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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Atlanta's Bill Pacer is all about the Benjamin

BenBill.jpg
  • Courtesy of Bill Pacer
Veteran Atlanta actor Bill Pacer wants to expand people's perception of Benjamin Franklin as simply "the man who tamed electricity." "I'm helping to educate about a person everyone knows," says Pacer, who finds Franklin an inexhaustible subject. "What gives me great pleasure when I do Franklin is the number of times I say to myself, 'I didn't know that!'"

Pacer, who goes by the nickname "Barefoot Bill," first donned the 18th century spectacles and puffy shirt eight years ago. "I was hired for the Georgia Independence Day Festival to be Franklin as a walkabout character," says Pacer, who found that he enjoyed mingling with visitors in the guise of the writer, inventor, diplomat, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. "Friends told me, 'Why not do a Ben Franklin show? You look just like him.' I thought it would take just six months to do the research for it, and years later, I'm still researching. Any information I find out about him on the Internet, I double and quadruple check."

Earlier this year Pacer debuted the one-man show at The Country Doctor Museum in Bailey, N.C., (which certainly sounds like a place where the author of Poor Richard's Almanac would hang out). "They gave me the option to do the same 15-minute presentation six times, but I did a different one each time, so it was 90 total minutes of material."

Pacer tailors his Franklin performances to the venues that hire him. "If a church hires me, I emphasize his religious viewpoint. If a volunteer fire department hires me, I talk about him starting the first fire insurance company. The volunteer fire department doesn't really care about his politics. Parties, schools, businesses - Ben can go anywhere."

In addition to Franklin's political accomplishments and such inventions as the Franklin stove, Pacer likes to talk about his early hardships and lifelong passions. "I talk about how he ran away from his brother when he was an apprentice and sold his books to buy boat passage to Boston. Here's a man who became a vegetarian at the age of 16 to have more money for books. If you're a book lover, how would you feel if you came home and they weren't there? You'd be devastated! Because that's your life! And it's all gone!"

Pacer doesn't attempt the daunting task of replicating 18th-century Pennsylvanian speech patterns. "I put a slight British accent in it, but not much. The voice is my own regular voice, but the character changes how I present it. He was a common man, a self-made man. When you play with voices, you can make Franklin sound aloof, and Franklin was not aloof."

As a famously gregarious historical figure, Franklin seems more comfortable having a talkback session with 21st-century citizens than the likes of Washington or Jefferson."The founding fathers were wise. They did what they thought was right for the people and for the government, not necessarily what the people wanted at the time," says Pacer. "The question I get asked all the time, was Ben Franklin a Republican or a Democrat? I say he was an American."

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