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National Geographic Society Brings 'Bell' To Life

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Rick Foucheux portrays Alexander Graham Bell in Jim Lehrer’s world-premiere play, BELL.
Courtesy of Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
Rick Foucheux portrays Alexander Graham Bell in Jim Lehrer’s world-premiere play, BELL.

In April, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History stumbled upon a most remarkable find. It was a wax-cylinder recording from April 1885, and while the words on it are kind of fuzzy, the speaker is kind of famous: "Hear my voice. Alexander... Graham... Bell."

"The one snippet of his voice that we do have has him sounding a bit theatrical," says actor Rick Foucheux. "I doubt that he spoke that way all the time. But when he stood on stage, probably he sounded a little bit like that."

In fact, soon he will be standing on stage, in a way, as the National Geographic Society continues its 125th anniversary celebration with its first-ever full-blown theatrical production: a one-man show titled BELL.

Foucheux is playing the title role, and he wants everyone to know he won't just be yammering about the telephone — the groundbreaking invention Bell patented in 1876.

"We're so enamored of Bell as the telephone man; that's who we think of him as," Foucheux says. "But he had a lot more going than that!"

And yet, says Jeremy Skidmore, who's directing BELL, few people are aware of it. In fact, until this show, Skidmore himself was in the dark about Bell's non-telephonic achievements. He didn't know, for instance, that Bell invented a precursor to the iron lung, after he lost his infant son to a breathing disorder.

"I didn't know that he was in the fight to invent the first airplane," he adds. "And the airplane that he did build flew faster and higher than any of the airplanes that existed at the time."

Nor did Skidmore know how passionate Bell was about hearing, speech and working with the deaf community. He actually met his deaf wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, when he was hired as her speech tutor. It was Mabel who brought about something else Skidmore had never known about Alexander Graham Bell: he was National Geographic's second president.

Bell's father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, was the first president of the National Geographic Society. And when Hubbard died in 1897, Mabel convinced her husband to take over an organization that was, in truth, a mess.

"The National Geographic only had a thousand members. The magazine wasn't being read by very many people. It wasn't a success," says journalist, novelist and BELL playwright Jim Lehrer.

But Alexander Graham Bell turned the National Geographic Society around. First, he hired a bright young kid named Gilbert Grosvenor to edit the magazine.

"That's when the magazine really took off," Lehrer says.

Then Bell helped open up the Society's membership, so anybody could join.

"Up to that point it was pretty much a closed society," Lehrer explains. "It was just kind of for rich people who wanted to take long trips -- you know, that kind of stuff. All of the momentum began with Alexander Graham Bell in cooperation with this young kid who eventually ended up marrying Bell's daughter!"

And indeed, the Grosvenors and Bells have been intertwined in Washington ever since — fun fact to ponder next time you're at the Grosvenor stop on the Red Line.

There's another tidbit about Alexander Graham Bell that some people might not know. It has to do with his invention of the metal detector in 1881.

"He tried to save the life of James Garfield, who had been shot and they couldn't figure out where the bullet was," Lehrer says. "So Alexander Graham Bell decided to create a device to use on Garfield in the White House, in bed, suffering badly."

But according to Lehrer, Bell's metal detector didn't work on the president.

"He believed that the reason it didn't work was because he was on a mattress where there were metal springs under it," Lehrer explains. "Every time they tried it, there was a humming sound, and he finally figured it out. But the doctors wouldn't let him move [the President]; they wouldn't let him try."

The president eventually died, of course. Bell was devastated, but in 1882 he concluded, "The death of President Garfield and the subsequent post-mortem examination... proved that the bullet was at too great a distance from the surface to have affected our apparatus."

In any case, it's an amazing story, and just one of the many amazing stories Jim Lehrer uncovered as he conducted research for his play.

And granted, some of those discoveries were about the more controversial sides of Alexander Graham Bell. As Rick Foucheux points out, "In the deaf community there are some who think of him as anything but a hero, because of his methods of speech education for the deaf. He thought something called 'oralism' or 'visible speech' would be better for the deaf community, much more than sign language. And I think he stood in the way of the development of that."

When it all comes down to it, Foucheux says, Bell, the man, was, after all, just a guy. And BELL, the play, portrays him as such. Albeit a guy "who was full of ideas and full of life. He couldn't sit still. And he was excited about finding better ways to do things, to design things, to make life better for us all."

[Music: "Why Haven't I Heard From You" by Reba McEntire from 50 Greatest Hits]

Photos: BELL

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