Obama praises Lincoln's legacy at Ford's Theatre

February 11, 2009 9:50:43 PM PST
President Barack Obama praised Abraham Lincoln for his conviction that a divided nation could be made whole at a gala Wednesday night celebrating the $25 million renovation of Ford's Theatre. The president and first lady Michelle Obama joined a crowd of Hollywood stars and Washington heavy-hitters for the celebration on the eve of Lincoln's 200th birthday. The theater where Lincoln was assassinated is reopening after an 18-month facelift that included new, more comfortable seats, a modern lobby and new dressing rooms.

Calling the theater "hallowed space" where Lincoln's legacy thrives, Obama praised him for restoring a sense of unity to the country.

"For despite all that divided us - North and South, black and white - he had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation, and one people," Obama said. "And because of Abraham Lincoln, and all who've carried on his work in the generations since, that is what we remain today."

The Obamas entered the theater to the tune of "Hail to the Chief" and the enthusiastic clapping of audience members who stood and turned to watch the first couple make their way down the aisle.

Violinist Joshua Bell opened the show, playing a traditional spiritual on a violin that was last played at Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was shot in 1865. The gala also included scenes from a play about Lincoln's life, along with other spoken tributes and musical performances.

Before the event, guests ranging from Cabinet members to movie producers strode down a red carpet in sharply cut tuxedos and colorful gowns. Talk included prime-time television plotlines and opinions of the economic stimulus package being hammered out in Congress.

Many were inspired by Obama.

"I still get a tear in my eye every time I see him on television," said Kelsey Grammer, though he added that he didn't always agree with Obama's politics. Grammer later took the stage to speak of Lincoln's love of Shakespeare.

Sidney Poitier and "Star Wars" director George Lucas were both honored with the Lincoln Medal.

Poitier, who broke down racial barriers with movies like "A Raisin in the Sun" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," called Obama a man of "simple origins" inspired by Lincoln.

"Now, finally, we have lived to see the election of an African American to the highest office," said the 81-year-old actor who was also the first African American to win an Academy Award for best actor in 1963.

Lucas, who was honored for his movies and his efforts to improve schools with multimedia tools, challenged Obama to make education his top priority as president.

"I will say the most important thing the human race has for our survival is our brain," he said. If knowledge is not passed down to the next generation, Lucas said, "we will become extinct."

Exxon Mobil Corp. Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, who led fundraising for the theater, said officials already have garnered more than $49 million for the renovation and ongoing projects.

Organizers expect to raise even more, surpassing their $50 million goal, he said.

Exxon Mobil contributed $5 million to the project, and the District of Columbia government gave $10 million.

Also offering tributes to Lincoln were actress Audra McDonald from TV's "Private Practice," actors James Earl Jones, Ben Vereen and Jeffrey Wright, opera singer Jessye Norman and journalist Katie Couric. The group joined in singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" for the finale.

The theater will reopen to the public on Thursday for Lincoln's birthday and then on Monday for President's Day. Regular tours resume on Feb. 17. A revamped museum is slated to open later this spring and there are plans to build a Lincoln Center for Education and Leadership across the street.

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On the Net:

Ford's Theatre: http://www.fords.org/


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