Bringing Him to Life: All About the Benjamin

Philadelphia's Ralph Archbold sets a new standard for inhabiting a role

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ROBERT HUBER/LOOKAT / TIME

Archbold with a school group that encountered him at his usual spot under the mulberry tree, holding forth as Ben

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At noon, after the mulberry-tree stint, Archbold meets up with J Nathan Bazzel, who plays Thomas Jefferson and, like Archbold, performs without makeup or a wig. He's one of a cast of Colonial characters that work for Archbold, including a Betsy Ross, a George Washington, a William Penn and a Phillis Wheatley. "I was a bit surprised when he asked me to work for him," says Bazzel. "How could I not, with his position?" Like Colonial Pied Pipers, Archbold and Bazzel organize 50 kids into a parade, which seems to consist mostly of yelling "Huzzah!" They are led by a fife-and-drum corps playing Yankee Doodle Dandy to a park where they receive military training from a Revolutionary War re-enactor. Then Archbold and Bazzel take off. "I don't usually get involved with re-enactors," Archbold says. "What I'm doing is a career, not a hobby." He goes across the street to Carpenters' Hall to check in on the woman who stages concerts six days a week on the instrument Franklin invented, the glass armonica. Archbold is pretty committed to historical accuracy.

Unlike the Cher and Michael Jackson impersonators in Vegas, who perform for the glamour, Archbold dresses up to create a community. Who wouldn't want to be instantly liked, to tell the greatest of American stories, to teach history, to be paid to talk, to quote a thousand witty sayings that are both yours and not yours in just such a way that you can take pride in them without bragging? Wouldn't even Ben Franklin himself trade buckle shoes with Ralph Archbold?

Log on to time.com to hear Archbold as Ben Franklin

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