PERU — Most people know Jason Gornto as the choir teacher at Peru High School or a jazz musician playing drums or piano in different bands around town.
But Friday, Gornto wasn’t any of those things, and he was dressed to prove it.
His usually curly hair was slicked back. His glasses were gone. And instead of his normal casual attire, Gornto was wearing a white pinstriped suit buttoned in front with a red carnation pinned near his breast pocket.
That’s because Friday, Gornto wasn’t Gornto. He was none other than Peru’s famous hometown musical composer, Cole Porter, who wrote tunes such as “I Get I Kick Out of You” that have become standards in the Great American Songbook.
For the last four years, Gornto has portrayed Porter in Peru and also in places such as Wabash and Kokomo, where he tells stories of the composer’s freewheeling life while playing both famous and obscure songs he wrote in his decades-long career.
“There are so many songs that are available that people haven’t heard but are just fantastic musically and lyrically,” Gornto said.
He first took up the impersonation during an event at Mount Hope Cemetery in Peru, where locals dressed up like historical figures who are buried there and gave a presentation on their life. Porter was interred in the cemetery in 1964.
Gornto did such a great job with the portrayal that organizers with the Cole Porter Festival asked if he’d do it the following year for the event, and also throw in some of Porter’s music as well.
That’s just what Gornto did on Friday inside the Miami County Museum, where he performed Porter tunes on a piano that the composer played when he was a kid growing up in Miami County.
Behind the piano sat Porter’s black 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood, along with some of the furniture from his home, creating the perfect backdrop for Gornto’s impersonation.
That impersonation began with Gornto descending the stairs of the museum illuminated by a spotlight, standing erect with shoulders back, just like Porter would walk.
Speaking as the famous Broadway composer, Gornto relayed the story of his life — how he grew up privileged and wealthy in Peru before attending Yale and Harvard, where he switched his major from law to music.
Gornto seamlessly weaved in stories of some of his famous songs such as “Night and Day” before sitting at the piano and performing them for the sold-out crowd at the museum. In fact, the show called “Lunch with Mr. Porter” has become the most popular event at the festival.
Gornto said that taking on the role of Porter feels natural. Gornto grew up listening and playing the composer’s tunes, and he was well versed in his famous musicals such as “Kiss Me Kate” and “Anything Goes.”
“Growing up in Peru, it was hard to escape that,” Gornto said. “So I’ve always appreciated and been a fan of that time period and musicals in general. So to take that step to portray Cole Porter and his songs wasn’t difficult.”
It also wasn’t difficult to get into character. Gornto said all it takes is putting on the white suit and red carnation that became Porter’s signature style accessory.
“By the time I put on his suit and the red carnation that he always wore and do my hair in the style of the time, I’m pretty much ready to go,” he said. “It’s such a departure from what I would normally wear and the way I look that it helps quite a bit.”
Gornto said he’s studied Porter’s mannerisms by watching old TV interviews or his appearances at awards show. But Gornto said he’s not too concerned with perfectly personifying the composer. Instead, he focuses on telling Porter’s story in a fun, engaging way that the audience will enjoy.
“They’re not just hearing the music, but they’re hearing it in context of Cole’s life,” he said. “They’re learning something, they’re experiencing something and they’re interacting with that character. It’s much more immersive than just walking through a museum.”
Some of those stories Gornto highlighted Friday included how Porter was unceremoniously kicked out his home in Venice, Italy, after throwing a raging party. It didn’t help that the son of the city’s police chief attended.
Gornto also told the story of how Porter’s legs were crushed when a 1,000-pound horse fell on top of him. The incident left Porter with excruciating pain that drove him into a severe depression, during which he stopped writing music.
“Cole Porter’s life is so diverse and fascinating,” Gornto said. “It’s a little overwhelming to put all those details together. It’s hard to distill that down into an hour presentation. On the other hand, it does allow me to focus on something new every year.”
The event ended at around 12:30 p.m. Soon, Gornto was back in his usual street clothes and back to his life as a choir teacher and performer.
But for around an hour, he said, it was fun to put on the flamboyant and sometimes outrageous personality of one of America’s most famous and prolific songwriters who grew up just a few blocks away from the museum.
“Everything that Cole Porter did, he did 100% and with no boundaries, whether that was his music, his personal life or his party life,” Gornto said. “He lived with extreme gusto.”
The Cole Porter Festival continues through Sunday. For a full schedule of events, visit www.coleporterfestival.org.