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Alan Gephardt and Sonia Socha are portraying Francis Scott Key and his as Baltimore City celebrates Key writing the Star-Spangled Banner after seeing the Battle of Baltimore 200 years ago.
Alan Gephardt and Sonia Socha are portraying Francis Scott Key and his as Baltimore City celebrates Key writing the Star-Spangled Banner after seeing the Battle of Baltimore 200 years ago. (Staff photo by Larry Perl)

Mr. and Mrs. Francis Scott Key posed for pictures at the South Baltimore Learning Center on Friday.

Mr. Key wore a green tailcoat and waistcoat with tan pantaloons, a single-ruffle shirt, a white stock around his neck and black shoes. Mrs. Key, Mary Tayloe "Polly" Lloyd, wore a wide-brimmed hat with colorful feathers, a tan-and-blue "day dress" with a blue sash, and white gloves and a pearl necklace. In one hand, she carried a parasol; in the other, a reticule bag.

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They were gracious but rushed for time as they hurried off to Fort McHenry to greet the crowds in conjunction with Baltimore City's weeklong Sailabration, honoring Mr. Key on the 200th anniverary of his writing of the Star-Spangled Banner.

This weekend, on behalf of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, their scheduled appearances included Fort McHenry Village Center, the Pride of Baltimore ship and Rash Field.

The Keys have a wow factor.

"People see this clothing and they say, 'Wow,' and they want to take a photograph," Mr. Key explained.

In real life, Mr. and Mrs. Key are not a couple. Mr. Key is Alan Gephardt, of Hampden, an interpretive ranger for the National Park Service. Mrs. Key is Sonia Socha, a resident of White Marsh and executive director of the learning center, where they met up for the day's assignments,.

Both are unmarried.

"It works better that way," Socha quipped.

"It was only a fantasy," Gephardt said.

Gephardt, 58, has been portraying Mr. Key since his early 30s, when his former high teacher recruited him to play the anthemic poet at a historical re-enactment staged by the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce. Helping to put on the re-enactment was Socha, an event planner. It drew 2,000 attendees.

Performing as Key was a good fit for Gephardt, who loved theater and acting in high school while growing up in Edgemere, not far from the Battle of North Point in 1814, a run-up to the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

For Gephardt, one thing led to another, and one day, the Francis Scott Key Foundation in Washington called the Dundalk chamber, looking for someone to be Key at an event.

"We understand you have a Francis Scott Key," a representative said.

Socha tagged along with the nervous Gephardt "for moral support" and got roped into playing his wife. They started doing events together and imbued their roles with authenticity by researching the real couple's life at area historical societies, the Maryland State Archives and the Library of Congress.

By the early 1990s, they had become mock husband and wife in earnest, and have made dozens of joint appearances at events ranging from Defenders Day to opening day for the Frederick Keys baseball team, a Baltimore Orioles Advanced Class-A affiliate. The Keys are named for Key, who was born in Frederick County.

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Socha and Gephardt give speeches about the Keys' life and times from the late 1700s to the mid-1850s. They tell of how attorney and poet Francis Scott Key, imprisoned on a British war ship anchored four miles from Fort McHenry, despaired as bombs burst all night over Fort McHenry on Sept. 14, 1814. But upon seeing an American flag still waving at dawn, he was inspired to write the words that became our national anthem. Key died at 63 and his wife at 75.

At the end of his speeches, Gephardt reads aloud all four stanzas of the original poem that was later set to music, though only the first stanza is commonly sung today.

"All of that tells Key's story, what he saw and how he felt," Gephardt said.

Their appearances have waned in recent years, in part because Gephardt's job often takes him to Ohio, where he lives in the Cleveland area about half the year.

"How much longer we're going to do this is an open question," Gephardt said.

But this week, as an expected 1.5 million visitors descend on the Inner Harbor, Socha and Gephardt find themselves in high demand, which Gephardt said is as it should be.

"After all, it is Francis Scott Key who wrote the anthem," Gephardt said. "It's the one poem he's known for, the big hit."

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