Lee Stetson: Channeling John Muir

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 15, 2017 09:09


Actor Lee Stetson, 76, has been the onstage alter ego of legendary conservationist John Muir for the past 34 years.

In a move practiced consciously or unconsciously many thousands of times, Lee Stetson runs a hand through his long white beard.

Stetson is giving an interview in a café in Mariposa, a gateway to Yosemite National Park. The waitress gives him a look, like she’s seen someone very familiar, but can’t quite place him.

Her suspicions are well-grounded: For 34 years Stetson, who lives with his wife and fellow actor, Connie, in nearby Midpines, has made a living channeling John Muir. He’s given more than 3,500 shows portraying the legendary conservationist, adventurer and defender of the American wilderness. Hundreds of thousands have seen his performances in Yosemite as well as throughout the nation and world.

“The beard?” Stetson laughs mid-stroke. “It’s not going anywhere. For me, it’s money.”

John Muir

But the 76-year-old actor, writer and professional alter ego trades on far more than a beard, a convincing Scottish accent and a remarkable resemblance to Muir.

Over more than 35 years Stetson has read virtually every word Muir wrote, devouring biographies, histories, journals and ancient news stories. He has walked many of the thousands of miles of trails Muir covered and scaled the peaks he climbed. Stetson has visited Muir’s birthplace in Scotland, gone to his boyhood home in Wisconsin, met his grandchildren, and in 2009 played the great man in Ken Burns’ acclaimed television documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

“Nobody knows more about John Muir than Lee,” noted the filmmaker, whose six-part series on the parks included both scholar Stetson’s comments on Muir and actor Stetson’s voice-overs as the conservationist himself.

Is he convincing?

“Lee has that charismatic ability to grab every person in his audience,” says John Buckley, executive director of the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center and Stetson’s friend for 20 years. “They’re spellbound, they’re fixated, they’re in the moment throughout the show.”

Buckley saw it firsthand last summer when CSERC sponsored a free Muir show at Sonora’s historic Opera Hall: “Lee really cares, he has the passion and he’s done the research. It’s magic.”

Not bad for a guy who pre-Muir may have been best known for playing cameo roles – villains, victims, corpses, cops – on “Hawaii Five-0.”

So how does an East Coast kid (Stetson was born and raised in New England) end up being the pioneer conservationist’s 21st century voice?

His unlikely road to Muir’s Yosemite National Park haunts wound through Thailand (Peace Corps), Laos (teaching), Hawaii (graduate school, acting) and Los Angeles (“searching for fame and fortune”).

“I never found that fame and fortune in L.A.,” says Stetson, who learned acting in Honolulu. “But I did find John Muir.”

It happened in the late 1970s when Stetson began escaping the city’s smog and bright lights with weekend getaways to Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks and other Southern Sierra hideaways.

“A friend sent me a biography of Muir,” he recounts. “I was smitten: His astonishing adventures, his amazing skills, his obvious contributions to conservation and to our national parks. Then there was the poetry of Muir’s writing.

Stetson with a typewriter from Muir’s time known as The Caligraph

“My first idea was writing a stage play about John Muir and the other characters he dealt with during the early years of Yosemite,” Stetson continues. “After more research, I thought a one-man show would work better, but I didn’t think of myself as doing it.”

It’s not that he wasn’t qualified: As a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, Stetson in the late 1960s got a bit part in a college theater production. Within a year he was doing major roles in big productions and getting rave reviews. Then along came “Hawaii Five-0,” looking for some island talent.

“I was probably in a dozen episodes,” Stetson grins.

“I still get royalty checks every once in awhile – like for about $1.25.”

But thanks to Muir, his stop in L.A. was a short one. In 1982, Stetson’s career took a sharp turn north and up – to Yosemite. Where better, he reasoned, to present a show on the park’s most heroic advocate? What’s more, by this time he was ready to play the role himself.

After a few months as a desk clerk at Curry Village, Stetson finished writing a show on Muir’s valiant but ultimately unsuccessful effort to save Hetch Hetchy Valley from San Francisco’s water engineers. In it, a furious Muir decries lawyers and politicians for “bargaining like Yankee horse traders over the future of half of Yosemite National Park.”

In early 1983, Stetson pitched the show to Len McKenzie, Yosemite’s chief interpreter – who just happened to be a “Hawaii Five-0” fan.

“When I heard he had been on the show, I thought, ‘Well, maybe this guy is a pro,’ ” remembers McKenzie, a 38-year Park Service veteran now retired in Mariposa. “I’ll admit, it did have an influence.”

Moreover, he was impressed with Stetson’s research, his script and his acting. “I had long been considering some sort of interpretive live-theater project, and this one seemed worth a try,” he says.

