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.foundingfranklin.com