February 28, 2009

STRANGER: Ralph Archbold
LOCATION: City Tavern, 138 S 2nd Street, Philadelphia
THEME: Hungry for history

He didn’t come in costume.

Instead, I walked into the City Tavern restaurant in Philadelphia to be greeted by the sight of Ralph Archbold dressed in comfortable modern-day clothes. Ralph works as a Benjamin Franklin impersonator, so it wasn’t clear before dinner whether he’d turn up dressed like he just walked off the set of the musical 1776.

A quick handshake and hello, and then we took our seats.

The City Tavern is a historical building that in its original form provided a place for the Founding Fathers to dine and come up with their evil conspiracy to overthrow the British government. Hey, I’m British, so I’m allowed to put a negative slant on that whole Revolutionary War thing. Unfortunately the building was demolished in 1854. Fortunately, a “historically accurate representation” of the tavern was erected on the same site in 1976.

From the outside the building fits perfectly in among the rest of the Colonial-style buildings in Center City, Philadelphia. Signs littered around the tavern describe its history and the key historical figures — Franklin, John Adams, and so on — that ate there.

But it was bitterly cold that day in the City of Brotherly love so it was a quick nuts-to-history and indoors to get dinner with another stranger.

“He really looks like Ben Franklin,” was my first thought.

“I wonder if there’s a secret island where dinosaurs still live,” was my second thought.

Figuring it was neither the time nor place to start a conversation about velociraptors on a mystical island, I walked with Ralph to our table in a cozy corner of the restaurant.

The City Tavern is a gorgeous place, hardwood floors throughout, high quality furnishings and a very large table with wooden chairs that are built for relaxation. The waiters are all dressed in 18th century fashion but in a restrained and fitting manner and not in the wacky color explosion of a tacky themed restaurant. As an added bonus, on the Saturday night that Ralph and I had dinner there a harpist was playing in the lobby providing a fine musical accompaniment throughout the evening.

The restaurant has a wide range of hearty offerings, with some tasty-sounding appetizers including giant cornmeal fried oysters, mallard duck sausage, and several soups. Apparently restaurateur Walter Staid changes the menu fairly frequently, but clicking on this link gives you a good idea of what’s on offer.

We skipped straight to the main courses, a good thing because I really wanted to leave room to have the crème brûlée for dessert. I went for the wiener schnitzel while Ralph chose a special on offer of Chilean sea bass.

There were also several impressive libations on offer, including beers created based on recipes from Martha Washington and others from the revolutionary era. Alas, neither Ralph nor I felt like alcohol so we skipped out on the beer and stuck with drinking water from our sturdy goblets.

After placing our orders, the waiter brought out three types of bread — all delicious. There was Anadama bread, made with cornmeal and molasses, and Sally Lund bread, a traditional English (woohoo!) white loaf that was a little on the salty side but still tasty. Finally, we each ate sweet potato biscuits based on a recipe stashed away by none other than Thomas Jefferson. Those patriots certainly knew how to make a fine piece of bread.

“I was so busy I couldn’t satisfy the market

While I chomped on the various yeasty offerings, Ralph told me his history as a Ben Franklin impersonator. By coincidence, Ralph shares Ben Franklin’s birthday of January 17 and — I’m sure he won’t me saying — also bears more than a passing resemblance to the Founding Father.

Hailing from Michigan, Ralph didn’t really have a great interest in Franklin and stumbled upon his career through chance. About 35 years ago he was living in the Wolverine State working full-time as a photographer. In his spare time he would attend a linguistics class.

One night he made his way through a bad winter snowstorm to go to class, only to find out it had been canceled. Then he spotted an open door and poked his head in to see what was going on. Someone inside asked him whether he was there to audition but Ralph said he had no idea what they were talking about. It was quickly explained that the people in the room were auditioning for people to play various parts at a local historical site known as Greenfield Village.

Greenfield Village is an 80-acre site established by motor car magnate Henry Ford that includes “historic structures, from Noah Webster’s home, where he wrote the first American dictionary, to Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, to the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law,” according to the attraction’s website.

Ralph was up for one of two roles: a judge in a trial or Ben Franklin. His rival for the roles was an actor about 40 years old who was recently divorced and amusingly saw a job at Greenfield Village as a great chance to hit on the ladies. This fellow didn’t want to be typecast as either Franklin (though I’m not sure you can be typecast as Ben Franklin) or as an older man character, so he opted to play the judge. Because it’s easy to meet women when you’re wearing a wig, robe and sitting behind a wooden bench away from everyone.

“All good speakers are storytellers

That left Ralph with the much more enticing role of Franklin. The organizers gave him a 10-minute script and he would wander around the village, entertaining visitors and having a grand time. All the while, I’m sure the actor who chose to play the judge was sitting to the side, red in the face, steam pouring out of his ears in anger like Yosemite Sam.

Soon enough schools started asking Ralph if he could come and perform his Franklin routine. Well, he only had the 10-minute script as material so he started to research more about the man to meet the regular 40-minute requirements of a school assembly presentation. The first one went so well there was another booking then another and so on until “within a year I wasn’t doing photography anymore” and performing as Ben Franklin had taken over Ralph’s life. “I couldn’t satisfy the market,” he said.

