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Feeling inspired to get in touch with Philly’s history? Get to know Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross even more by visiting the Ben Franklin Museum and the Betsy Ross House.

Benjamin Franklin Museum
317 Chestnut St.
Philadephia, Pa., 19106
215 965-2305

Betsy Ross House
239 Arch St. 19106
Philadelphia, Pa.,
215 686-1254

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Weekend Read: “No one replaces Benjamin Franklin”

Betsy Ross. Franklin. Even Rocky Balboa. A student of legendary journalist and Penn teacher Buzz Bissinger explores the world of Philly’s history icons

Weekend Read: “No one replaces Benjamin Franklin”

Betsy Ross. Franklin. Even Rocky Balboa. A student of legendary journalist and Penn teacher Buzz Bissinger explores the world of Philly’s history icons

Few people today think twice about laundry. But in the dimly-lit cellar of the Betsy Ross House in Old City Philadelphia, tourists eagerly huddle around Tasha Holmes as if they are ready to hear ghost stories at a campfire. Donning a bonnet, blue linen dress, and white apron, the 31-year-old actress interprets Phillis, a freed slave who works as Ross’ laundress.

“Remember to use this to get stains out,” Holmes says as she extends a beaker of vivid yellow liquid out to her audience.

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“That’s urine!”

“You don’t use urine when washing your clothes?” Holmes knits her eyebrows together.

Most people in the group sheepishly smile and casually avert their gaze towards other parts of the exhibit. Yet Christina Torres, who traveled with her teenage son from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, is fully engaged in the argument.

“How can you clean your clothes with something dirty? And what about the smell?”

“Well it tis your own!”

“I don’t think I could pee that much to do all my laundry.”

“Well, how often do you wash your clothes?”

“Oh every three days or so.”

Holmes gasps. “Surely your clothes cannot be that dirty?!”

“I get goose bumps all the time as I’m walking in this house,” Torres says about the Betsy Ross House. “You really feel like you are back in history.”

Sitting upon her small wooden stool in the center of the cellar, surrounded by buckets of water and bars of lye soap, Holmes is paid not to break character or shed any glimmers of knowledge about modern devices like laundry machines. Yet for Torres, the intense disbelief, the way her voice rises to a near shout as she debates the merits of urine versus bleach, is her genuine reaction. She visited the Constitution Center, Independence Hall, and Liberty Bell earlier that day, but nothing got her heart pounding more than this moment talking to a historical figure.

“I get goose bumps all the time as I’m walking in this house,” Torres says about the Betsy Ross House. “You really feel like you are back in history.”

Photo by Jeff Fusco

It is no accident the experience feels authentic. Before becoming a “Betsy” or a “Phillis,” each interpreter participates in an eight-week training program where they study their character’s life, the politics of the 18th century, and the Quaker faith. As the museum’s longest performer—this marks her 15th year—Carol Spacht developed the training program, and says it takes about two years of working to master the role. In between interacting with visitors, the women sew curtains and bedding for the house. All of this is done in stays—the 18th century corset—in order to replicate the body language of women at the time.

Interpreting history is often a thankless job. Freezing in the winter and sweating in the summer in the same linen costumes. Getting grilled by ignorant or cynical tourists wanting to throw you off guard. Being dismissed as a mere mascot despite the hours spent studying and practicing. Though Holmes complains the “stays mash her breasts together” she, like all interpreters, feels an obligation to portray her character and Philadelphia right. Because for every bad tourist, there is a curious, passionate one like Torres who makes it all worth it.

“Most people ask one question about laundry, and ‘Where do I go next?’ ” Holmes says. “That’s why when I have those moments, I find them precious.”

Philadelphia is a history buff’s dream. In the Historic District lies the house where the Founding Fathers signed the Constitution, the cemetery where their bodies lay, and the cellar where the first American flag was stitched by candlelight. Yet to the general public, history can feel more like “a daytime activity” or an “obligation” as Meryl Levitz, founding president and former CEO of Visit Philadelphia puts it. In the city’s economic depression, not even the country’s biggest names like Benjamin Franklin or George Washington could bring tourists to its streets.

