- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006

PHILADELPHIA

“Aren’t you dead?”

It’s a fair enough question for Ben Franklin in 2006. And the answer — clear to anyone attending a convention or visiting the historic sites here — is that not only is Franklin alive, he’s been cloned. Several times.

Being Franklin is always big business in Philadelphia. But the city’s yearlong celebration of the Founding Father’s 300th birthday has created a huge demand for the small cadre of people who portray him.

Backstage at one recent convention, Ben Franklin could be found with a cell phone to his ear, making notes in his appointment book.

Yes, he said somewhat wearily, he can make the afternoon tea. But is it all right if he comes late to the breakfast? He’d really like that extra half-hour of sleep.

Such tight scheduling is not uncommon for Ralph Archbold, perhaps the city’s best-known Franklin, who does around 500 events a year. Things are especially hectic now, with some three dozen appearances planned in the 10 days before Ben’s birthday bash on Tuesday at the National Constitution Center.

But there’s always a role for Franklin here — whether it’s talking to tourists, cutting ribbons, giving lectures, filming documentaries or visiting local schools.

At first, youngsters aren’t sure what to make of the bespectacled gentleman with the waistcoat and cane, said Bill Robling, who has played Franklin for about four years.

“Aren’t you dead?” they ask.

Meanwhile, adults who meet Franklin at Independence Hall are equally blunt in their inquiries about the famous flirt’s sex life. Mr. Robling doesn’t mind those types of questions, since they provide an opening for him to discuss other aspects of Franklin’s life — which is why he plays the role.

“Being Ben Franklin in his own words, in his own spaces, is probably as rewarding as anything,” said Robling, 61. “Plus, I love to educate people.”

Another impersonator, Bill Ochester, said he’s always glad to see how those who are initially skeptical of his portrayal end up being fascinated by the conversation they have with his character.

“If I continue to play the role … you’d be amazed how much they buy into it,” said Mr. Ochester, 55.

Of course, the costume helps. Mr. Ochester, who also participates in Revolutionary War re-enactments, wears specially made replicas of 18th-century clothing and shoes. Mr. Robling wears a custom-made wig. And Mr. Archbold, who coincidentally turns 64 on Franklin’s birthday, even has business cards based on the 1781 design of the patriot’s calling card.

But they do more than dress the part. They have all read extensively about their alter ego, and keep up with the latest research.

With so much material from which to draw, each can put his own stamp on the portrayal.

“All of us bring a different personality, a different approach,” Mr. Robling said. “We’ve all come from different backgrounds.”

Mr. Archbold, for example, was an industrial photographer before accidentally falling into the role 32 years ago; Mr. Ochester was a physician’s assistant in cardiothoracic surgery; and Mr. Robling has been an actor for more than 30 years. Other Franklin portrayers come from equally disparate experiences.

They don’t really talk about how much they get paid. And while they acknowledge some competition, the market seems to be big enough for all of them.

In fact, Philadelphia isn’t the only market for Franklin — he can also be found in Boston, the city where he was born, though in that Cradle of Liberty he’s overshadowed by fellow revolutionaries Paul Revere and Samuel Adams.

Mr. Robling said if there’s ever a need for more Franklins in Boston, he’d be interested in reprising his role: “Have wig, will travel.”

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