Eventually he moved to Philadelphia realizing that’s where the biggest Franklin market was to be found. His days are packed with a wide range of appearances, ranging from performances in and around Philadelphia — including summer days sitting under a mulberry tree answering questions and taking pictures with tourists — to corporate speaking events, promotional tours, and even White House galas of which I’ll mention more later on. Ralph said the “real boost” to his career came with a 1987 tour of 10 cities to promote America’s Constitutional Bicentennial, and to pull in the crowds for the host of activities that Philadelphia had planned.

I was about to ask Ralph more, but then our dishes arrived piping hot. The wiener schnitzel — a pan-fried breaded veal cutlet — came with fries and various vegetables. As you can see from the picture above it was a generous portion that I struggled to get through. The breaded coating was crispy and the meat tender, but the use of salt was a little liberal. The $25.95 price tag is a little steep, but a few dollars less and it’d be well worth the money.

Ralph said he greatly enjoyed his Chilean sea bass, which came served with mashed potatoes and vegetables, and spiced up with some fresh ground pepper. From how he described the dish, and the clean plate when he was done, I believe the $24.95 price tag for his entrée is probably just about right.

Finally having the chance to satisfy the odd craving from crème brûlée that I’d been harboring all day, I placed my order for dessert. Maybe arriving in Philadelphia makes people crave crème brûlée? Who knows? Ralph, who said he’s not a huge fan of sweet dishes, ordered some cinnamon ice cream.

While waiting for dessert, Ralph spoke fondly about the fact he’s worked as Franklin with every president since Jimmy Carter, with the exception of President Barack Obama.

Among his favorite memories is a 2006 performance at the White House for Franklin’s 300th birthday, where he was “treated like royalty” every step of the way from the luxurious hotel he was put up in (Larry King had the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House that night. Typical) to the grand entrance and sitting at the first lady’s table for dinner. Despite the massive crowd, he said “I just told my favorite stories, tied it all together and wasn’t at all nervous.” He’s been doing his job for so long the stories, while not ad libbed, are all impromptu and from memory. For the 300th birthday party, Ralph told a story about oysters that tied in “very nicely” with the menu for the event, which include an oyster appetizer. Jump to the bottom of the article if you want to hear the story.

Another big recent event in Ralph’s life was his July 3, 2008, wedding to Linda Wilde, a sometimes Betsy Ross impersonator. The two met at the wedding of one of Linda’s friends, where Ralph had been asked to do a toast. Back then, Linda didn’t perform as the lady who made the U.S. flag. But they kept in touch and a while later Ralph was invited to a convention where the organizers wanted Ms. Ross to come with Mr. Franklin. Ralph called Linda, she sewed her own costume, they had a grand time together and before long they were engaged to be married.

The city of Philadelphia held an impressive wedding celebration for the couple outside Independence Hall, with a large crowd of onlookers and a party afterward at City Tavern.

I could make some awkward transition here from dessert at the wedding to dessert at my dinner with Ralph, but creativity is running away from me, so I’ll move on to talking about the last course of our meal. The serving size of the vanilla bean crème brûlée was incredibly generous and served with a delightful little strawberry on top.

Now, unless you’re a greedy fellow like Augustus Gloop from Charlie & The Chocolate Factory (that’s the fat kid who fell into a river of chocolate) you probably couldn’t finish this dish. I ate it quickly, and I ate it all. Judge away. It’s one of the best crème brûlées I’ve ever had, and I can strongly recommend it as being well worth the $8.50 price tag.

Ralph said he enjoyed his bowl of cinnamon ice cream, which cost $2.50, a very cheap price. To be fair, it’s hard to screw up ice cream so let’s move on swiftly.

Over after-dinner coffee, Ralph summed up his thoughts on public speaking. “All good speakers are storytellers. They paint an image with words and we enjoy listening to them as they stir the emotions,” he said. Actors are different from speakers because they’re on stage “to impress with their acting ability, and they do a good job at that. But a speaker’s desire is to present material that is of value, it is there to inspire. That’s not to suggest there is no overlap with acting, but it goes beyond performance, goes to what am I giving this audience that is of value to them?”

Ralph said speakers want to give the audience “something that you take away that’s going to help you become a better person, to get through life easier, whatever. You’ll notice if you look at speakers those that really have that passion, they are the people that inspire you.”

It’s hard not to notice the passion that Ralph has for doing Ben Franklin justice, being on top of his game and having an endless cache of perfectly fitting stories that are charming, amusing, and underscore the hard work that Ralph puts into what started as a one-off gig at a historical village in Michigan and has now become his full-time job.

I enjoyed my dinner with Ralph. He’s a pleasant, intelligent man and a fine dinner companion. The conversation perhaps naturally focused a lot on Ben Franklin, and that’s good because I never was particularly good in history so I have plenty of gaps in my knowledge to fill. I would have liked to get to know more about Ralph’s life separate from his role as a Founding Father impersonator, but hey, I’m a complete stranger so it’s not like we’re going to be pulling out photo albums and sharing intimate stories while we break bread for the first time.

Finally, as mentioned above, one of Ralph’s favorite Franklin stories is a tale about oysters. I won’t give more away other than to invite you to click on the link below to hear him tell it.

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