In 1996, Levitz helped start Visit Philadelphia after being recruited by then Mayor Ed Rendell. She and her team had three years to remarket and rebrand the Greater Philadelphia area as a worthwhile, vibrant tourist destination when declining industry yet rising crime meant no one wanted to spend more than a few hours in the city. By treating Philadelphia as a new product and “promoting the hell out of it,” the organization surpassed their goals in those first three years and became a permanent fixture. Twenty-two years later, the region welcomed a record 43.3 million visitors in 2017, generating $7.1 billion, according to the organization’s annual report.

“There are four things visitors look at when they come to a new city,” Levitz says. “The sky, the ground, the water, and the people.”

During the city’s ambitious revival in the 1990s, Levitz and other leaders tackled these four areas. The sky? Built in 1987, Liberty Place broke past the height of City Hall, ushering new buildings to do the same and finally give Philadelphia a signature skyline. The ground? New sidewalk cafes and parks created spaces for people to hangout outdoors. The water? Levitz expanded Penn’s Landing to give better access to the rivers surrounding the city. And in the Historic District, Rendell decided to use Philly’s impressive heritage to its advantage. With an executive order in 1994, the mayor started Historic Philadelphia, Inc., a nonprofit that organizes reenactments of battles, pub crawls to old drinking holes, and late night dinners in Independence Hall where tourists can rub shoulders with Founding Fathers. Slowly yet surely, one could see people out and about in Philadelphia, including America’s most famous historical figures. History lost its curfew.

In an infamous commercial created by Visit Philadelphia in 2016, a Godzilla-sized Benjamin Franklin fights a Godzilla-sized Philly Cheesesteak between the skyscrapers of Center City. As Franklin shoots lightening and the hoagie squirts cheese wiz, two horrified tourists ask what’s going on. The commercial ends on the line, “Oh those two? They’re always fighting for attention.”

That is not an exaggeration. Ward Larkin, the 64-year-old that played Franklin in the commercial, is a self-branding genius who has made a 14-year career of out interpreting Franklin. It is not enough to post photos of his events and appearances on Facebook; Larkin has strategized to manage several Facebook accounts under Franklin’s name to reach as many people as possible. Every morning he spends about an hour researching and posting another one of Franklin’s iconic quotes across his profiles. Later that night he takes another hour to reply to comments. If you are on his email list, you will regularly receive promotional blasts to hire him for your next event. His efforts pay off; Larkin says he does about 150 events a year, having done everything from greeting Prince Rainier III at the White House to greeting newlyweds.

J. Ward Larkin as Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia

Yet he owes the original idea to his mother.

“I was raising three teenagers on my own, and I must have looked disheveled,” Larkin says. “I was sitting at the Thanksgiving table with my parents, and my mother says to me, ‘Get a haircut. You look like Ben Franklin.’ ”

Then 50, Larkin toyed with the idea and spent about a year researching the historical figure before taking on his first job. Now he embraces his white matted curls that hang like a curtain. As he sits in the black and white lobby of the luxury Touraine apartments, Larkin looks a bit like an anachronism. His haircut and rounded reading glasses feel antiquated while his sweatpants are modernly casual. It is not rare for him to fall into passionate first person—using “I” to refer to Franklin—when describing the Founding Father’s attitudes, beliefs, and decisions.

“I don’t wake up in the morning thinking I’m Ben Franklin. But there is a certain channeling. He had three kids, two boys and a girl. I have three kids, two boys and a girl. He had gout. I have gout. He came to Pennsylvania at 17. I came to Pennsylvania at 17.”

“I was raising three teenagers on my own, and I must have looked disheveled,” Larkin says. “I was sitting at the Thanksgiving table with my parents, and my mother says to me, ‘Get a haircut. You look like Ben Franklin.’ ”

Larkin chooses to interpret Franklin as if the man has time-traveled to the future, meaning he is not afraid to comment on current events or politics. Likening himself to a standup comedian, he has an arsenal of one-liners that he uses on rotation.

