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Ben Franklin


By Michael Aun


Benjamin Franklin has had a profound impact on my life. No, not the celebrated Ben Franklin who we all know about. I am referring to two others who have connections to the name.

One was named Ralph Archbold at birth. He was an old and dear friend whom I met back in the seventies. He fashioned an entire speaking career out of impersonating Benjamin Franklin. He was so good at the role that many, like USA Today, would identify him as the official Ben Franklin. When he died a few years back at the age of 75, America lost an institution.

Ralph was born on January 17, 1942. January 17th was the original Ben Franklin’s same birthday. After moving to Philadelphia in 1982, Archbold eventually became known as the world’s most famous Benjamin Franklin impersonator through several high-profile speaking engagements and appearances at schools, events and television programs, including the Today Show and the History Channel. He also became the official Ben Franklin impersonator for the University of Pennsylvania, Freedom’s Foundation and the Franklin Institute.

In 2006, he was appointed by President George Bush to a Federal Commission overseeing the celebration of Ben Franklin’s 300th birthday.

Archbold later married Betsy Ross impersonator Linda Wilde in 2008. The couple’s wedding took place at Independence Hall with Mayor Michael Nutter officiating in front of almost 10,000 people. In 2009 Archbold suffered a stroke but later recovered and continued working as an impersonator before his death.

Ralph and I shared the platform scores of times and became close personal friends because we both had similar goals- not wanting to travel. Ralph moved to Philadelphia because that was where the bulk of his speaking business (sometimes five engagements a day) was located. “My goal is to walk to work every day,” he would say to me.

I came to a similar conclusion. About 40% of my speaking business was based out of Florida. In 1989, I decided to move my family to Florida because I got tired of going there. That was where my new business was coming from. My goal was simple – I want to sleep with my wife at night.

The other Ben Franklin in my life was named that at birth. Benjamin Barnum Ben Franklin was one of my booking agents. He was based out of Topeka, Kansas until his untimely death in 2005 at the young age of 60 from cancer.

Ben was President and owner of the Associated Dinner Clubs, Inc. as well as Knife and Fork International. He was also a well-travelled. He circumnavigated the world six times and visited 127 countries.

The network of dinner clubs that Franklin’s father founded and that he continued were spread all over north America, mostly in the tiniest towns. The club system mirrored the old Chautauqua Circuit, a highly popular movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Chautauqua Circuit brought entertainment and culture into remotely located cities and towns that might not ever be exposed to an arena of speakers, teachers, musicians, showmen, preachers, musicians and other specialists. 

Mind you, the Chautauqua Circuit preceded television and radio for the most part and found its success in the roots of exposing refinement to rural America. The Associated Dinner Clubs and the Knife and Fork Circuit utilized that same path for its success.

Ben would book the big-name speakers of the seventies and the eighties like Earl Nightingale, Paul Harvey, Art Linkletter, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and scores of others. The clubs had an agreement to purchase all their speakers through Ben’s association. 

To fill a year of monthly meetings Franklin would have to place some “nobodies” like yours truly in many venues. I would often leave my home in Lexington, SC and travel for weeks at a time from one small city to another, earning meager fees and plentiful experience.

From my perspective, I was paid to visit every corner and crevice of the country while garnering experience that I could gather in no other possible way. 

It is fair to say these two Ben Franklins were impactful in my life.

Michael Aun Hall of Fame Speaker CSP®, CPAE ® is the author of  “The Toastmasters International Official Guide to Public Speaking” (Dearborn Publishing)