Being Ben

Act­or Bill Rob­ling has been por­tray­ing one for the na­tion’s Found­ing Fath­ers for more than a dec­ade. 

As Ben Frank­lin: Act­or Bill Rob­ling por­trays Ben Frank­lin at the Phil­adelphia Prot­est­ant Home’s so­cial hall. He cas­u­ally dis­cusses his ex­per­i­ences as an ‘idea man’ and dresses au­then­tic­ally. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

There are no pho­tos of Ben­jamin Frank­lin, but there is a pretty funny 2010 pic­ture of act­or Bill Rob­ling as the Found­ing Fath­er play­ing an elec­tric gui­tar and en­ga­ging in hijinks with the Phil­lie Phanat­ic.

The top of a dugout at Cit­izens Bank Park is just one of the many spots where the 68-year-old act­or has por­trayed the 18th cen­tury in­vent­or, au­thor, print­er, busi­ness­man, sci­ent­ist, states­man, free­ma­son and dip­lo­mat dur­ing the past 11 years.

“I’ve done it in every ima­gin­able ven­ue,” Rob­ling said. “Schools, ob­vi­ously, seni­or cen­ters. I’ve also been Ben Frank­lin for the fifth an­niversary of a night club and eaten cheese steaks on Good Morn­ing Amer­ica.”

He’s made ap­pear­ances at trade shows, and Rob­ling said, he was Ben for a His­tory Chan­nel movie in 2004. He also reg­u­larly ap­pears in shows at In­de­pend­ence Hall.

“That’s the most fun I have,” he said dur­ing a June 19 phone in­ter­view.

Re­cently, Rob­ling brought Doc­tor Frank­lin (1706-1790) to life for two ap­pear­ances at the Phil­adelphia Prot­est­ant Home in Lawndale.

There is such a de­mand from such a vari­ety of or­gan­iz­a­tions, Rob­ling said, be­cause Frank­lin’s life has such broad ap­peal.

“I travel fre­quently,” do­ing work for the Amer­ic­an His­tor­ic­al Theatre in Phil­adelphia, which the Cen­ter City res­id­ent said has a whole stable of his­tor­ic­al in­ter­pret­ers. He said his ap­pear­ances at the Phil­adelphia Prot­est­ant Home were through the theat­er.

Rob­ling has a three-night-a-week sum­mer gig called “In­de­pend­ence After Hours.” Par­ti­cipants eat din­ner at the his­tor­ic City Tav­ern in Cen­ter City and then wander over to In­de­pend­ence Hall to “meet” John Adams, Thomas Jef­fer­son and Ben Frank­lin.

The PPH shows were spe­cial book­ings, Rob­ling said. He was there as part of a show­case for pro­spect­ive res­id­ents, he said.

Rob­ling re­cently brought  his in­ter­pret­a­tions of Ben Frank­lin to Erie, Pa., and Spring­field, Mass. He’s also taken Frank­lin to New Or­leans, Laredo, Texas and Fed­er­al Hall in New York.

“But a large chunk of my work is in Phil­adelphia,” he said. “This is Ben Frank­lin coun­try.”

Rob­ling has been work­ing as a pro­fes­sion­al act­or for 35 years, he said. He was do­ing a lot of work in the Bucks County area by the late 1980s. He said he began do­ing his­tor­ic­al in­ter­pret­a­tions and star­ted to do more and more of that kind of work in Phil­adelphia.

Por­tray­ing Frank­lin grew out of do­ing his­tor­ic­al in­ter­pret­a­tions, and has kept grow­ing. Rob­ling al­ways is pre­par­ing for the role.

“It’s con­stant study,” Rob­ling said. “I’ve logged thou­sands of hours, I’m sure, re­search­ing Ben­jamin Frank­lin’s life in his own writ­ings and the writ­ings of oth­ers.”

One of Rob­ling’s fa­vor­ite books about the Found­ing Fath­er is The Amer­ic­an­iz­a­tion of Ben­jamin Frank­lin by Gor­don Wood. The book shows Frank­lin as the ul­ti­mate Brit­ish cit­izen for 70 years of his life and his sub­sequent trans­form­a­tion in­to a rep­res­ent­at­ive of a new coun­try, Rob­ling said.

All the re­search is about keep­ing a his­tor­ic­al fig­ure as real as he can be.

“As an act­or, the best way to por­tray Ben­jamin Frank­lin is to try to think like Frank­lin and try to give more than a card­board im­pres­sion,” he said.

Rob­ling is just one of sev­er­al people in Phil­adelphia who por­tray Ben Frank­lin. The most re­cog­niz­able, he said, is act­or Ral­ph Arch­bold, who Rob­ling said has been in­ter­pret­ing Ben Frank­lin for 30 or 40 years. 

“He’s been do­ing it for a lot longer than I have, and I re­spect his work,” Rob­ling said.

Rob­ling takes his cos­tume very ser­i­ously.

“I dress as au­then­tic­ally as I pos­sibly can,” he said. “All my cloth­ing is made for me. … and I try to as closely as pos­sible re­semble the great man.”

Pho­to­graphy wasn’t part of life in the 18th cen­tury, so Rob­ling has re­lied on im­ages of Frank­lin he’s seen in paint­ings.

His re­search also has shown him that there are plenty of pop­u­lar mis­con­cep­tions about Frank­lin, Rob­ling said.

One is that dur­ing Frank­lin’s fam­ous ex­per­i­ment with a kite, a key and light­ning, the sci­ent­ist stood out in the middle of a field dur­ing an elec­tric­al storm. He didn’t, Rob­ling said. He was safely in a shed.

An­oth­er is that Frank­lin was an out­rageous wo­man­izer while he was min­is­ter to France from 1778 to 1785. Frank­lin was al­most 80 and of­ten in poor health when he was in France, Rob­ling said, and he was busy.

“But people like scan­dal,” he said.

On top of the un­true or ex­ag­ger­ated stor­ies about Frank­lin, Rob­ling said, there are plenty of things most people don’t seem to know about him. One, the act­or said, is that Frank­lin was one of the premi­er sci­ent­ists of his time. He left his busi­ness ca­reer at age 42 to pur­sue his stud­ies of elec­tri­city, Rob­ling said.

Many can re­call the witty and wise gems Frank­lin im­par­ted in his Poor Richard’s Al­man­ac, Rob­ling said.

“Hide not your tal­ents, for your use they were made. What good is a sun­di­al in the shade?” is one of the act­or’s fa­vor­ites. It cap­tures the man, Rob­ling said.

“He put him­self out there. He didn’t shrink from pro­mot­ing him­self and his abil­it­ies.” ••

Act­or Bill Rob­ling’s web­site is www.found­ing­frank­

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