“I was told I was going to time travel to get here. And they told me I would like where I am going. So I said, Paris? And they said no. So I said my beloved London? And they said no. And here I am in Philadelphia.”

A beat.

“This crowd is much better looking. Usually I arrive to pirates.”

Tonight, a bride has hired “Franklin” to surprise her history-loving husband at their wedding reception at the local Evil Genius Beer Company. Checking the time on his iPhone, Larkin cuts the interview short and peels his enormous body off the navy arm chair to go change into character.

“It’s easier to put on than a business suit,” Larkin says of his costume. “I’m like a fireman down the pole.”

Sure enough, Larkin enters the elevator in sweats and shortly returns in the whole formal getup: buckled shoes, stockings, breeches, waistcoat, shirt, cravat, and his long burgundy coat with the gold buttons. He also has a bicycle in tow to make the four-mile trek to the tasting room in Fishtown.

“It gets attention,” Larkin says of biking, his go-to form of transportation. “But I also like to think Ben would be green.”

What would Franklin do is a question Bill Robling asks himself on a daily basis. Like Larkin, the 74-year-old fell into historical interpretation after enough people told the former actor he should give Franklin a try. Previously, he took on various acting gigs while working day jobs at schools, department stores, and the United States Postal Service. When he moved from New Jersey to Philadelphia 18 years ago, he finally had the time to thoroughly study the man and his times. Robling stresses that with this ongoing self-education, he is an interpreter of history, not an impersonator, comedian, or a mascot.

Bill Robling dressed as Benjamin Franklin at the Benjamin Franklin House in London

“Look, it’s not Halloween. I’m not trying to dress up. This is a specific way of trying to educate and put myself inside that person as much as possible, and no, I don’t really think that’s who I am.”

To make this distinction clear, Robling does not treat the Historic District like Times Square, wandering the streets in hopes that someone asks for a picture; rather, he partners with Historic Philadelphia, Inc. to do tours, dinners, and public speaking.

That does not stop the selfie requests, though. As he leaves the Free Quaker Meeting House, the little red building on Fifth and Arch where the interpreters meet and change before gigs, a group of visiting students spot him from across the street.  

“HEY FRANKLIN!” A girl screams.

But Robling keeps on walking. Further down Fifth, an older woman perks up when she recognizes the long hair and fur hat.

“There’s a lot of Ben Franklins out there, but the one thing about Bill is that when his call time starts, Bill is gone. He stays in character the entire time,” Kunda says. “If Ben Franklin was alive, he would endorse Bill.”

“Where are you going Ben?” She asks.

Robling points ahead with his cane. “The Bourse!” The recently renovated food hall in Philadelphia’s Historic District hired him for its grand opening on Nov. 16, 2018. As Robling climbs up the building’s steps, knowing smiles spread on security guards’ faces as they recognize the city’s iconic ambassador. They exchange warm hellos as if Franklin was everyone’s longtime friend. A young woman quickly ushers Robling into a side room to give a rundown of the day’s schedule.

“Yo!” Hollers Mike Kunda from inside the room, landing a soft punch into Robling’s right arm. “How ya doin’?”

Dressed in a black fedora, leather jacket, and slacks, the 49-year-old Scranton native has imitated Rocky Balboa since he fell in love with the movie at 10. Already as a kid, he wore the same ionic outfit and as an adult, he and his wife spent years scouting out where scenes from the movies were filmed in Philadelphia. But it was not until he won a nation-wide Balboa-look-alike contest in 2006 that he decided to make a career out of impersonating the boxer. The half-Italian has gotten the character down so well that Sylvester Stallone endorsed the impersonator himself. This is not the first time Kunda and Robling have been booked to work events together, and as the two wait for their call times, they recall some of their worst gigs.

“I hate working with mascots. You don’t know when was the last time they washed their costume,” Robling says of the Philly Phanatic. “But the worst act I have ever done was working Donald Trump’s birthday party. He looked at me like I had dog shit on my face.”

