CA Student Smallers

Robbins House Advisory Board Member Joe Zellner – Better than a time machine

Until they perfect a time machine that can take you back across the centuries, Joe Zellner might be the next best thing.

As a character interpreter trained and certified by the National Association for Interpretation, Joe brings viewers and listeners back hundreds of years with an engaging, thoughtful and provocative persona that not only captures the person he’s portraying but also the time period they are living in. He can move from Peter Robbins, the son of a formerly enslaved Revolutionary War veteran; to JB Sanderson, a teacher, preacher, abolitionist, and trans-continental pioneer; and then on to Solomon Pierce, father of four and a private in the 54th MVI during the Civil War.

Joe finds out what he can about the individuals he’s impersonating as well as the historical landscape, but cautions that interpreters should avoid conjecture. “Our true selves know what happens afterward,” he says, “but the person we’re impersonating doesn’t. We have to avoid going beyond that line.”

When he’s not interpreting, Joe is a historical re-enactor with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Company A, and serves as the president of the Board of Directors of that nonprofit organization.

The Company provides historical reenactment and interpretation of the regiment, as well as portrayals of selected officers and enlisted men. It also takes part in Making History on the Common, sponsored by The Friends of the Public Garden for Boston public schools, which features about 20 organizations that recreate people and occurrences that have occupied the Boston Common over the centuries – from the first Native Americans at the site, to livestock grazing on the Common, to numerous protest events.

The Glorious Fifty-Fourth
The 54th MVI was mustered and paraded from the Common in May 1863. Joe will portray Solomon Pierce of the 54th Massachusetts regiment on June 5th in Making History on the Common to tell the story of the “Glorious Fifty-Fourth.”

In 1863, the Governor of Massachusetts authorized the recruitment of an infantry regiment composed of African American enlisted men, commanded by white officers: the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. It was the first regiment of African American soldiers to be raised in the North. They were greatly heralded for their valor in their first major engagement in the assault on Ft Wagner in Charleston Harbor, SC, July 1863. Their valiant performance in that battle changed the opinion of the Federal government about the ability and willingness of black Americans to fight for the Union and freedom. In 1897, a memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was dedicated on the Boston Common and is prominently located across from the State House.

Recently, Joe portrayed Peter Robbins at the Robbins House as part of Freedom’s Way’s Hidden Treasures event, which explores “treasures” hidden in plain sight throughout 45 communities in Massachusetts during the month of May.

And when not interpreting or reenacting, how does Joe spend some of his time? Reading about people – past and present – and visiting, of course, other historical sites to hone his craft!

Joe Zellner portrays Solomon Pierce, father of four and a private in the Civil War 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Concord Academy students visit the monument on the Boston Common dedicated to the 54th Regiment of African American soldiers and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.