Author, as told to
In the latest installment of Hopes&Fears’ anonymous interview series, we talk to a neighborhood fixture who gets into character as Ben Franklin for a living.
I like to describe what I do as a first-person interpreter of Benjamin Franklin. I prefer the term “interpreter” to “impersonator.” “Interpreter” is a nicer way to phrase it. “Impersonator” just sounds like imposter.
I’ve finally found a career in which being fat and bald helps, whereas the rest of Americans dye their hair and diet to stay thin so they can “look their best” on the job. Ten years ago, I was raising three teenagers alone. We were at the Thanksgiving table with my mother, and I must have looked pretty disheveled. She said, “Get a haircut, you look like Ben Franklin.” At age 50, I couldn’t exactly keep listening to my mother. And, besides, it beats looking like Stalin.
I had something of an epiphany right then and there: I could try my hand at doing this for a living. I researched Ben Franklin for a year and thought I was 50% of the way through it. I still do research into his life and work every day, and I still feel like I’m only 50% there. He touched so many documents and so many lives. The full scope his influence on American history and politics cannot be underestimated.
“They won’t let me
bring my horse”
Like I said, I’m a first-person interpreter. Depending on who hires me, I may interpret a moment in time, say, July 1, 1776, staying in character the entire time. It’s a difficult craft. One thing I don’t like about it is that people want to compare and contrast everything to modern times. I can tell you where Ben Franklin was almost every day in 1776. It’s not that hard. But if you stay in that day, you don’t have the ability to move forward in time. People often ask me trap questions like, “What do you think of Obama in the White House?” If you’re an interpreter, you can’t say anything that deviates from your timeline. The way I’ve gotten around this is saying that I’ve time-traveled forward. It gives me some flexibility. However, I don’t believe in “channeling”—which is taking a person and making them your own. I want my audience to suspend their disbelief and feel as though they are truly with Ben Franklin. I can get about 70% of people to do that, and most of them are women. For whatever reason, they want to believe that they are in that room with him, just like they want to inhabit the film or book they’re reading. Men are intrigued, but tend to be the ones who challenge me. It’s a competition of sorts. “No, this guy can’t possibly make his living from dressing up like Ben Franklin. What do you really do?” Fair enough.
I also work in the commercial real estate business—though I dress a little nicer for that job. People are always curious about my costume. It takes me about 90 seconds to get ready. I’m like a fireman coming down the pole. It’s very simple: pants with suspenders, high socks, and regular shoes. I can tell you that the costume is hot. Really hot. How do I deal with the heat? I perspire. For certain events, I take a plus-one, or a handler, and they keep me hydrated throughout the day. I don’t wear any makeup. I’m naturally this good looking. I don’t feel any animosity toward the competition. There’s one excellent interpreter, a very gifted actor, but he wears a wig. That kind of ruins it for me. It’s like that Seinfeld episode where the short guy, Mickey, wore lifts. It’s an illusion. I just naturally happen to look like Ben. Plus, I’m funny and remember a lot of stupid trivia. I’m also known as the bicycling Ben Franklin. My joke is: “They won’t let me bring my horse here.”
in popular culture
Author, theorist, scientist, inventor, statesman, orator and all-around polymath, Benjamin Franklin (1705-1790) is best known as one of America's founding fathers. Here are some of the most memorable instances of the man in film, television, theater, literature and... video games.
— 1904: The male lead in Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly is named Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton in homage to the politician.
— 1997: Franklin is a character in Thomas Pynchon's novel Mason & Dixon.
— 1999: Child actors Dylan and Cole Sprouse portray Ben Franklin in a school play in the Adam Sandler comedy Big Daddy.
— 2002: In the PBS cartoon Liberty Kids, Franklin is voiced by veteran reporter Walter Cronkite.
— 2004: In the heist film National Treasure and its 2007 sequel, Nicholas Cage plays a fictional historian and treasure hunter named Benjamin Franklin Gates.
— 2004: Franklin and his famous kite experiment are a playable feature in the video game Tony Hawk's Underground 2.
— 2007: In "Ben Franklin," the fifteenth episode of season three of The Office, a Ben Franklin impersonator is hired for a company party.