Both Robling and Kunda are at the point in their careers where they feel comfortable turning down offers they are not passionate about or cannot stand behind. With a job that relies heavily on word of mouth recommendations, they know their reputation, including the type of events they work, is everything.

“There’s a lot of Ben Franklins out there, but the one thing about Bill is that when his call time starts, Bill is gone. He stays in character the entire time,” Kunda says. “If Ben Franklin was alive, he would endorse Bill.”

Bill Robling as Benjamin Franklin at the Benjamin Franklin Museum

The competition does not faze Robling. He will even swap gigs with a few of the other Franklin interpreters if his schedule does not work out. And when it comes to those interpreters that do not take the position as seriously? Robling does not “pay them any mind.” He just focuses on showing up on time, giving his best performance, and trusting the next job will come.

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“[Getting recognized as an interpreter] doesn’t happen overnight. You have to keep your humility, and you can’t be arrogant,” Robling says. “You just do your homework and do your job.”

At 3 p.m., it is time for Kunda and Robling to get to work. Braving the cruel wind chill, the pair steps outside to greet customers coming in and out of the Bourse. Kunda swaggers atop the steps in his slow gait, occasionally throwing a few punches into the air and cracking his knuckles. Robling leans nobly on his cane. The husky sound of, “Yo!” intersperses with a crisp, “Good day!”

“We are not curing cancer—I get that,” Kunda says. “But I see myself as an ambassador of the city. I gotta give them that Philly flavor.”

The crowd can be tough. Most people only shyly smile and keep on walking. One woman silently swoops in, takes a selfie with Robling, and leaves without saying a word. But then there are those who actually engage. A young family of five tells Robling they are from Oklahoma—he returns a confused look and asks where that is. Another group of elders cannot stop with the questions.

“Where are you buried? We thought we saw your grave earlier today.”

“Oh that thing?” Robling says. “That’s my wife’s grave. I’ll get buried alongside her when I die.”

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After 20 minutes or so, Robling’s thermal underwear isn’t enough to keep him warm under his costume. “Want to go inside?” he asks Kunda. Kunda shakes his fedora yes in relief. The pair decides to split up and make the rounds in the opposite direction. Wading through crowds of hungry diners who came to try a new turmeric latte rather than interact with historical figures can be slightly awkward for both sides.  

“Sometimes I feel like I’m sitting at a cubicle cold calling customers,” Kunda says. “You have to know how to interrupt people. How long to talk to them.”

The most challenging part of the role is they never know what a person will say. Questions range anywhere from ignorant (“Someone once asked me if I was Christopher Columbus”), tricky, insulating, and increasingly, political. More and more people want to know what Franklin thinks of President Trump.  

“I say the only president I know is George Washington, and he’s a fine one. I have my own opinions but…it would be totally out of character, and it could alienate half the people I’m talking to.”

There are some issues Robling cannot ignore. As racial tensions rise in the country and there is more discussion about historical heroes owning slaves, Robling has faced backlash from groups like Black Lives Matter protesting his work. He says he gets where they are coming from, and that he cannot overlook Franklin’s privilege as a white, slave owning man.

“One of the things I am passionate about is bringing out the humanity of this person. And when you bring out humanity, you bring out negatives too. I’m not going to deny [Franklin owned slaves] because it’s there, it’s real. And in my research, he reaches a point where he realizes it’s wrong. I have to find a way to acknowledge that while realizing that’s not who the person is in entirety. Neither all good or all bad. Too often we have been taught to view these people as icons.”

The iconic faces of the American Revolution tend to be white males: Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton. Yet as Kim Staub notes, there were all kinds of individuals living the Revolution and fighting for the Revolution in Philadelphia. As the Collections and Exhibitions Manager at the Betsy Ross House, Staub and her colleagues strive to make those unheard voices increasingly audible. In 2010, the museum removed the plexiglass barriers that encased the exhibit and turned the historic home into a working upholstery shop with historical interpreters. Then in 2016, they obtained grants to create and feature Phillis’ character during the weekends.

