"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 September 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Hit & Run CXCIV



In the fiercely competitive

world of Benjamin Franklin

impersonation, Ralph Archibald

reigns supreme. A Franklin

portrayer for more than 25

years, he has inspirited the

most beloved Founding Father as

far back as the United States'

bicentennial celebration in 1976

and appears on track to be the

preeminent Franklin for BF's

300th birthday in 2006; in

Philadelphia, the de facto

capital of Franklin portrayal,

Archibald is affiliated with the

Friends of Franklin and is the

official Ben of the Franklin

Institute. He spoke with us from

his home in the City of

Brotherly Love.

Wasn't there a story in
the Philadelphia-area news
media a few years ago,
claiming that you had a
rivalry going with another

I don't know if that's
accurate. There was a
gentleman named Sam
Kressen who played Ben
Franklin. He was very
good, very knowledgeable,
and he was a good friend.
There were people who
wanted to make it into a
feud and it really wasn't.
There are people who are
always trying to make it
into a rivalry between
Franklins, and I don't
think it is. [Kressen] and
I were friends, and we had
markets that we served.

Is there a division of
labor between people who
do the happy-go-lucky
Boston Ben and people who
do the Philadelphia Ben
— the moralist and

There are people from
Florida to Wisconsin —
all over the country —
who are making the memory
of Franklin live, and I
think that's important. I
just turned a job over to
someone in the Boston
area, although I do some
things around the country.
But I have so much to do
here in Philadelphia that
it's hard to get away.
There are always actors
who have a wig and a
costume whom I can hire to
do meet and greet. What I
cannot hire is people who
are good speakers and who
are knowledgeable about
Franklin. I have the
speaker's credentials,
because I do it as a
speaker, not an actor. Sam
Kressen was wonderful; he
must have played Franklin
in 1776, oh, hundreds of
times. And he was great.
There was another fellow
here who did Franklin for
35 years. He walked around
Independence Hall, posed
for pictures with families
from all over the world,
and made a lot of people
very happy. I don't know
how knowledgeable he was
about Franklin, but he was
a wonderful guy, and he did
it until he passed away at
age 81. He was quite
short. Franklin was
five-10; he was quite a
bit shorter than that. But
he made a career of it.

Are there any Franklin
portrayers out there whose
acts you don't approve

Oh no, I like them all.
It's a good thing that
people are portraying
Franklin and that his
memory is kept alive.
Everybody does it a little
differently, and that's
good. You know, every
portrayal is the personal
feeling of the person
portraying Franklin so I
don't think there is an
inappropriate portrayal. I
may not be comfortable
with someone who makes him
look like a clown, but in
a way, Franklin was the
country's first humorist.
Whatever someone does, it
excites people to learn
about Franklin, and that's
important. One of the
great things about
Franklin is that everybody
loves him. I can walk down
any street. I once stepped
on a plane that was
bringing 130 Soviets to a
conference here, and when
I said, "I'm Benjamin
Franklin and I want to
welcome you to
Philadelphia," a cheer
went up. They knew
Benjamin Franklin.
Japanese people know
Benjamin Franklin; they've
heard the sayings.
Universally, Franklin is
somebody people identify
with. He wasn't one of the
elite; he was one of the
people. And they love

Does his not wearing a
powdered wig give him a
leg up on the other
founding fathers?

That's important, because
Franklin was part of the
new America, not part of
the old establishment. He
wasn't landed gentry, he
wasn't the social elite,
he was the everyday man
— the printer, the
publisher, the bookbinder.
He started a hospital; he
set up a charitable school
and a science academy. He
helped set up a library
and fire department. He
was involved in all the
civic activities. He could
talk as easily with the
man sweeping the street as
with the leading banker.
Here was a man who was
respected by all because
he treated all with
respect. He said, "The
noblest question in the
world is, 'What good can I
do in it?'" That
philosophy made Franklin a
person who was looked up
to, a person who was
loved, and a person who is
still loved.

Over the last few years
Founding-Father sex
scandals have been on the
rise: Jefferson and Sally
Hemmings, George
Washington and "Venus."
There's even a rumor that
Abe Lincoln might have
been a closeted gay man.
Do you think it's possible
that they'll try to get
Ben the same way, and if
that happened, how would
you respond?

Oh sure they would try to
get him the same way.
Let's face it: We were
people. You tend to look
at the people at the start
of this nation as
demigods. We were not.
These were people much
like the people today.
People think we really had
this unique situation that
wouldn't arise today, with
all these wonderful minds
together. But these minds
are here today. The people
are here today who could
have risen to this
occasion. What happened
was that, in writing the
Constitution, we resisted
a temptation to etch the
government in stone. We
realized that the country
would grow so we would
give you a constitution,
but we'd give you an
orderly manner in which to
change the government.