— 2008: In the HBO miniseries John Adams, Franklin is portayed by Tom Wilkinson.
no eye contact
Interestingly enough, I went to Franklin & Marshall College. Ben’s presence is ubiquitous there. There’s a statue of him in every hall. So, I’ve always thought about him in some way. He was a very clever guy. That’s what I like the most. He was also a master of hoaxes, which I think is very funny. I don’t flatter myself to pretend I’m as smart as him, but he looked at a lot of things in life very differently. Ben came to Philadelphia at 17. I came to Pennsylvania at 17. He went to London at 19. I went to London at 19. He had three children, I have three children. And there are about ten more similarities between us like that. I’m not suggesting there’s a supernatural element at play here, but the comparisons are fascinating. You’re not getting a bit of “Ben” right now. This is me, in and out of the costume. I’m not a shy guy.
I don’t have a formal background in history or politics, but I have an avid interest in the current political landscape. All politics are local. I was loosely involved with the Kenney election in Philadelphia. I can tell you who’s who around the city. I’ve been hired to interpret Ben for Prince Albert II of Monaco before, whose mother, Grace Kelly, was from Philadelphia. Before meeting him, they sent me a two-page list of protocols: refer to the Prince as “Your Royal Highness,” no profanity, a single handshake, don’t touch him, minimize eye contact. When we were finally introduced I said, “I was the first ambassador from America to Europe. But I’m not the most beloved ambassador. Your mother was.” He started getting a little tear in his eye. I continued: “But I gotta tell you, we’re very upset with your country.”
At this point, everyone is looking at me wondering what the hell I’m going to say. “You’re stealing all of our beautiful women. We’re going to have to put a tariff on beautiful women going to Monaco,” I said, referring to the ambassador’s wife who is from America. Everyone laughed. By the end of the night, the Prince told me he liked me. “I like you, too, Your Royal Highness,” I said. And he replied, “Albie.”
Philadelphia in 1790
— When Ben Franklin died in 1790, the city of brotherly love was the nation’s temporary capital, a post it held until 1800.
— in 1790, the first federal census put the population of the city and its suburbs at 44,096, making it the most populous in the nation.
— That decade, the city grew at a staggering rate of more than 4% despite high death rates.
— In a span of ten years, a yellow fever epidemic was responsible for 9,000 deaths.
— Throughout the decade, roughly 23,000 people landed in the city port. Most came from Ireland and what is now Germany. Many were also fleeing revolutions in France and present-day Haiti.
— Between 1790 and 1800, the population of African Americans tripled from 2,150 (5%) to 6,436 (9%). Many were formers slaves who had freed themselves.
There’s no real evidence of Ben Franklin’s participation in the Hellfire Club, which was basically a network of swingers’ clubs in Britain. The question I get asked the most is about his time in Paris. He was a widower then, 70 years old, and wasn’t in perfect health. Any woman in France could outrun him. I think women liked him because he was non-threatening. It wasn’t like he was going to take advantage of them. He was an old man who was charming and fun to be around. He had a wealth of knowledge, the gift of the gab and a reputation that preceded him. The combination proved irresistable. Women find me much more attractive than they would if I wasn’t in costume. There are some women who are infatuated by it.
My favorite story, and one I often get asked about, is regarding the bathtub scene in Tom Hooper’s HBO miniseries, John Adams. Adams walks in on Ben Franklin soaking in a bathtub with Madame Helvétius, who maintained a famous salon in France. They’re playing chess. But the truth of the matter is that the aristocracy bathed maybe once or twice a month. A lot of people got married in June, because they had just bathed. This is why perfumes are so strong in France.
Franklin did, indeed, play chess with her all day while she was in the tub. Her first lady would come in and pour more hot water to keep the bath warm. When he traveled home, he sent her a note by courier that said something like, “I’m sorry I didn’t play very good chess today. I had trouble maintaining eye contact.” I consider that the first instant message.
You’ve got mail
No one uses AOL anymore, but that’s the email I know how to work. I like to say, “It’s got America in it. If you’re going to talk badly about America, we’ve got nothing else to say to each other.” I still read the newspaper. It’s a habit. I like the way you can move through it and that I can take it with me. I’m a pretty voracious reader and stay up to date on current events. With a newspaper, I can flip through the ads. Online, there are ads everywhere, and I’m always trying to figure out how to escape them. I came up in a time when there was a little company called IBM. There was a pregnant pause in our communication.