“Right after we opened [Phillis’] exhibit, we overheard one African American mom and daughter say, ‘Wow, there’s actually something here for me,’ ” Staub says.

When he spends so much time studying and portraying the man, it is hard for Robling not to see the similarities between himself and Franklin. They both enjoy humor and vanity. They both enjoy traveling and interacting with people.

In the beginning, Holmes did not realize how much the role would impact her. After moving to Philadelphia from Virginia in 2014, she wanted to get back into acting. She started as a Once Upon A Nation storyteller. Stationed across 13 benches around Independence National Historic Park, storytellers huddle with families and foreigners to pass down Revolutionary tales. Historic Philadelphia, Inc. loved her bubbly personality so much they soon asked Holmes to audition for Phillis.

Unlike Franklin, or even Ross, who have copious amounts of information recorded about their lives, Phillis has a lot of gaps in her story. Upon training, Holmes was only handed documents about her former owner and documentation that the woman was freed at 21-years-old. There is good evidence Phillis became a washerwoman in Philadelphia, but whether she actually worked for Ross is unknown, Staub says. Nonetheless, the museum believes it is important to represent the Free Black Community that existed in Philadelphia at the time.

“There’s nowhere else where you can hear her story,” Holmes says.

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Unfortunately, visitors often do not get to that point. It is almost a vicious cycle. A group makes it down to the cellar, ask Holmes how she does laundry or why there is no fridge for the food, and once they have their answer, they move on. A new group trickles down with the same basic questions. Staub recognizes the flaw that visitors may assume Phillis is a slave. Because Holmes feels a personal connection to her character’s identity, she says it is difficult for her to elaborate on Phillis’ story when people are not interested or willing to listen.  

“There are certain things that affect Tasha that probably wouldn’t affect Phillis,” Holmes says. “Sometimes [visitors] play and say stuff like, ‘Get back to work!’ And I’m like no, this is not for you to go back in time and act racist or treat me as low class. And those are the moments Tasha reacts.”

Holmes likens herself to Phillis by saying they are just two black women trying to make it on their own in Philadelphia. Yet she realizes Phillis grew up in a drastically different circumstances and times.

“I play a happier, playful note, but I wrestle with how she would actually be. How happy would she be? How sad would she be? Would she weigh certain choices like I do?”

Since she first started interpreting two years ago, Holmes has gradually taken on a more subservient demeanor, realizing it is truer to character. She does not look at people when they first enter the cellar. She does not talk back. When they put that costume on, historical interpreters become vulnerable. Holmes will never forget when one person asked if she, Phillis, was ever sexually assaulted.

“You would never ask a stranger on the street that question!”

Upstairs, Mary McGinley has faced her own share of dismissive, sexist comments in the three months she has been interpreting Ross. These questions often are pointed at her alleged relationship with Washington. She has also been asked what color of underwear she is wearing or if they are star spangled.

There are also those people who come to the house with the perception that Ross was a myth and women never worked in the colonial era—McGinley likes to disrupt those notions. Rather than jumping right into the story of stitching the flag, the blonde 26-year-old greets a group of middle-aged tourists by asking them if they have come to purchase textiles from her upholstery shop. The question catches them off guard. She brings over a binder of swatches and encourages them to flip through the different fabrics. Only towards the end of her three-minute presentation does she bring up the flag and how she convinced Washington to use a five-pointed star instead of one with six points. As she folds a white piece of paper to demonstrate the star’s pattern, a man from the group points at her mug.

“No wonder the flag took so long to make. You women are always taking coffee breaks!”

An awkward silence falls across the crowd. But McGinley maintains her calm and confidence.

“Yes, these times require lots of coffee, but I don’t take breaks to drink it.”

The tension rises, and the group swiftly shuffles out of the room. Once they are all gone, McGinley leans against her wooden desk and takes a sip from her terracotta mug.

