By ANTHONY DeMATTEO
Preparing for his initial portrayal of St. Augustine's founder last November, Chaz Mena became so enthralled by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, he committed to a lifetime studying the historic figure.
Mena, the New York City actor who plays Judge Marc Montaldo on NBC's drama Law & Order, will portray Menendez again during the Feb. 27 Noche de Gala birthday celebration at The Lightner Museum.
Mena played Menendez -- whose birthday the gala celebrates -- last November in the opening of the "Legacies of La Florida" series sponsored by the city's 450th Commemoration Committee.
Mena has become an amateur historian on the first governor of Spanish Florida, in part, by reading his 16th-century letters to Spain's King Philip II.
"Menendez is important in a lot of ways: cartography, geography," Mena said. "He founded six settlements and is responsible for making the seas outside of Spain safer for commerce. I have accepted a lifelong commitment to learning about your city, the Menendez expedition and how it played out."
On Sunday afternoon, Mena arrived with a Key lime pie at the home of local seamstress Heidi Mosier, trying on the Menendez costume Mosier made for him.
He planned to bring the flan that she favors, but spent too much time practicing sword fighting Sunday to prepare it.
A museum artisan in the Spanish Quarter for almost 20 years, Mosier has been making costumes for local actors for three decades.
She made the Menendez gala costume with the red dagger medallion on its breast in her home, weaving its white collar and sleeve ruffs with her husband's tie rack she modified for the purpose.
"It feels great," Mena said of the new outfit, as Mosier tugged at the garment and quizzed him on its suitability in front of a mirrored armoire. "It's just a wonderful costume."
Mena's wife, Ileana, will attend the gala, playing a friend of Menendez, whose wife Maria did not travel to St. Augustine with him, Stuart said.
Similarities with Menendez
Mena said he and Menendez are similar in at least one way -- a love of family.
"He loved his wife and his kids," Mena said. "He lost his son Juan in Florida, in 1563. That is one reason he thought it important to accept the king's mandate to make the journey."
Menendez never found his lost son, who might have disappeared in Bahamian waters or been captured by natives, said Mena, adding Menendez rescued a group of Christians enslaved by natives in the search. Despite sorrow over the loss of his beloved "Juanino," Menendez continued his mission, settling Florida by different means than Spaniards who previously failed.
"The people of La Florida were not about to be conquered," said Mena, who credits his father Carlos with imparting lessons of his own heritage. "Menendez was going to persuade the founding Floridians into the fold and convince them to be faithful to the crown. And he succeeded. Many natives called him "big brother." That's a clear flight from what the more war-like Spaniards tried to do."
Gala tickets available
Tickets remain for the Feb. 27 gala. Each ticket is $185, which includes the show, a cocktail party, dancing, and a dinner catered by the Casa Monica Hotel. Tickets for the cocktail party alone are $50. Both can be purchased by calling 904-825-5088. Guests are asked to attend in "black-tie" outfits or 16th-Century attire.
The gala begins at 5 p.m. with Mena, as Menendez, leading a precession of about 100 reenactors to the Lightner Museum from the old City Gate. The area outside the museum will simultaneously bustle with gymnasts, fire-breathers, ribbon dancers and re-enactors, all free for public viewing.
The cocktail party will be in Lightner's third-floor ballroom from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Mena will sword fight with local experts Scott Brewer and Chad Light, sit at a head table at the dinner following the cocktail party and, Noche de Gala Director Melissa Stuart said, interact with guests and entertain in ways not yet revealed.
"I don't know what he has in mind," Stuart said of Mena. "He'll address the crowd above and interact with the colonists."