With today’s technology, there’s no such reprieve available. You can’t blame something being late on the fax machine or the text message. Everything is instantaneous. As a result, human relations have paradoxically only become more noncomittal. I think that’s a particular problem for men. We want instant gratification in every aspect of our lives, whether it’s information, communication or sex. In Ben Franklin’s time, negotiations took weeks—seven, sometimes eight weeks, to send a document to America, and six weeks or more for someone to send it back. That letter is three months old by the end of it all.
— In 2014, the population of Philadelphia county was estimated at 1,560,297.
— From 2010 to 2012, the population has grown at a rate of 2.2%.
— In 2005, the city's leading cause of death was heart disease, responsible for 27% of the 15,459 mortalities.
— Between 2009 and 2013, about 12.2% of the population was foreign born and 21.5% spoke a language other than English at home.
— Today, African Americans make up 44.2% of the population of Philadelphia county, while women account for 52.7% and people under 18, 22.2%.
The declaration of
I HAVEN’T BEEN ABLE to make a full-time living as Ben Franklin, but eventually that’s the goal. Anything that has “Ben” in it, I send a little note that says, “Wouldn’t you like to put a little ‘Ben’ in your ‘Beneficial.’ Wouldn’t you like to put a little ‘Ben’ in your ‘Benefiber.’” I do the same thing with “Franklin.” My mailing list goes out once a month, and I handle everything on my own. I get about five gigs out of each one, which is a lot. If I send out a Father’s Day email, for example, with quotes about something like paternity, I receive a lot of thank yous.
Fourth of July is surprisingly not my busiest day of the year. I work about 120 times a year, averaging 10 times a month. My daughter got married recently, and I turned down about four gigs for that. The big question from everyone was, “Did Ben Franklin make an appearance?” And the answer was, “No.”
I try to interpret Ben three to five times a month for charity. I’ve done a lot for the gay and lesbian community. I’m almost a mascot for them. My oldest son is gay, and I have no problem with it. It’s a cause I believe in.
My average gig is two hours. Generally, it includes a speech, which is basically the same for everybody, but I modify it according to my audience. People want to hear about the same thing: leadership, compromise, and teamwork. Occasionally I find a different fact or quote that is compelling. For instance, he didn’t want to call it the Declaration of Independence, he wanted to call it the Declaration of Dependence—because it was 12 colonies dependent upon one another.
One of my hard and fast rules is that I don’t drink when I’m working. If I’m at a cocktail party, I may raise a glass of wine to toast, but I’ll never have a cocktail. I’m working for somebody else at that point. If someone was in my office working for me, I wouldn’t want them boozing it up.
People sometimes try to offer me things instead of giving me money. I was once asked to do a bachelor party for a tattoo artist, and he asked if he could pay me in tattoos. At 61, I’m not really a tattoo guy. Recently, I had to turn down a label of gin. The company offered to pay me in kind. I said, “Why don’t you just make up a big container, and I could put my liver in it when I’m done.” All three of my kids said, “Dad, we would have taken it.”
The Nazis, the Taliban
and Mets fans
Sometimes people do crazy things when they see me out and about. I worked one Fourth of July by Independence Hall. The Phillies were playing that day. All these rowdy New York Mets fans were there. They were literally climbing on me. I looked at them and said, “I’ve spoken to Nostradamus. He told me in the future, I’d have to worry about three groups: the Nazis, the Taliban, and Mets fans.”
Everybody always thinks they’ll be the one to dig up new material on Ben. There’s a rumor out there about whether he was a mass murderer or not. When they rehabbed his London home, they found skeletons buried in the basement. Polly Stevens, Franklin’s friend and the daughter of his London landlady, was married to the surgeon William Hewson. The bones probably came from his autopsies. It’s all speculation.
Did Ben Franklin really say, “Beer is God’s way of showing us he loves us?” Or, did he in fact say, “Wine is God’s way of showing us he loves us?” It’s not material to me. He was a pretty cool guy—almost a prophet in some ways.