SILVER SPRING, Md. – When people saw Barry Stevens, 71, in a revolutionary-era uniform they had one reaction: “Benjamin Franklin!”
“It happened every time without fail, “Hi Ben, how are things in Philadelphia?” Stevens said. “I can hear it in my head.”
The only issue was Stevens was not supposed to be Franklin. He was portraying a nondescript solider in the 1st Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line.
“They saw Ben Franklin in me. I never saw it in myself. It wasn’t something I had chosen or that I had aspired to,” Stevens said.
All of the mistaken identifications convinced Stevens, of Arlington, Va., that he should give Ben a try. Ten years later, he has traveled the world as Franklin. Stevens was Franklin at the 300-year-old Paris restaurant Le Procope. He played Franklin in the television show “Mysteries at the Museum.”
From event to event, one thing never changes: From elementary school kids in Silver Spring to Chinese tourists, there is hardly ever a mistaken identification. Tom Pitz, 67, a retired guidance counselor from Orange, Va., works with Stevens in a small interpreter group called The League of Most Interesting Gentlemen.
“We have been in restaurants after a presentation and been out of character. People will still come over and ask him if he is Dr. Franklin, even when he is not in costume,” Pitz said.
Stevens retired from the Treasury Department as a budget expert. He spent two years in India as part of the Peace Corps. He has lived in Hawaii, Kansas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
Now, being Franklin is Steven’s full-time job.
He does several gigs a month. In his spare time, Steven researches Franklin. It is a distinct path that he never saw for himself.
“The first thing was to learn about Franklin, and there is so much to know about the man. I wasn’t as concerned about where I was going next as I was about am I going to learn what I needed know to in time,” Stevens said.
There was a lot to learn. Franklin lived to be 84 years old. He was instrumental in the American Revolution and signed the Declaration of Independence. For nine years he was the U.S. ambassador to France and developed a reputation for favoring French ladies. Stevens puts all parts of Franklin on the table.
“It is one thing to just to dress up and take a picture, ‘Isn’t that nice?’ I want more for my Franklin. I want to be able to interact with people as if they are in fact interacting Benjamin Franklin,” Stevens said.
He owns four complete wool suits and handmade period leather shoes. He portrays Franklin near the end of his life, and he walks with a cane. The long, curly hair is natural. Besides looking the part, Pitz said, he captures the spirit of Franklin.
“Franklin was noted as not saying a lot in certain circumstances, but he was very prescient in his remarks,” Pitz said. “Barry captures that combination of being quiet and saying the things he has to say very effectively.”
It may not just be Franklin’s personality that makes Stevens such a popular interpreter.
“I have seen many other historical reenactors, and Barry is at the top of the list. The reason he is at the top of the list is he not only captures the spirit of his character, he engages people,” Pitz said. “They all gravitate towards Barry or Dr. Franklin. I’m not sure which it is.”
Reach reporter Sarah Fulton at [email protected] or 202-408-1492. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
Download photos: Franklin.zip