Buffalo's star shines bright at Ford's Theatre gala honoring Mark Russell

Jun 5, 2019

Modestly, Buffalo-born political satirist Mark Russell is not boasting over his Lincoln Medal, given this weekend at a gala at Ford's Theatre with Washington's elite in attendence including President Donald Trump  and First Lady Melania Trump.

Russell, a Canisius High School graduate who still returns to town for reunions, brushed off the honor saying it was really just due to " body of work, time in the saddle,"

The honor was presented to Russell, and Retired Gen. Colin Powell and his wife, Alma this past Saturday at Ford's theatre.

The theater's society has awarded the medal annually since 1981 to individuals whose body of work, accomplishments or personal attributes embodies the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated in the theater in 1865.

Russell's career as a political humorist dates to the Eisenhower administration, and includes  a stint from 1975 to 2004, performing four times a year in Buffalo in a series of live PBS programs produced by WNED-TV and broadcast nationwide.

WATCH a vintage WNED Mark Russell Special from 1984

Russell rose to national prominence after almost nightly appearances at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC, and 30 years of annual concerts at Ford's Theatre, mixing standup comedy and song parodies that lampoon news of the day.  His source material ran from Gilbert and Sullivan or Broadway showtunes - sometimes even nursery rhymes- but always had a current hook and clever lyrical twist. 

Yet today he sees political humor that punches harder than his deft pokes and cerebral barbs. In an interview with WBFO on the eve of the Lincoln Medal ceremony, Russell said that over his career, he has seen political humor get slightly meaner, without the subtlety of humor.

Most modern comedians "just put it out there" and share opinions on current affairs he said, adding that  "They aren't asking the audience to do anything,"

The gala performance was attended by numerous dignitaries including: Senators Roy Blunt, John Cornyn, Deb  Rand Paul; House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy; Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Kuwaiti Ambassador Shaikh Salem Adullah Al-Jaber.

At the event, Trump said Russell is "somebody I used to watch a lot." He also congratulated the Powells for their work advocating public service and volunteerism. 

Trump also talked about attending the gala for years to come, hinting at his reelection in 2020.

"This is an event that we hope to be here, what do you figure? Another six times, right?" he said.

The event included performances by The Gatlin Brothers and Sierra Hull. The evening also included a  tribute to Scarlet and JT Lewis and to Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, families of children who died from gun violence at Sandy Hook Elementary and the Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre.

"Our annual gala is a celebration of Lincoln, his legacy and his love of the performing arts," said Paul R. Tetreault, director of Ford's Theatre Society. "For more than 50 years, Ford's Theatre has been a non-partisan gathering place where people with disparate points of view can come together and find common ground. "

The Annual Gala has traditionally been attended by representatives throughout the various branches of government and by each sitting president since Jimmy Carter.

"We do want to preserve this heritage and this center's treasured legacy," said Trump, who was accompanied by his wife, the gala's honorary chairwoman.

Watch President Trump's remarks, in video from the White House: