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Bringing history to audiences, he plays a she

The teacher turned impressionist, who portrays world leaders, has a special fondness for Israel's Golda Meir.

February 20, 2007|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Peter Small has made a career of bringing historical figures to life.

Appearing before audiences at schools, senior centers, presidential libraries and civic organizations, he's played Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Saddam Hussein, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

The character for which he has the most passion, however, is also his least likely role: Golda Meir, first and only female prime minister of Israel.

Playing an elderly Jewish woman is easy, says Small, 53, a former eighth-grade history teacher who calls himself a "historical impressionist" and lives in Lake Forest. "It's just a matter of changing wigs and stockings."

He did that recently for a room full of teenagers at Chabad of Cypress, an Orthodox Jewish school in Los Alamitos.

"Does my smoking bother you?" he asked the students, puffing on an unlit cigarette in a $20 wig, heavy makeup and a tight-fitting skirt suit he later said had come from "off the thrift-store rack."

"Are you afraid I won't live to be an old woman?" the actor asked, continuing the shtick. "I was 72 when I was elected prime minister."

For the next 45 minutes, the teacher-turned-actor regaled the students with Meir's first-person stories of emigrating from Russia to Milwaukee at an early age, becoming a Zionist and socialist, settling in Palestine in 1921 and launching the career that eventually made her the mother of modern Israel.

Among other things, Small, as Meir, recalled signing the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948, becoming prime minister in 1969 and overseeing the defense of her country in 1973 when it was attacked by Syria and Egypt in what came to be known as the Yom Kippur War.

"Richard Nixon was as much my American president as I was his Israeli prime minister," she said of the man under whose leadership America had come to Israel's aid. "I know history will judge him very harshly, but he kept every promise he ever made to us."

Small, who is Jewish, says the idea of portraying Meir first came to him when a colleague suggested it at a Jewish educational conference in 1994.

"It was like a light bulb went off," recalls the former Israeli Defense Forces reservist who holds dual Israel-U.S. citizenship and lived in the Jewish state from 1979 to 1985. "I was very familiar with her," he said of the late prime minister, whom he never met but greatly admired. "She was about the same age as my own grandma; this was a character I could get excited about."

To prepare for his first performance, Small, whose only theatrical training came in his high school drama club, read several articles and watched taped interviews of Meir.

"It was just like doing a term paper," he recalled. "I was already familiar with how she spoke. I read several sources and found certain anecdotes that were always repeated."

The result was the rendition he now performs about 10 times a year. Though the majority of audiences are Jewish, Small said, many who see him are not.

"It gets a very good reaction," he said of his depiction of Meir, the only woman in his repertoire. "I'm obviously giving the Israeli side of things; what happened 35 years ago is relevant today."

That seemed to be the consensus among the Chabad students who watched.

"It made it really vivid," Sophia Spektor, 15, said of Small's performance. "He made her seem real."

David Sudock, 17, admitted some early misgivings. "At first it was pretty weird," he said, "but I got used to it. I learned a lot."

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