With his horn-rimmed glasses, frilled white shirt, buckle shoes and friendly demeanor, the balding man who sits near Independence Hall nearly every morning appears to be a living reincarnation of the renowned colonial figure, Benjamin Franklin.
The intricate impersonation is so complete that every detail, down to the gold pocket watch, walking stick and limp, forces most onlookers to question whether the 18th century politician, inventor and author has indeed come back to life.
However, this is not a scene from Philadelphia's colonial past, and the Founding Father has not risen from the grave.
Despite his appearance, the seated man is not Franklin, but rather the renowned Franklin impersonator, Ralph Archbold, better known as the official "Ben Franklin of Philadelphia."
From appearances alone, it seems as if Archbold has been preparing to play the role of Franklin for his entire life. However, Archbold -- who worked as a professional photographer when he began impersonating Franklin 30 years ago -- had absolutely no intention of turning it into a career.
His first stint portraying the famous American was not in Philadelphia, but rather at a historic village in his home state of Michigan, where a friend asked him to volunteer to depict Franklin for an afternoon.
"I definitely didn't plan on this as my career path," Archbold says. "It started as a 10-minute speech which I was doing as a favor for a friend, and people loved it. It really just took off from there, and I kind of fell into it as a profession."
Since his first talk more than 30 years ago, Archbold has given more than 12,000 speeches in the character of Franklin, garnering a Council of Peers Award for Excellence, the National Speakers Association's highest honor. In addition, he is one of only 15 people to have been appointed to the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary Commission, which was established by President George W. Bush and Congress to oversee activities for Franklin's 300th birthday celebration in 2006.
Archbold is also recognized as Penn's official Ben Franklin and has spoken at several University events, including the 250th anniversary celebration.
Despite his initial limited knowledge of the statesman, over the years, Archbold has become somewhat of a self-described Franklin fanatic, currently boasting a collection of more than 200 biographies and other books about Franklin.
"I knew a little bit about Ben Franklin when I got started, but I really didn't know much," Archbold says. "But as I started reading more and more about him and learning about his life, I really developed a love for him."
After reading and learning so much about Franklin, Archbold has discovered several similarities between Franklin and himself that go beyond their nearly identical appearances. They share a similar sense of humor and even the same birthday, further convincing many observers that Archbold is Franklin's modern-day reincarnation.
"He dresses in period costume and even uses Franklin's words, which is very impressive because it shows he has a very broad knowledge of Franklin," says Penn History professor Sheldon Hackney, who has seen Archbold speak more than 50 times. "He is really enjoyable to watch, because he is very much in character and provides a very convincing impersonation."
Archbold has also adopted the statesman's broad expertise by speaking about a wide variety of topics to a range of audiences, reflecting Franklin's multifaceted interests and character.
Archbold's regular speaking programs touch on Franklin's connection to freedom, leadership in the face of change, achieving financial success and the spirit of cooperation and social service. However, he also speaks about Franklin's contributions to the fields of science, literature, history and diplomacy, allowing him to speak before a wide array of groups and organizations that have included everyone from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to Sesame Place.
"Ben Franklin really did such an amazing variety of things," Archbold says. "Figures like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson tend to be more one-dimensional, but Ben Franklin was a printer, scientist, writer, diplomat, publisher, inventor and postmaster, which really allows me to talk to everyone. He was so creative and so innovative that there's hardly an area that he wasn't involved in, which means almost every convention or meeting has some connection to Ben Franklin."
In addition to the versatility that permits him as Franklin to address such a wide variety of topics, Archbold notes that Franklin's historic legacy of benevolence, public service and amiable reputation contribute to both Franklin's enduring popularity and Archbold's resultant success.
"People just love Ben Franklin," Archbold says. "We have all grown up with an almost Disney-character image of him, which makes him a really good character to portray. Everyone just feels so comfortable with Ben Franklin that people look at me like an old friend. Their eyes really just light up when they see me."
According to Archbold, it is primarily the public adoration that has made his impersonation of Franklin so enjoyable over the years and has inspired him to make the act a career path rather than merely a hobby.
"Performing is great," Archbold says. "I love providing entertainment for people, and I really love what I do. If you can find something you like to do and can make a living out of it, then why not? That's what you should do."
According to onlookers, Archbold's love and passion for impersonating Franklin are clearly evident in his performances, leading audiences to enjoy not only the historic figure of Franklin, but also Archbold himself.
"I like him very much," Hackney says. "You can tell he loves what he does and he's good at it. There are a lot of historical impersonators out there, but I really think Mr. Archbold is one of the best."Comments powered by Disqus
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