Four years ago, during what was Ben Franklin’s tercentenary birthday celebration, U.S. Airways Magazine proclaimed that his many impersonators were nothing less than a cottage industry. The article highlighted 11 historic interpreters of Dr. Franklin in and around the City of Brotherly Love. Among them are locals Ralph Archbold (pictured right) and Rob Carroll.
Here, there and everywhere, these Bens share a passion for the past and for performance. But they also share the responsibility for representing perhaps America’s finest founding father. Media’s Archbold appears regularly at Franklin’s former home and in a “Breakfast with Ben” program at the Independence Visitor Center. He’s been on all the major networks, plus the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, ESPN, CNN, the Disney Channel and many other outlets. He’s been honored as the official Franklin portrayer for Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia, the “Franklin 200” and “We the People 200” celebrations, and the Franklin Institute.
Carroll, who resides in Newtown Square, works as a guide for American Heritage Tours. In 2003, he joined the staff at Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge as an instructor for its “Revolution in the Middle Atlantic States” graduate course. He’s appeared on Good Morning America, and you can also find him—as Rob—on stage with his band, ZootSuit.
In honor of Ben’s birthday on Jan. 17, Archbold and Carroll take our questions.
MLT: How do you train for your role?
RA: An extensive study of Franklin books and Franklin’s papers, but no formal training in acting. I spent eight years of interpretative training at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., under Joseph French.
RC: I first appeared on stage at the age of 5, but I’ve been a professional musician for nearly 30 years and a historic tour guide for 12 years.
MLT: How did you get your start as Franklin?
RA: At Greenfield Village in 1973. I did over 350 performances a year.
RC: I’ve worked with [fellow Franklin impersonator] Dean Bennett and Ralph for over 10 years, and told each of them my interest in taking up the Franklin mantle when they retire. Both encouraged me to start right then; they’ve been extremely supportive these couple of years.
MLT: What personal affinity do you have with Franklin?
RA: Ben and I actually share the same birthday (Jan. 17).
RC: We’re both products of self-education—Ben with his two years of education, and me with my 12. We both have the same love of reading.
MLT: Do you play any other characters?
RA: I don’t. Although, in the past, I did a number of characters in a dinner theater in Detroit. I married Linda Wilde, who often plays Betsy Ross, on July 3, 2008—we were both booked solid July 4. The event made international news.
RC: I’ve portrayed William Penn.
MLT: What do you consider your crowning achievements as Franklin?
RA: I was invited by President George W. Bush to be the sole performer in the East Wing for 200 VIP guests at a White House dinner in the East Room to honor Franklin’s 300th birthday. In 2006, the City of Philadelphia honored me with a tribute dinner at the Franklin Institute for my career as Ben Franklin. I also had the honor of being named by Congress and the president to the federal commission to oversee the Franklin Tercentenary.
RC: My trip to Russia. I was sent to Moscow and Volgograd by the U.S. State Department in the summer of 2006.
MLT: How will you spend Franklin’s birthday this month?
RA: Each year, a public celebration is hosted by the many organizations Franklin influenced in Philadelphia. There’s a parade of those groups from the Philosophical Society to Franklin’s grave, with the public joining in. It’s followed by a tribute luncheon at the Downtown Club, where I speak, representing Franklin.
RC: Hopefully running from one place to another, but I’ll find the time to offer a toast to the good doctor with a nice ale.
MLT: Is there anything about Franklin that few people know?
RA: There are, I’m sure, many things. But most people don’t know that he invented the first musical instrument by an American: the glass armonica.
RC: Ben’s birth date in the old-style calendar is Jan. 6, but I’d hesitate in referring to Jan. 17 as fictitious.
MLT: What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received as Franklin?
RA: Earning the top award in professional speaking—the Council of Peers Award of Excellence from the National Speakers Association, and my induction into the Speaker Hall of Fame, which recently presented me with its Legend of the Platform Award.
