GC: Cemetery tours offer education in alternative setting

Jessica  Rodrigo By Jessica Rodrigo

Sept. 30, 2011 at 4:30 a.m.

Not many people make the claim that they can resurrect the dead.

For two days in October, Victoria Preservation Inc. Executive Director, Gary Dunnam, brings one of the cemeteries on Vine Street in Victoria to life, almost literally, under Dunnam's power of resurrection: research.

"I go through the cemetery, with Bonnie Green, and we decide what characters will be on the tour," said Dunnam.

Green is the chairwoman of the cemetery tours.

Once the characters are chosen, 10 when the tour is finalized, Dunnam begins his trip to and fro between his office at 205 W. Goodwin St. and the Victoria Public Library. He buries himself in newspapers or microfilm, learning about the pasts of Victoria's historical figures.

"We want people to have a sense of what people were like back then," he said.STRICTLY HISTORICAL RE-ENACTMENT

Despite the timing of the tours around Halloween, the graveyard tours are not meant to be spoofs or scary for that matter. Instead, they are put together to educate the community.

"We don't try to make it spooky, but it does happen at night," he said.

The tours take place in the heart of the cemetery with different gravestones serving as the setting for the characters.

This year's graveyard tour, named "Speak, Memory," is set in the Catholic Cemetery No. 1, off Vine Street.

Each tour will take between an hour-and-a-half to just under two hours to complete.

"The tour is split in groups of 15 to 20 people," he explained. "Each group

will begin at one point and rotate until each group has heard from each character."

Each character, on the other hand, will have roughly 10 minutes to tell his or her story, which Dunnam writes.

"Generally, there is too much information in there, and I write about 10 minutes of script. We ask (the actors) to keep it at about seven to eight minutes and to be familiar with the things in the script," said the VPI executive director. "You may not hear the same thing in every group ... We really want to convey that (the guests) are really talking to this person."MOVING PERFORMANCES

As part of the actors' performances, they are in charge of making their role as believable as possible. They wear ensembles from the appropriate era, include props from professions the character held and other characteristics that Dunnam discovers through his research, which also may include speaking with family members of the deceased.

Green remembers her past roles in the tours.

"I've been lucky with the previous gals I did. Selina Dupre was the first one, and then I did Rosa Sitterle Fritz the year before last. They were older, so I have the white wig with the bun," said Green.

She said the costuming and the research are very important parts of the performance. All of the pieces come together on the tour to create a believable portrayal.

Dunnam recalled the 2009 tour when one of the actors, Callan Welder, made such a compelling performance that it generated an emotional response from one of the audience members.

"Two years ago, I chose a character, Charles Beyer, who was a young man who was taken into World War I, and he died of the Spanish influenza," Dunnam said. "Charles Beyer got on the boat and left. And when he stepped off the boat in France, within a day or so, he died ... Callan was really good. He said to the group 'Parents pin their best hopes on their children, and sometimes terrible things happen.'"

Dunnam said one of the woman standing nearby during the performance burst into tears, and conjured tears in his own eyes, as well.

"He nailed that phrase and that performance," said the amateur scriptwriter. Educational and Entertaining

Dunnam said the idea for the tours came from area teachers who were looking for a way to educate school-aged children.

Dunnam began the tours in 1996, with three or four re-enactors during the day for the schools.

The tours served as a way for the students to learn about area history through characters who lived during interesting moments in time or played important roles as professionals or individual actions.

The tours were in May and later moved to October to get the re-enactors and students out of the South Texas heat. Then, they became later and were opened to members of the community.

"We've had a great response from the public. I mean, we keep selling out," Dunnam said of the tour's popularity. The tours, at one point, were scheduled on one night, and now are split into two nights that can accommodate almost 300 guests a night.

VPI will have 600 tickets available this year, which will only be sold in advance at various locations in Victoria.

Profits from the cemetery tour go toward the VPI office, and grants for historic property owners. VPI allocates money from its various fundraising events for grants to restore homes and buildings.

"We make it possible for people to fix up or redo, whatever they need, to keep our history alive," Green said. "If we don't do this, there's going to be nothing physical for our young people to have as a reference for how things were - to me that is just scary. We owe it to ourselves and our youth to restore as many of these fantastically wonderful old homes and buildings as we can. Otherwise, when they're gone, there's no replacing them."

The tours begin promptly at 7 p.m. and the gates will be closed after the tours start.

"It's entertaining and it's educational. I never imagined this would be this popular," Dunnam admitted. "I think it's a great idea."



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