GETTYSBURG, Pa.—Bonnie Orlando has always loved to play dress up, in part for the beautiful fashions, and in part to play the role of somebody else for a little while. Her favorite pieces are from eras past; she finds vintage dresses more beautiful and dignified than the dress of today.
It was this love for vintage fashion that led Bonnie and her husband to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to live as living historians.
Bonnie and her husband, Frank, had a home in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. They raised three children who grew up and moved away. Both educators, she taught German and he taught English before working as a high school principal for 26 years, but they both had a passion for history. As it happens, Gettysburg was less than two hours away.
“I said, ‘All I want is a nice dress to walk up and down the streets and have fun,'” Bonnie told The Epoch Times in the Lightner Farmhouse Bed and Breakfast on June 15.
With the thought of purchasing a vacation home in the city, they took a weekend trip to Gettysburg—and there was no turning back. They moved to the historical town, though it would take four years to sell their house in Kutztown.
Bonnie got her beautiful dress, so Frank got a uniform. It was a Confederate captain’s uniform, but it might have been Frank’s beard that really drew reactions. People started coming up to him on the street and calling him Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Bonnie decided that if he was going to be Robert E. Lee, she would be Mary Lee. She found that Mary had a fascinating life. She was sassy, intelligent, and a little bit spoiled. Bonnie discovered that it was interesting to play out the story of Mary Anna Custis Lee.
Frank discovered in his research that he is actually the same height, weight, and build as Robert E. Lee was; and he was able to connect with Lee as an educator.
In addition to being a general, Lee was president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, where he established an honor system that was simple, but effective.
“We have but one rule here,” Lee wrote, “and it is that every student be a gentleman.”
“Gentlemen do not lie, they do not steal, they do not cheat; what can be more important than that?” Frank said. “Extremely simple … there are no stronger words than that, and they’re very short words.”
“He was not a trained educator,” Frank added, but Lee’s code of conduct and the principled behavior that resulted in his students led people from top universities to visit, hoping to glean his administrative secrets to success.
Lee was a principled man and consistent in how he applied his principles, which Frank knows can be difficult, from working with school administration and students. The Lees were devout Christians and guided by their moral values, which the Orlandos found they could also relate to.
“So many of the characteristics that he possessed, I believe [in] totally,” Frank said.
“He was a very consistent man, very passionate man, highly religious man, very organized,” he said, before adding to get a reaction out of Bonnie, “unlike his wife.”
The couple makes an effort to inject a bit of humor into their interactions when they portray the Lees, because it’s engaging, and most importantly, it’s humanizing.
“See, we treat them like human beings. Husband and wife, mother and father, which most people don’t take the time to do,” Frank said.
Research into this historical couple is never-ending, Frank said, and they particularly like to read the Lees’ private letters. Lee wrote extensively to his family, sometimes sharing thoughts and opinions more complex and surprising than he would publicly.
“The last thing we want to do is to depict these two great people in a non-truthful manner,” Frank said.
Since the Orlandos moved to Gettysburg, they’ve gone from having no intention of participating in reenactments to reading and researching almost every day, and performing in front of thousands of people every year.
“When we moved here, we didn’t know we’d get into this much depth and detail of this,” Frank said.
The couple has portrayed the Lees for a dozen years and has traveled all over the Northeast with their program.
No topic is off-limits when the couple answers guests’ questions.
While in character, Bonnie is asked a lot about her costume (she has more than 35 period dresses) and Mary Lee’s home, Arlington House, which she was bitter about losing. She shows visitors Mary Lee’s incredible strength of will, and how she never gave up, despite the forces she was contending with, from the Union occupancy of her home to the arthritis that crippled her hands.
Frank is frequently asked about Lee’s military tactics and the side he chose, which his letters reveal to be a complicated, nuanced issue. People often come to their programs knowing little beyond the fact that Lee was perhaps a traitor, but Frank tells the story of his patriotism.
The couple is often asked questions about slavery, and about the current political climate, as there are calls to remove Confederate monuments and so forth.
“I always answer the same way by telling them that, ‘Hey, we’ll make the same mistakes we made all over again. You just cannot forget about your history—we are who we are because of our history,'” Frank said.
The Orlandos’ intimate study of the Lees as human beings has given them a nuanced view and a perspective that they realize could be lost if citizens don’t study U.S. history.
They have guests who accuse the Lees of a plethora of things, but the Orlandos don’t shy from any topic. People who are open to learning leave with a broadened worldview, but some don’t and, in their experience, have been more interested in arguing than knowing what really happened. It’s a harmful view to decide that because there were things wrongly done in history, that history should be done away with.
“I always feel quite strongly that if our audiences can take just one thing we say away, learn one thing, and then build on that, I feel as if I’ve been successful,” Frank said.