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Being Benjamin Franklin

February 17, 2002|HANK ROSENFELD

At least one wag has credited Benjamin Franklin with inventing "the lightning rod, the hoax and the republic." Actor Phil Soinski reinvents Ben Franklin five days a week at the International Printing Museum in Carson, home to one of the world's largest collections of antique printing machinery. The museum displays Egyptian papyrus, antique Chinese printing blocks and other marvels, but the big draw for schoolchildren is Soinski's one-hour turn as perhaps the most mischievous of America's founding fathers. For a veteran character actor who played Groucho Marx for years on stage and television, tossing around phrases such as "the devil you say!" and "upon my soul!" is all in a day's work.

What makes you a good fit for this role?

I don't need to wear padding at the moment.

How does one create a convincing Ben Franklin?

You eye this modern audience with as much skepticism and curiosity as they are showing you. It works!

What motivates your character?

I always envision the old gentleman holding a class with his new students, who may need his help. (It's the teacher in me!) I usually end with "Class be dismissed!"

Why do children love Ben?

He's got that devilish sense of humor. The majority of the founding fathers are on a pedestal, but Ben is like one of us.

Franklin sounds like the Kinko's of his day.

Oh, yes. Printing was his love and means to an end toward all those varied interests he manifested. It made him [one of] America's first millionaires and allowed him to retire at 42.

So he didn't have to go on "Dost Thou Wishest to Becometh a Millionaire?"

Pray, it was his industry and franchising of print shops!

Do children think you really are Ben Franklin?

Luckily, many times. They ask, "Aren't you dead?" I feel my pulse and cheekily respond, "Nay. Genius never dies!"

What do you think about other actors who play Franklin?

There are a lot of impersonators. There are two who are well-known in Philadelphia, and a gentleman down at Knott's Berry Farm at the Independence Hall. We're brothers under the skin. Great guy. You expect actors' insolence but, in this case, everyone is trading off, sharing information about him. Kent Johnson did it here at the museum for 10 years. He was my mentor.

Inquiring minds want to know: How much of a philanderer was Franklin, really?

Oh, he did love the ladies. But if any man could partake of a quarter of his supposed carryings-on, he'd be in a wicked Valhalla!

How does this gig compare to playing Groucho Marx?

You don't have to bend over when you walk like Franklin. But they share a unique humor--one is wry and the other is pumpernickel!

What's the toughest thing about the role?

The wig--it's like wearing a poodle on your head for three hours.

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