RC: At the end of one performance, a gentleman said, “I’m sure you hear this all of the time, but after a few minutes I really believed that you were Ben.” I hope it’s true, but I don’t hear it very often.
MLT: What is your favorite Franklin aphorism?
RA: “A true friend is the best possession.”
RC: “Would you not be forgotten, before you are dead and rotten, either write things worth the reading or do things worth the writing.”
MLT: What Franklin trait do you admire the most?
RA: His ability and willingness to learn from everyone.
RC: His knack for original thought—and the fact that he was thinking outside the box and multitasking centuries before the rest of the world.
MLT: What’s Franklin’s greatest contribution to America?
RA: His sense of humor and efforts to inspire others were important factors in the development of our young nation.
RC: I often end my programs with the suggestion that the United States of America itself is Ben’s greatest experiment, as well as his greatest invention. It’s an open-ended experiment that requires all of our participation—and it’s an invention we have the opportunity to continue to improve. In a practical sense, I’d have to go with his electrical experiments. He’s one of the first individuals to see a practical use for what was, at the time, a novelty.
MLT: What has portraying Franklin taught you?
RA: That “diligence is the mother of good luck.” I’ve developed material for presentations that works extremely well and seems to be appreciated by my audiences. But I always look at ways to be more effective, and new ways to help people enjoy a Franklin experience.
RC: The value of practical, rational thought, perseverance and, of course, hard work.
MLT: Is this area big enough for more than one Ben?
RA: You can’t have too much Franklin. I like the variety of the portrayals I see. This town has had many over the years. Each brings the public closer to this great man. I frequently recommend the best of these portrayers for jobs I can’t fit into my schedule. I’ve mentored several Franklin portrayers over the years, each lending their own unique perspective to this great man.
RC: I personally know—and think very highly of—Bill Ochester and Bill Robling. Along with Ralph and Dean, I know them to be absolutely sincere in their portrayals of Dr. Franklin, not to mention extremely well-read in their knowledge of Ben.
MLT: What’s the secret to successful historic re-enactment?
RA: Bringing the history to life without sounding like a textbook. To do that, you must love and respect the character you portray.
RC: No. 1 would be sincerity.
MLT: Have you ever been booed as Ben?
RA: No, everyone seems to love Ben.
MLT: Any close calls with electricity?
RA: No. But then, I don’t go out in thunderstorms with a kite, either. I was helping to host a golf tournament one time when Lee Trevino and I had to get off the course because lightning struck nearby.
RC: As Ben, no. For myself, I stay as far away as possible.
MLT: What’s your response when someone tells you to go fly a kite?
RA: That sounds like an interesting but dangerous idea. Would you like to hold the string?
RC: I tell them, “That was one and done”—that I’ve moved on to bigger and better things.
MLT: Any hair-care secrets?
RA: Mine seems to be leaving me. I wash it regularly and condition carefully.
RC: In my case, good genes.
MLT: How does your personal library compare to the noted one Franklin left behind?
RA: I have an extensive collection of Franklin books and have collected The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, published by Yale University.
RC: Moving into our new house last year forced me to organize my books for the first time in years. The count was over 800. Probably about half pertain to American history.
MLT: What should Franklin be most remembered for?
RA: His science, his business acumen, his wisdom in Poor Richard’s Almanac, and his philanthropy.
RC: As one of history’s great thinkers. Between his scientific ideas and his writing, he wasn’t afraid to explore original ideas.
MLT: What is your future as Franklin?
RA: You can’t get too old to portray Franklin. I’ve been fortunate to have a career that I love doing—one that allows me the opportunity to give people a real feeling of the wisdom of Franklin. Ben died at 84, so I have a lot of time left to share him with audiences. I like that he can be an inspiration to people after all these years.
RC: Hopefully, to grow old with the character—and learn a little more each day.
Years spent as Ben Franklin: 37
Number of appearances as Franklin per week: 6-10
Total number of appearances as Franklin: 18,000+
Years spent as Ben Franklin: 4
Number of appearances as Franklin per week: Varies
Total number of appearances as Franklin: 300+
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