McKenzie was confident of the show’s likely success but others had doubts. The manager of the co-sponsoring Yosemite Natural History Association (now the Yosemite Conservancy) made McKenzie promise to cancel the planned summer run of Muir shows after three weeks if it flopped.

So, with his hair and beard dyed white and his career on the line, the 42-year-old Stetson gave his first show on April 21, John Muir’s birthday. The Yosemite Theater was full and Stetson was nervous.

“It’s like what any actor or script writer feels at a debut,” he says. “Plus there were park people and experts who knew all about Muir in the audience. Of course I was anxious.”

His fears were unfounded. Within a few minutes, Stetson says, “it was obvious the show was being well received.” The next night was a sellout, and the rest is history.

“It’s had some staying power,” understates McKenzie, now 76 and still a close friend of Stetson’s.

More than 1,000 shows later, Stetson no longer needs hair dye to look like the aging John Muir he portrays. And having repeated the pioneer environmentalist’s words for more than three decades, he portrays him with confidence and conviction.

“You can’t say those words over and over again for more than 30 years without them becoming part of you,” explains Stetson.

Now a few months older than Muir was when he died in 1914, Stetson has given his show not only in Yosemite but worldwide – aboard cruise ships, at elementary schools, in corporate conference rooms, around campfires, on college campuses, at retreats and even before a group of RV owners.

Stetson has brought his show to Muir’s boyhood home in Portage, Wisconsin, and to Dunbar, Scotland, where the legendary adventurer was born. There, the actor says, his adopted accent faced its most critical audience.

Although the technology was there during Muir’s lifetime, no known recordings of his voice exist. So Stetson uses a well-practiced Scots accent common in the Dunbar area, seasoning it with a brogue Muir was known to enjoy.

“I guess it worked,” he says. “An older gentleman came up to me after the show and said ‘You must come from north Scotland.’ I was delighted.”

Not as delighted, however, as when audience members tell him his show has inspired them to action – joining environmental groups, participating in conservation projects, getting involved in politics.

Over the years, Stetson’s repertoire has broadened. In addition to the Hetch Hetchy show, he does performances on Muir’s adventures with animals, on his wilderness treks and – with another actor – on his enduring friendship with President Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1903 camped alone with the era’s leading conservationist in Yosemite. In these shows, virtually all the passages are from the writings of Muir himself.

Not so with “John Muir is back. And man! Is he ticked off!” This production brings the conservationist back to life in the 21st century, and he’s not at all happy about what has happened. The returning Muir sees the reality of Hetch Hetchy, the loss of the Central Valley (which in his day was a carpet of wildflowers extending to the horizon) and the disappearance of Yosemite’s glaciers.

“A lot of it is just beyond his imagination,” says Stetson, who has combined Muir’s and his own words to express the anger and disappointment. “He couldn’t have conceived of the oceans and atmosphere being imperiled or the impenetrable forests of Alaska being threatened.”

“There is no patch of soil, no breath of air, no drop of water that is untouched by Lord Man’s black magic,” thunders the reincarnated Muir. “So join me! And get ticked off!”

Stetson himself is among the ticked off. Although he admits it won’t happen without some seismic political shifts, he’s all in favor of draining Hetch Hetchy and returning its valley to the majesty witnessed by Muir.

Not only that, but he represented Yosemite Valley and much of the park in two terms on the typically conservative Mariposa County Board of Supervisors. But no, he was not a radical outlier always on the short end of 4-1 board votes.

“Issues aren’t so partisan or divisive on the local level,” says Stetson, a self-described “flaming liberal.”

“I disagreed with my colleagues on some development issues, but by and large I got along with them. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Stetson retired from the Mariposa Board in 2014 and has no plans to return. “I’m too old a codger these days,” he laughs. “Sauntering about” on the Sierra trails Muir loved, reading and traveling with his wife now occupy much of Stetson’s time. But the spirit of John Muir remains alive and well within him.

“I’ll keep doing the shows as long as I can walk on stage and as long as my voice doesn’t fail me,” he says. “Muir’s words are so rich and so relevant to the present day that it’s impossible not to be excited by them. And if I can bring some of that excitement to my audiences, all the better.”

Catch Stetson in the act

Lee Stetson performs two shows weekly April 5-Oct. 26 at Yosemite Valley Visitor Center’s Theater:

7-8pm Wednesdays “Conversations with a Tramp; An Evening with John Muir”

7-8pm Thursdays “Stickeen and Other Fellow Mortals”

Adults $10, free for ages 11 and under, tickets available at the Yosemite visitor center and park bookstores up to a week in advance. For information, call 379-2317, ext. 10.

For a full performance schedule, visit johnmuirlive.com.

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 15, 2017 09:09
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