Do you ever make up your
own Poor Richard

Not really. I pretty much
stick to what Franklin
did. I might vary some:
"Early to bed and you'll
miss all the fun: Stay up
and enjoy yourself while
you're here in
Philadelphia." That's
about the extent of it.
Very few of those sayings
were original. He
collected them from
reading, from friends,
from the community. He
collected the wisdom of
the ages, which each
generation has to restate
in its own language. A lot
of people get upset when
they hear young people say
things that don't sound
familiar. But if they look
deep, it's the same basic
truths that each
generation has to

Are there any bawdy Poor

Well, Ben Franklin wrote a
couple of letters. There's a
little volume called Fart
— that's not
Franklin's title, but he
wrote an essay on gaseous
emissions from the nether
part of the body. It was a
spoof of the learned
scientific papers of the
day. He said, "Well, if we
can find a food that
causes a disagreeable
odor, maybe we can find
one that causes a pleasant
odor and perfume the
entire world." In that
volume, there's also a
letter he wrote to a young
man on choosing a
mistress. He said to
choose an older woman....

That's the one with "All
cats are gray in the

Right. "We age from the
top down ... The parts
that are of most interest
are not really affected
much by age." Again, these
were satires of certain

So Franklin worked clean.
"It's all pink in the
middle" isn't his line?

Right. If you look at his
stuff in terms of
bawdiness, it's not really
bawdy compared to what's
around today.

Do you visit a lot of schools
these days?

I don't do as many as I
used to, because I do more
corporate meetings and
conventions. I used to do
a lot of schools. I did
287 schools one year. The
school market is one I
love. I love the schools
because they're so
receptive and the message
is important. I've done
about 4,000 schools, and I
hope other people will
take up that.

Are kids today more or
less knowledgeable about
Franklin than they were 20
years ago?

I don't know that they're
more knowledgeable. But
the important thing isn't
knowing what Franklin did,
but the fact that he did
it. And knowing that they
can do it too. They can
invent things. They can be
a part of their community
and their government. My
message is, "You have the
same skills to do what
Franklin did."

So you don't agree that
kids are getting dumber
every year?

I really don't think they
are. I think when you look
at how on top of new
technology young people
are, it's exciting. And
Franklin would have loved
the new technology. The
important lesson is that
it's not just for you,
it's for the future.

Have you walked through
the big heart at the
Franklin Institute?

Yeah, I love that heart.

In costume?

Oh yeah, I've done it in

How Franklinesque are you
when you're not in

Well, I look a bit like
Franklin, and now I just
wear the bifocal
spectacles that are of the
style. So even when I'm
not in costume, people
recognize me. But I have a
nice apartment and I live
a modern life.

What public figures out
there have the "Franklin

You mean famous people?

Yeah, maybe James J.
Cramer of TheStreet.com?

Anyone who is a bit older
and has a bit of a paunch
can do the Franklin look.
Man or woman.

Do you ever pull that
"Which president is on the
$100 bill" trick?

I don't do that trick, but
I talk about being on the
bill. And I do a technique
about people's perception
of Franklin on the bill.

The nice lady at the
Friends of Franklin said
Franklin portrayers will
be hot come Franklin's
300th birthday in 2006.
What do you have on deck?

It's definitely going to
be hot in Philadelphia. A
few years ago, I got a
call from a man who said,
"I've been asked to do a
pilot for a TV show about
Franklin, and I've never
done Franklin before.
Would you mind if I came
out there?" So we sat for
about six hours and talked
about how he was going to
portray Franklin. And when
I asked how he got my
name, he said, "They were
considering you for the
part." Of course, I said
I'd never heard about
this, and he told me:
"That's not how they work.
They needed a bankable
name." Now his name is
David Ogden Stiers. He
played Winchester on
M*A*S*H. So we had a
delightful time talking
about his Franklin
portrayal, but they needed
a name that would be able
to raise money, and of
course, mine wasn't but his

So when one of the
other Franklin portrayers
says, "In 2006, you or I
will portray Franklin in a
movie," I say, "No, we
won't. They'll find a
celebrity with a bankable
name to do this." Sure, in
Philadelphia everybody
knows I do Franklin. But
if they want somebody to
do a television movie,
they'll get a Tom Bosley
or another celebrity who
can play Franklin. And
anybody who has a little
bit of age can do
Franklin. And that's the
wonderful thing about



If we had ever read any of those

"Great Broadband Giveaway"

articles, we might be more

worried about the media

concentration represented in

Viacom's acquisition of CBS. No

doubt, Stooge to the Stars Ken

Auletta will provide us with a

primer on how the two fiery CEOs

can possibly make their

odd-couple relationship work!

And the master plan — in

which "youth-oriented" Viacom

will add vim to the Tiffany

Network's menu of gerontainment

— creates the neat prospect

of 76-year-old Sumner Redstone

presiding over the Teening of

America (not to mention the

tempting possibility that David

Letterman will do the Classy

Thing and drive his bad self to

the glue factory). But with our

eye for the sleeper clause, we

can't help noticing that the

deal requires Viacom to give up

most of its stake in UPN, which

the media giant co-owns with

Chris-Craft. Whether that means

the netlet is going up for fire

sale, we can't tell, but while

we've got the floor, we're

putting in an open bid on all

the unseen episodes of the horrific

1998 flop The Secret Life of

Desmond Pfeiffer, which we still

have a hunch is the greatest TV

show we've never seen.



