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Bringing Him to Life: All About the Benjamin

5 minute read
Joel Stein

Would he have wound up looking like this anyway? If Ralph Archbold hadn’t been talked into playing Ben Franklin in a local summer production in Dearborn, Mich., when he was a 31-year-old professional photographer who looked nothing like the man, would his head have gone bald in just this way? Would he have gained this much weight, needed bifocals and developed a bad hip that required a cane? Is it possible that a person can so identify with someone else that he morphs into his likeness?

When Archbold started doing Franklin in 1973, he immediately liked it. He liked being wise. He liked being funny. He liked that people listened to him. So he started reading every Franklin book he could find (more than 200 sit on his bookshelves) and quickly discovered that he was born on Franklin’s birthday (Jan. 17). Archbold began performing as Franklin in schools around the Middle West full time, and in 1981 he moved his business to where the market for Franklin is.

It took a little while for Philadelphia to accept a man who walks around in buckle shoes, white stockings, a frilly white shirt and a red vest, with a gold pocket watch and a postal bag adorned with a perfectly forged Franklin signature–just one of eight complete outfits–but it did. “My first day here, a bag lady looked at me and said, ‘Weirdo,'” Archbold says over breakfast at the Cosi sandwich shop after talking to one of the many homeless people who know him. “You have hit a new level of weirdo when a bag lady is calling you a weirdo.”

Since then, Archbold has become an institution. His face is on 11 tourist postcards and the official Philly tourist brochure, and he has performed for every President since Gerald Ford. He makes a handsome living by delivering several lectures a week to business conventions. When the city wanted to cut his funding for his free daily children’s programs–just three years before Franklin’s 300th birthday–Archbold knocked on some corporate and government doors and got the cash. It’s hard to say no to someone willing to dress up as a Founding Father in public.

So seven days a week at 11 a.m. (he usually gets there at 10:30), Archbold walks over to Franklin Court, where Franklin’s house once stood and a museum now does, sits on a bench under a mulberry tree as Franklin did and talks to people. Especially the womenfolk. This morning he uses the classic “If you ladies have any questions, the answer is yes.” Being Franklin is a whole lot more fun than being John Adams.

Even out of character, Archbold does well with the ladies. Tonight he has a date with a local historian. He says he plans to change into his street clothes before dinner, but last week, on a date with another woman, he showed up in the buckle shoes. He steps into his Subaru station wagon to call his date, since he doesn’t want Franklin to be seen in public with a cell phone. In addition to having the anachronistic phone, Archbold checks his e-mail regularly and has a website, ben1776.com “Despite what people may think, I don’t live in a place where I use only candles and have Colonial furniture,” he says.

At noon, after the mulberry-tree stint, Archbold meets up with J Nathan Bazzel, who plays Thomas Jefferson and, like Archbold, performs without makeup or a wig. He’s one of a cast of Colonial characters that work for Archbold, including a Betsy Ross, a George Washington, a William Penn and a Phillis Wheatley. “I was a bit surprised when he asked me to work for him,” says Bazzel. “How could I not, with his position?” Like Colonial Pied Pipers, Archbold and Bazzel organize 50 kids into a parade, which seems to consist mostly of yelling “Huzzah!” They are led by a fife-and-drum corps playing Yankee Doodle Dandy to a park where they receive military training from a Revolutionary War re-enactor. Then Archbold and Bazzel take off. “I don’t usually get involved with re-enactors,” Archbold says. “What I’m doing is a career, not a hobby.” He goes across the street to Carpenters’ Hall to check in on the woman who stages concerts six days a week on the instrument Franklin invented, the glass armonica. Archbold is pretty committed to historical accuracy.

Unlike the Cher and Michael Jackson impersonators in Vegas, who perform for the glamour, Archbold dresses up to create a community. Who wouldn’t want to be instantly liked, to tell the greatest of American stories, to teach history, to be paid to talk, to quote a thousand witty sayings that are both yours and not yours in just such a way that you can take pride in them without bragging? Wouldn’t even Ben Franklin himself trade buckle shoes with Ralph Archbold?

Log on to time.com to hear Archbold as Ben Franklin

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