He's Monet, he's Beethoven, or maybe Walter Matthau

October 22, 1991|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Evening Sun Staff

TED BROWN doesn't wear a thousand faces, but he's got enough. He's a bearded Claude Monet one day, a wigged Ludwig van Beethoven or a one-eared Vincent Van Gogh the next.

And when he's not in one of his get-ups, he's an uncanny knock-off for actor Richard Crenna or movie star Walter Matthau or TV star Richard Boone, depending on who you speak to.

These days, however, he's best known for his schtick as Monet, the late 19th century impressionist painter whose works are on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art until Jan. 19. Because of the Monet interest, people have been calling him left and right asking him to portray the artist -- in costume and beard, with paintings in tow -- and speak about his life.

It's a big change for a man who was an elementary school principal. But he's been traveling cross-country for 15 years, entertaining people of all ages and teaching them about the history and life of eight famous masters and maestros: artists Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and da Vinci as well as composers Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt and Chopin.

"There's nothing more fun than this," he said after finishing a Monet performance at the Pascal Senior Center in Glen Burnie.

"I'm out on the stage with my beard and coat and everything," said Brown, who's performed in community theaters and dinner theaters. "I set up a blank canvas and pull out paintings. By the time the program is over, they've gotten my [Monet's] complete life story, plus my finished lily pad, plus my cataract operation. Everybody cries."

He comes out in costume and does a one-hour or so soliloquy on the artist's or maestro's life, recounting childhood, obstacles and accomplishments. In all of his performances, audiences either see or hear the works. For artists, he paints a picture; for composers,he plays portions of their symphonies.

During his performance at the Glen Burnie senior center, he pulled out 30 paintings of different artists, including Monet, Paul Cezanne, George Seurat, Claude Manet and Paul Renoir. The paintings weren't originals, of course, but faithful reproductions that Brown himself painted. From 20 feet away in the audience, though, they looked uncanny -- amazing for a 60-year-old Peabody Conservatory-trained pianist who never took up painting in his life.

He's got a basement full of reproductions that he uses in his

shows -- 50 of them hang all over his Annapolis house.

Not to steal his thunder, but here's a sampling of what you learn about Monet, a bored schoolboy who sat in the back of the classroom drawing caricatures of his teachers.

Against his father's wishes, Monet married a woman named Camille (she's the woman wearing a bonnet, carrying the umbrella and standing in the field in one of Monet's paintings). They had two children and lived a rather impoverished life until Monet struck it rich with the Americans, who bought his paintings in great numbers. Eventually, even the French appreciated his work and he became a much-celebrated artist.

As Monet aged, his eyesight worsened, almost to blindness. The subjects in his later paintings subsequently become bigger -- like his big water lilies -- and his colors grow brighter (easier to paint).

Brown's get-ups began 15 years ago, when he first dressed up as Chopin to increase the awareness of gifted and talented students to theater and the arts. The idea of doing his schtick full-time never crossed his mind back then, but he got his lucky break, so to speak, in 1979 when he performed at a ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution for high school students who became presidential scholars. "I got calls all over the country, quit my job and went all over the road," he said. He's done 2,500 shows since then.

He paid homage to some of his characters when he went to Europe this year for summer vacation. He visited the gravesites of Chopin and other composers. He also went to Monet's house and walked through his famous Giverny garden -- for inspiration.

His biggest thrill was when he got to touch Beethoven's highly guarded piano in Vienna. And what did he play?

"Da-da-da-dum," he said, referring to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. "It gave me a thrill. The piano's terribly out of tune, though. They don't keep it up."

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