At Age 290, Benjamin Franklin Has Finally Hit the Big Time

Article excerpt

HE fretted about his weight, obsessed over work, was a guru of self-actualization and a devotee of high tech, had a thing about his image, knew how to have a good time and could spin on any subject.

He, of course, is Ben Franklin, dubbed the "Hot Founding Father" by Rolling Stone magazine.

"Thomas Jefferson may have had his own movie and George Washington may have his own magazine, but they've got nothing on Ben Franklin," Rolling Stone wrote. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. Where to begin. This year, Kazuo Majima, a member of Japan's House of Councillors, translated Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanack" into Japanese. There is a Franklin exhibit on display in Berlin. The hottest impersonator among a dozen or so faux Franklins is Philadelphia-based Ralph Archbold. When you call his answering machine, you hear: "This is Ben Franklin." These days, Archbold is booked solid. "I couldn't be busier," he says. He travels all over the country with his waistcoat, knee britches and ruffled white shirt. He says his character is as popular with corporate bigwigs, who hire him to entertain at executive gatherings, as it is with people in the street. "I have homeless people who relate in no way other than to ask people for money, who will light up when I walk near because they see Ben Franklin, and they know Ben Franklin and they know he's a friend," Archbold says. On the international currency market, Ben Franklin took center stage when the U.S. Treasury redesigned his image on the $100 bill, the most widely circulated note outside the United States. The new counterfeit-proof design, a more full-faced shot of the kite flyer, shows him somewhat younger, if rounder and poutier. A penny saved is a penny earned. On the Internet, there is a profusion of Benjamin Franklin Web sites, everything from essays by children attending schools named for the inventor to historical backgrounders by fan clubs to commercial ads by firms like G. Finkenbeiner Inc. of Boston. Gerhardt Finkenbeiner produces, for a tiny but growing market, the glass harmonica invented by Franklin - and now a favorite accompaniment for singer Linda Ronstadt. Even the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial in Philadelphia has a Web page, says executive director Larry Tice. "We get thousands of hits a week." This year, both the Discovery and the Arts & Entertainment channels have aired Franklin documentaries. Sales for the Utah company that makes Franklin Day Planners - printed in English, French, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese - jumped this year by 25 percent. At least five new editions of Franklin's famous autobiography have been published recently, adding to the dozen editions already in existence. (The book was untitled when Franklin wrote it but now is known as "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.") At Yale University, where scholars have been painstakingly assembling into volumes everything Franklin wrote and received in correspondence, phone calls have been coming in from an eager public craving a sampling of Franklin trivia or wit. Says senior research scholar Barbara Oberg: "He really captures people's imaginations." Earlier this year, Franklin made Forbes magazine. …