Everett man big on Ben Franklin

EVERETT — A pair of spectacles help GregRobin Smith become one of America’s founding fathers.

The Everett man wears the glasses, a colonial suit, white stockings and black leather shoes with large buckles to transform himself into Benjamin Franklin in his one-man act.

“What I try to do is introduce the person as if they were real,” said Smith, 56. “It’s somewhat like reporting or being a detective; you can’t know everything so you have to piece it together from what you can observe.”

Smith, a truck driver for the University of Washington transportation department, has always been interested in the 18th century man who was many things

including a writer, inventor, printer, scientist, politician and philosopher. During the mid-1990s, Smith was motivated to learn more about Franklin, who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. His first performance as Franklin was in 2001 for students at Northstar Middle School in Kirkland. He has given lectures and answered questions as the man who is called the “original American” ever since.

“I can try and get into his mindset and try and be what he was,” Smith said. “He was one of the best writers in the early American time but was not a speaker and that is a small skill that I have.”

The type of performance he does is called chautauqua, said Smith, who is also an author. The style dates back to 1878 and is performed by actors who dress in character to bring to life a variety of personalities, including historical, literary and political figures.

His original plan after graduating from Eastern Washington University in 1977 with a theater degree was to join the U.S. Coast Guard. Friends instead convinced him to move to Seattle, Smith said. There he held a variety of jobs before 1981 when he and his wife, Cymbric Early-Smith, started The Interactive History Company. The organization offers hands-on educational programs based on different time periods. As part of the program, Smith also portrays Robyn Plaeyr, an Elizabethan actor, and a knight named Sir Gregory.

Robert Herold, a teacher at Northstar Middle High, invited Smith to perform more than 20 years ago for his students as an actor in the medieval program. He continues to invite Smith to the school to share his presentations with students.

“His Ben Franklin he does for all ages,” Herold said. “He has read voluminously about Ben Franklin and has incorporated all kinds of anecdotes about his life. …He’s a very engaging, very witty, very charismatic performer.”

His shows also can be fundraisers, Smith said. A portion of the proceeds from his three “Benjamin Franklin — The Original American” performances held Saturday at the ACT Theatre in Seattle go to several nonprofits.

During the show, Smith spoke about Franklin’s life. As a young boy, Franklin and some friends used stones from a building site to create a jetty near a marsh where they enjoyed fishing. They were discovered and Franklin’s father was not happy with his son.

“I pleaded to Father but this could be a useful project,” Smith said as Franklin. “He convinced me quite soundly that nothing which is not honest is useful. I learned this lesson.”

Smith spoke about giving away inventions, such as bifocal glasses and the lightning rod, to help people.

“Why would I want to patent them?” he said. “Use them. I get so much from you, why not give you something in return?”

When an audience member asked about the things Franklin regretted in his life, Smith said one was not resolving the issue of slavery. Franklin owned slaves and announced rewards for runaway slaves in his newspapers but did not believe in slavery, Smith said. He tried near the end of his life to convince members of Congress to take up the issue, but they didn’t.

“We gave that to you,” Smith said. “Parents. They create problems that they pass onto their children.”

Deanne Calvert of Seattle and her son Jack, 8, enjoyed the performance.

“It captured both our imaginations,” said Calvert, 48. “It was a lot of historical information but the back and forth with the audience kept it lively.”

Smith performs about 50 shows a year as Franklin but would love to do more and travel the world as the founding father.

“Franklin has improved me,” Smith said. “His belief was that you don’t have to be magic, you don’t have to be the chosen. He was a printer with less than two years of education and yet he stood before four kings. It’s impressive.”

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; adaybert@heraldnet.com.

Find Ben

GregRobin Smith, as Benjamin Franklin, plans to answer questions Wednesday from noon to 4 p.m. outside of the Snohomish County Courthouse, 3000 Rockefeller Ave. in Everett. For more information, email Smith at Ben@Ben-Franklin.org or visit [URL]www.Ben-Franklin.org;http://www.Ben-Franklin.org[URL].[/URL]

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