For 15 years, Samuel “Michael” Salzberg was a courtly guide at the State Capitol and a costumed interpreter for the Minnesota Historical Society.
Thousands of visitors young and old took the loquacious tours that he gave with flair, replete with props and costumes used to portray characters from the past two centuries.
Salzberg, of St. Paul, died April 13 of a stroke. He was 63.
“He was an encyclopedia,” said fellow guide Kerry Forester, noting that Salzberg had a “remarkable” grasp of the Capitol’s history, architecture, commissioned art, politics and more.
A voracious reader of history and politics, he carried a tiny notebook in which he’d jot down interesting tidbits to share later, Forester and others said.
“He was a character,” said another site guide and good friend, Carol Reed. “Sometimes on the weekends, he would bring in a wooden train whistle and say, ‘Tour time! Tour time!’ He was quite knowledgeable. He loved it.”
Always learning, always confident in his guided tours, Salzberg was a beloved figure.
His favorite role came early each May, when, for Statehood Week at the Capitol, he would portray Dr. John Murphy, a delegate to the 1857 Minnesota Constitution Convention.
Salzberg would don a frock coat, top hat, cravat and white gloves. Brandishing a cane, he’d tell how the shape of Minnesota’s geographic boundaries would be drawn before it was declared the Union’s 32nd state on May 11, 1858.
“He would introduce himself, take off his gloves, and slowly he would describe the shape of the state,” said Reed, who made the costume.
“His tours were as much entertainment as factual. He had a New Jersey accent, and his voice would growl or purr, depending on what he was saying, for emphasis. He was fairly dramatic. There was a chivalry about him that was kind of old-fashioned.”
Born to Muriel Alexander and Herbert Salzberg in New York City, Michael grew up in Paterson, N.J. He graduated from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and earned a master’s degree in history from New York University.
Curious and persuasive, he became the manager of John Crouch Tobacconist, a store on the concourse of the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.
“His knowledge of political and military history allowed him to hold his own with generals, admirals and everyone who ran the military,” said Claudia Nicholson, his wife.
They had met in Arlington and married in 1986. Their only child, Marianne Salzberg, was born in 1989. Salzberg began to work retail at nights and became, as he liked to call himself, “Mr. Mom” during the day.
The family moved to Pierre, S.D., in 1990, and in 1997 arrived in St. Paul.
At the Capitol, he was one of about 20 guides and often resembled a Charles Dickens character, with his buzzworthy caps and button-down vests, fellow guides said.
“He was a classy man,” said Lori Gazda, who supervised Salzberg on weekends. “He was so very dapper. He dressed to the hilt every day.”
Each year around Halloween, Salzberg helped put on the Shadows and Spirits tour, which recreates the way the Capitol building looked in 1905. He played the part of a night watchman, wearing suspenders and a collarless shirt and carrying a lantern.
“He really enjoyed teaching the visitors … and he loved joking around with the elected representatives,” Nicholson said.
“He was really quite a fascinating man,” Reed said, “and I know my life will be less colorful without him in it.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Salzberg is survived by a sister, Julie Perlin of New York, N.Y. Services have been held.