Monday, November 24, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

He makes past spring to life

WILLIAM McILHENNY had no formal acting experience when Historic Philadelphia hired him more than 12 years ago to entertain tourists as a Colonial "first-person performer," playing characters like Continental Army officer William "Mad Dog" Inglesbee, brewer Robert Hare and Betsy Ross' third husband, John Claypoole.

But over the years, Benjamin Franklins and George Washingtons have taught him how to bring an 18th-century guy to life in the 21st century.  

Daily News intern Matt Nestor sat down with McIlhenny to find out what it's like to wear the breeches around the historic district.

Q Do you prefer minor characters to the bigger ones like Benjamin Franklin or Betsy Ross?

As far as myself playing Benjamin Franklin, I just don't fit the character build. Plus, there's a lot of competition out there. So it seems sort of ridiculous to take that road. As far as playing Betsy Ross, I really don't quite fit in the corset.

There were about 45,000 people living in the city [circa 1776]. That really makes up what Americans were and how the country was shaped - not just a few individuals.

Q Robert Hare was a brewer. Does that get you special interest from the adults?

I get just as much interest from the adults as I do from the children, starting at 9 years old - not because they know anything about ales or porter, but in regards to the costumes. Those are things they can walk right up to and see if it's really wool, if it's really made out of leather.

Most people will say, "Is that real?" And the answer is "yes."

Q Are there are any similarities between you and Mr. Hare?

I really don't think in a matter of a few hundred years personalities change much. To be successful, to earn a living, is pretty much what I try to strive for - the same reason why Robert Hare came to Philadelphia, looking to be somewhat successful and at the same time getting himself involved in the American Revolution.

You never know from one day to the next how things are going to turn out, but you try to do your best.

Q Do you and the other re-enactors hang out?

Yes. You develop a relationship with your co-workers. We share a really strong interest in a particular time period. It might be a little nerdy, actually.

There's been times when we have all gotten together and gone to Maryland, drove three hours down and three hours back, spending six hours at a - we'll call it a "trade show."

We would spend all day buying things for our costumes, adding those small little details at our own expense, and then the whole way back in the car showing each other, "Oh, look at this really cool triangle hat I just bought." So that's a little dorky.

Q Have you ever accidentally spoken in character when you weren't in character?

Yes. Absolutely. Usually it happens within five to 20 minutes after you get out of your costume, after you hit the streets.

You're walking down the street and people are passing you - maybe families, school groups - and you look over at them, you give them a big smile, you nod, you say, "Good day to you!"

You catch yourself sort of doing that.

Q Would you rather live in 1794 or 2014?

I think I've lived both. I'm not one to believe in reincarnation, but a very quick story:

Occasionally I'll find myself working down at the Betsy Ross House, either playing John Claypoole or out in the courtyard maybe repairing a pair of breeches.

About three or four years ago, the curator came out and she had a copy of an Inquirer. It was dated about 1890s, and she goes, "You're going to love this."

The Inquirer article was about, who was Betsy Ross? Did she really live here at 239 Arch St.? And it pointed out that she rented.

The second person that moved in after Betsy Ross moved out was a William McIlhenny, spelled exactly the same way. He was a tailor, and here I am in 18th-century garb mending garments and my name is McIlhenny.

I travel to work from New Jersey, stop at the BP Betsy Ross gas station, go over the Betsy Ross Bridge and then work in the Betsy Ross courtyard. That's kind of weird.


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