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Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, March 2, 2000

Lee Stetson
Lee Stetson plays naturalist John Muir.

Playing John Muir
came naturally

By Cynthia Oi


FOR 15 years Lee Stetson has lived in a log cabin in Yosemite National Park, among sequoia groves, subalpine meadows, El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, Half Dome, ponderosa pines, mule deer, waterfalls and rivers.

He backpacks and hikes and generally communes with nature -- sort of like the man he portrays in shows for park visitors. He also gets paid to do it. Lucky guy.

Since 1983, Stetson has been transforming himself into John Muir, the naturalist who founded the Sierra Club and campaigned for the conservation of the American natural world.

He brings his one-man shows to Hawaii this weekend and next.


Bullet What: "Conversations with a Tramp," 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday. "The Spirit of John Muir," 7:30 p.m. March 10, 11; 4 p.m. March 12
Bullet Where: Hawaii Pacific University Theatre
Bullet Cost: $10, $7 seniors and military, $5 students
Bullet Call: 254-0853 or 261-7285

Stetson is not an unfamiliar figure in the islands. He was one of the founders of the Hawaii Performing Arts Company here in 1969 and appeared in dozens of productions through the early 1970s. He later moved to the mainland to pursue his profession.

It was the need to escape the urban rigors of Los Angeles that brought him to Muir.

"I was spending a lot of time in the backcountry in the Sierra Nevadas and a good friend sent me a biography of Muir. That's actually when I began studying him, his life and adventures," Stetson said.

Muir was a man with "passion, commitment and energy to protect the environment," he said. "He wrote so well and left so much material that I can manipulate into show ideas."

Stetson's first Muir work, "Conversation with a Tramp," was performed in 1983. Since then, he has put together three other Muir productions. Five days a week during the summer, he presents them to Yosemite Park visitors. During the park's off season, he takes the show on tour. The last time he brought his act to Hawaii was in 1985.

Performing as Muir daily hasn't gotten old, said Stetson.

"I would have thought many years ago that that would have been unacceptable in some ways," he said. "But I've found, much to my surprise, that it doesn't seem to annoy me as a constant presence in my life. I'm never bored with the character."

Alternating among the shows helps, but it is his fascination with Muir that keeps him going, that keeps him fresh, he said.

The performances also have given him freedom. The park programs take up half his year, and he earns enough to finance other projects.

Although his acting career hasn't been the Hollywood dream, Stetson, at 59, is content.

Six months ago, he moved from the log cabin he built himself in Yosemite to a new house he bought 30 miles away. "I needed to build equity," he said.

"I have managed to eat very well, to travel extensively. The shows have been well received everywhere we go. It's not bad."

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