"While I've been saying for some

time that the arms race of

bigger and badder rides would end

in tears, it's not the sort of

prophecy that makes me happy

when it is fulfilled." So says

Dan Howland, proprietor of

Journal of Ride Theory: The Zine

About Amusement Parks, whom we

contacted for a quick judgment

about the Summer of the Killer

Rollercoasters. While we're less

confident than Dan in the

ability of regulators to offer

any safety guarantees beyond

what we'd get from the pustulant

pothead who snaps our safety bar

into place, a few of his

statements would give anybody

pause: "New rides are being

brought to the market faster

than I've ever seen in amusement

park history, leaving me with

doubts as to their safety

testing during the development

phase.... To give one example: I

was on Big Thunder Mountain at

Disneyland once, and the train

stopped on the second lift hill.

The reason it stopped is because

it has sensors in the track

which won't allow more than one

train in the same segment of

track. Well, the kid running the

ride screwed up, but the

automatic braking system saved

our asses. Which is reassuring,

until you realize that there is

minimal government inspection of

those breaks, and I have to put

all my trust in people ... who

lobby for even less inspection.

So, knowing what I do, just

sitting there waiting for the

ride to start again was much

scarier than any roller

coaster." And after a summer in

which six riders amused

themselves to death, who can

argue? Still, it's hard to see

how this culture of risk we keep

hearing about can keep huffing

along if there are no real

consequences. As it happens,

this week marks the 25th

anniversary of Evel Knievel's

abortive leap of the Snake River

Canyon Gorge — a failed

superstunt to which the nearly

universal reaction, even in more

civilized days, was "Yeah, but

he still lived." Back then,

Americans knew that a big

country needs big disasters.

When you're flirting with snuff

amusements, you can only play

hard to get for so long. After

that, you might as well just hop

on It's a Small World.



According to literary

historians, the world's oldest

parody is a giddy romp called

Batrachomyomachia, or The Battle

of the Frogs and Mice, wherein

the wee warriors act out,

Homer-like, sieges and such.

About the funniest gag in the

piece is rendered by one

translator as:


The fatal javelin unrelenting flies,
And darkness seals the gentle croaker's eyes.


The Greeks didn't have paper, so

we can hardly blame them for

this sprained exercise in "funny

substitution" comedy. But is it

really true that, a few

millenniums later, the best

parody we can muster is "The

Blonde Witch Project"? Trimark

studios, which has acquired four

Blair Witch parodies as content

for its "TK" CinemaNow site, has

talked up the "Internet angle"

of its play, noting the role the

Web supposedly had in promoting

the original. But the only

technological advance in

evidence is in the

algorithmically generated

titles, the woodenness of which

suggest the absence of the human

hand: There's also "The Griffith

Witch Project," "The Watt's

Bitch Project," and "The Big

Foot Project." Come on, you can

play too — just think of

something that rhymes with

witch. Sorta. (We volunteer:

"The Mare Hitch Project" — a

western — and "The Fair Ditch

Project" — about three

amusement park workers.) The

Hi-8 Yankovics behind these

various projects aren't the only

ones taking aim against the

scourge of originality. Variety

notes that five other Blair-"inspired"

spoof scripts are currently

making the rounds. This,

combined with the buzz about

MTV's own Blair Witch takeoff,

suggests that the critics were

off the mark in predicting what

kind of impact the

Method-directed movie would

have. The Blair Witch Project's

aggressive originality and

guerrilla production were said

to be setting an example for

studios who in the last year

commissioned a record low number

of original scripts. Blair's

monstrous success, the optimists

believe, have made inventiveness

attractive again. Even the

pessimists believe the legion of

imitators would merely bore us

with faux-vérité

tapes of their lame ideas. The

raft of parodies just proves

that, when somebody else

supplies a theme, the smotherers

of invention don't need ideas

at all.



After witnessing Hillary

Clinton's sorry effort to out

herself as a Jew, we're

heartened to see that the tribe

may get to reclaim a member who

has some actual use. Only a year

after his 60th birthday,

Superman may be returning to his

creator. It seems, using the

most incomprehensible of

copyright laws, the family of

Jerry Siegel, Man of Steel

co-creator, is fighting to get

the rights back where they

belong: in the hands of the

author, or at least in those of

his wife and daughter. And these

rights mean not only revenue but

the potential to market Superman

in any way they want, just as DC

Comics has done for the last 60

years. While it is certainly

just that the 130 bucks DC

originally paid for the

copyright to Superman in 1938 is

finally getting some return,

we're reminded of the probably

apocryphal tale of how Siegel's

equally shrewd partner Joe

Shuster — at the time

working as either a janitor or

messenger boy, depending on the

version of the story — was

once personally booted out of

the DC Comics building by the

company's president. The story

goes that the anonymous

president found the sight of the

down-on-his-luck author simply

too pathetic to endure. And as

it happens, Suck's founders, who

sold the rights to their own

property for $24 and a case of

J&B, get exactly the same

feeling when visiting the Wired

offices. The critical

difference is that the Sucksters'

poor work ethic and low

standards of hygiene tend to

rule out any future in

janitorial work.

courtesy of theSucksters

[Purchase the Suck Book here]