went for over $9 million.

🍽️ Bethesda restaurant week just started, and I found some seriously good deals (e.g. $10 lil' lobster rolls?!) and have fun recommendations for treating yourself.

🔥 Hotly anticipated Pascual, a wood-fired Mexican bistro from the all-star team behind Lutèce, is now open. Take a peek at the pretty space and menu.

👯 I'm having a fun staycation weekend with some girlfriends.

Today's newsletter was edited by Alexa Mencia and copy edited by Patricia Guadalupe.