Being Ben Franklin

Hanging with one of Philly's founding fathers

Robert DeVitis, who doubles as favorite son Ben Franklin. (Photo courtesy of Robert DeVitis)

I MET Benjamin Franklin in a dimly lit Center City bar one night.

The dapper gentleman in colonial attire looked like he just wanted to eat his Caesar salad in peace. But c'mon, you try spotting a dude dressed like the man who signed the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and not strike up a conversation.

Or take a selfie.

Or ask if you two could hang sometime.

Or all of the above.

I know, this city is crawling with people dressed as historical figures - especially this July 4 weekend: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Rocky. (Rocky is appropriate on any holiday, so don't even start.)

But a Ben in the hand is worth two roaming around Independence Hall, so best believe I sidled up to Philadelphia's famous founding father.

For the record, Robert DeVitis is the "young and witty Ben Franklin." Even at 309 years old, you gotta have an angle.

It's a good gig with seemingly plenty of work to go around for the handful of Philly Bens, so don't expect any noontime duels in the middle of Market Street.

Especially since everyone, including DeVitis, who is actually 53, credits Ralph Archbold as the OG - the original - Ben impersonator.

Archbold, 73, has portrayed Ben for more than 40 years. He shares the same birthday as the real founding father. He's married to a woman who portrays Betsy Ross. He gets a kick out of being around the same age as Franklin when he was in France negotiating the Treaty of Paris.

You'd think with all that cred Ben might not like the competition, but he has only love for his brethren Bens.

"I am happy to share any work portraying Franklin," said Archbold. Although he did have some advice for "newcomers." "Carefully research Ben's work, be professional, and do honor to Dr. Franklin's memory."

No worries with DeVitis, who's serious about the role he has been playing for about three years, always eager to educate himself and others on the scientist, inventor, statesman and . . . ladies man? Contrary to popular belief, DeVitis says, Franklin was more philanthropist than philanderer.

Which is why DeVitis donates his time to any charity that asks. And why, even if he has been standing out in the sun for hours at a meet-and-greet, he doesn't turn down any requests for a photo or light colonial banter.

At an Old City restaurant where we met for lunch a few weeks after our serendipitous meeting, an older couple asked if he would pose with a Flat Stanley for their grandkid.

No problem, DeVitis said, happily mugging for the camera with the flattened character of a famous children's book where a little boy gets flattened and is able to see the world by being mailed around.

You'd never know DeVitis came to the role kicking and screaming. (His daughters are still not thrilled about it.)

About three years ago, a friend with an office down the hall from DeVitis' advertising company, looked at a picture of the famous forefather, then back at DeVitis and said, "You know, you kind of look like him."

"Get outta here," DeVitis said, shrugging off the bro-busting.

Next thing he knew, his friend booked a gig for him.

DeVitis was not amused, but somehow his friend-turned-agent cajoled him into a costume store dressing room. DeVitis cursed his way into the britches and overcoat, until he caught of glimpse of himself in the mirror.

And the rest is . . . wait for it . . . history.

His first gig was a local boat cruise with 400 people. When he saw the crowd, DeVitis sat in a car, "I can't do this," he thought, his whole body shaking. "What was I thinking? I don't look like him."

He barely set one foot out of the car before someone yelled out:

"Hey Ben!"

Since then, it's been steady work of ribbon cuttings, walking tours, conferences, school visits, conventions and weddings. So many weddings.

"A lot of people with out of town guests really want to play up the Philly style wedding," he said. "So it's me, Rocky and the Mummers."

Ben even has his own website: www.benfranklintoday.com.

On duty, DeVitis is careful not to break character - no drinking, no cell phone, no getting too angry at the parking enforcement officer who didn't blink at giving one of the founding fathers of the United States a ticket while he was helping someone with a tricky kiosk. He's also grown accustomed to people who aren't from this country knowing more American history than those who are. Many locals confuse him with George Washington.

Early on, DeVitis' true character broke through a couple times.

"It's great to see a Ben Franklin with a Philly accent," a man who posed for a picture commented a couple years back.

DeVitis has his colonial-speak down now.

But I wouldn't have sweated it. Who's to say what the real Benjamin Franklin sounded like?

As he was signing the Declaration of Independence, Ben - who moved to Philly when he was 17 - could very well have turned to the other signers and said:

"Yo, this Declaration right here is the jawn!"


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