“A lot of men ask, ‘What’s in that drink?’ or, ‘What do you do all day?’” McGinley shrugs, gesturing at the pile of fabric and needles on her desk. “I can honestly say I’m actually working. That’s an easy way to shut them up.”

The line between work and personal life can become blurry for the historical interpreters. Having changed at the Free Quaker Meeting House after his shift, Robling returns to the Bourse to redeem his voucher for a free meal—an added perk of the job. Without his costume, Robling is nearly unrecognizable. Gone is his long white wig. His green colonial coat is swapped for a green windbreaker and blue jeans. He certainly looks younger and slightly slimmer. Despite the physical transformation, Robling says his wife occasionally asks, “Is it Bill or Ben talking to me now?”

When he spends so much time studying and portraying the man, it is hard for Robling not to see the similarities between himself and Franklin. They both enjoy humor and vanity. They both enjoy traveling and interacting with people. Talkative yet eloquent, Robling needs a job that is social and spontaneous to save him from boredom.

“In everything I do I strongly believe in collaboration and…when there is an audience there is an exchange. You have to involve them,” Robling thinks for a moment. “Third graders are fun because they are just so detail oriented at that age. Then when they get to about eighth grade you never want to see them again.”

Though some may find the improvisational nature of his work intimidating, Robling thrives on it and finds it easier than reading scripts as he did back in his theater days. With plays, he struggled to keep the same lines fresh. With interpretation, Robling strives not to repeat the same two lines again. Behind their real glasses, his eyes light up as he recalls one of his most challenging performances. An hour and a half of being grilled by an audience pretending to be the House of Commons. The real event was Franklin’s longest speaking engagement where he denounced the Stamp Act before the British government. While he looks back fondly, Robling admits that in the moment, he felt attacked from all sides.  

“I look for things that stretch me because I think once you stop doing that, you might as well go somewhere, curl up, and die…The day I stop being passionate about [interpreting], I’ll wake up and be like why I am doing this?”

Robling has not reached that point yet, though sometimes he does wake up to the fear that he will not book a single job next year. “When you don’t receive a regular paycheck, it’s part of the mentality.”

Like a lot of interpreters, Robling does some other work on the side, taking portraits in his case. But from the $700 costume to hiring a marketer to manage his extensive website with press clips, photos, and videos, he is most invested in historical interpretation. How much he makes varies, but his basic rate is $300 for the first hour and $150 for each additional hour. He charges less for nonprofits and sometimes works for free.

“My philosophy sometimes is no one pays me to stay home. I have discussed such an arrangement with my wife, but she won’t budge.”

At the end of the day, being Franklin is a job for Robling and Larkin. As important as it is to say yes, it is equally important to say no. Even at the most joyful occasions like a wedding, Larkin knows there is a point when he has to say the show is over.

“When I go to this wedding, I will find the bride and say to her, ‘Do you have an envelope for me?’ Because I got to get paid,” Larkin says. “The husband will be surprised. There will be a lot of selfies taken. I will work the room. Toast a lot of people. They will say, ‘Hey, can you stay with us for dinner?’ And I will say, ‘I would love to stay, but I must go. There’s talk of revolution.’ And it’s exit stage right. I’m off. Nobody questions why I am gone, where I am going.”

At precisely 45 minutes into his appearance, Larkin begins to wade back through the crowd of wedding guests inside the brick-paneled tasting room. The bride and groom stop him on his way out. Resting massive hands on their shoulders, Larkin gives them a final round of congratulations. They both look with resigned happiness as the historical interpreter pushes through the door. In the biting November night, he unlocks his bike resting before a pizza truck. He straps on his helmet decorated with the number 76 and kicks up the stand with his gold-buckled shoe. Into the darkness he pedals, traveling back through Philadelphia, his coattails flapping. The graffiti of Fishtown turns to the red bricks of Old City and finally to the skyscrapers of Center City. It still is Franklin’s Philadelphia, but over those four miles, the man gets to see the city travel through time.

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