Kevin Riordan: Learning face to face about N.J.'s first governor

Christian Johnson plays William Livingston at Haddonfield's Indian King Tavern, as Christopher Jones listens.
Christian Johnson plays William Livingston at Haddonfield's Indian King Tavern, as Christopher Jones listens. (RYAN S. GREENBERG / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 19, 2012

When the governor of New Jersey visits a small town, it's a big deal.

When he is also a signatory to the U.S. Constitution, it's historic.

The Cherry Hill actor Christian Johnson's portrayal of the Garden State's first chief executive, William Livingston, charmed an audience Saturday at the Indian King Tavern Museum in Haddonfield.

The performer, 74, and the governor (who lived from 1723 to 1790) were on familiar turf. Johnson is a longtime booster of the Indian King, and Livingston worked and took refuge there during the British occupation of Trenton.

"It's good to be home," Johnson said, in character, as the performance began. "This was my home, you know. Oh, yes."

With his sonorous voice and 6-foot-1 frame, the actor would have commanded the tavern's Assembly Room even had he worn a T-shirt and jeans rather than a jabot and breeches. His demeanor was patrician yet approachable, onstage and off.

Livingston, who called himself an "ugly-looking fellow," was an art lover, a brigadier general, and a delegate to the Continental Congress. Johnson's portrayal was as eclectic as his subject, mixing biography, audience participation, and even a couple of songs.

It was the latest event designed to elevate the profile of the state-owned Indian King, which hasn't been a tavern for more than a century but offered a beer-tasting fund-raiser during the spring.

The 262-year-old site is dear to history lovers and familiar to Haddonfield residents. But many people don't know where it is (Kings Highway East between Haddon and Grove) or what it is, much less the role the handsome building played in colonial America.

When I told Linda Hess, the Indian King's historic interpreter, that I'd never set foot in the place before, she said she often hears this sort of confession.

That's why activities by Friends of the Indian King to "help share the story" of the tavern are essential, she added.

"This is such a wonderful institution," said Joe Murphy, founder and president of the 1,000-member group.

The group has been awarded a $50,000 N.J. Historic Trust grant that it is close to augmenting with $17,000. The funds will go toward a feasibility study for a museum addition to house restrooms and an elevator.

Only by climbing steep stairs can a visitor enjoy the second-floor Assembly room, where the wartime legislature declared New Jersey a state in 1777.

"It's a lot different than just reading facts on a piece of paper," Murphy observed.

Johnson, a New York-trained actor, portrayed Livingston as an aristocratic, amiable raconteur.

For an hour, his deep knowledge of Livingston, culled from the governor's extensive correspondence and other documents, helped animate an entertaining, educational, and occasionally inspiring narrative.

"I was so lanky they used to call me Hat-rack Livingston," Johnson said, noting that during the war and its aftermath, "I never got to sleep in my own bed but seven days in seven years."

Knowing next to nothing about Livingston when I took my seat, I left with a sense of him not as an abstract "Founding Father."

He was a multilingual lawyer, a writer who authored what one account called "incendiary" newspaper editorials, and a fierce foe of the Church of England. (Livingston was a Presbyterian.)

In 1776, at 53, he was elected governor, serving until his death 14 years later. He opposed slavery when many did not and as a young man spent a year doing missionary work among American Indians, about whose culture he later wrote admiringly.

"He had integrity," Johnson told me after the show. "He had an indomitable spirit."

Livingston also had a startlingly long nose, but Johnson's performance eschewed prosthetics in favor of scholarship.

"He lived an incredible life," the actor said.

In addition to Livingston, Johnson has played Abraham Lincoln, William Penn, Patrick Henry, and many others.

Whom hasn't he played?

"Ronald Reagan."

Whom would he most like to play?

Another New Jersey governor.

"William Augustus Newell, father of the U.S. Coast Guard," Johnson said. "I love his story, and I'm going to tell it."


Kevin Riordan:

Meet the actor Christian Johnson as the State of New Jersey's first governor: www.philly.com/livingston


The Indian King Tavern Museum, 233 Kings Highway E., Haddonfield, is open year-round. Admission is free. Information, including hours: 856-429-6792 or www.indiankingfriends.org.

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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