May 8-14, 2003
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Budget woes mean fewer colonial actors.
Theyve become a familiar sight in Old City and Philadelphias historic district -- local actors dressed in 18th-century clothes, conducting tours of landmarks and delighting children and adults with tales of life in colonial Philadelphia circa 1776. This tourist season, however, its a sight youll see a lot less often than in years past. Historic Philadelphia, Inc. (HPI), the agency that oversees the program, has fallen victim to cuts in the city budget that will force HPI to hire fewer actors for fewer hours this year.
Bill Moore, who does double duty as head honcho of both HPI and the Independence Visitor Center Corporation, says that while money is tight this year, his people will do the best they can with what they have.
"This is not a problem unique to HPI," Moore says. "Many of the citys arts and cultural organizations have taken a funding hit. Sure, were challenged by the cutbacks and wed certainly rather have too much money than too little, but were trying to maximize our resources. We have to use every dime in the most effective way possible and thats what were doing."
In order to maximize those resources, Moore says that instead of hiring the actors to work in April and May, this year theyll have to hold off until closer to the end of the school year, probably mid-June. And unless more money comes in, theyll probably end Labor Day weekend, as opposed to being able to continue the program into late September or October.
"We hope to be at full complement by the end of the summer," Moore says. "We know how important the colonial actors are to the Philadelphia tourism experience so wed like to get back on track as soon as we can. But budget cuts trickle down, so the citys financial fate is our financial fate."
Bill McKeon and Mark Saxton are HPIs production and program managers, respectively. As a team, McKeon and Saxton hire and train the actors and manage the program. Each actor undergoes 120 hours of training and commits volumes of historical facts to memory before going out on the street. These days, instead of training the actors, both men spend a good deal of their time scrambling to make the programs ends meet.
"The city usually gives us $750,000 to hire the actors," Saxton says. "Last year we only got $400,000 but we managed to get by. So far this year weve gotten nothing, but were hoping for $386,000 to come through soon."
"Our usual budget is $1.3 million," McKeon chimes in. "More than half goes to the colonial actors. We usually hire 60 actors, but this year were looking at five full-time and five part-time. What we need is for people to pitch in and help out. Call your corporate and tourism guys and let them know that these are more than just actors, theyre goodwill ambassadors for the city."
Moore praises the work of HPIs small staff and acknowledges the welcome assistance in fundraising efforts from his most recognizable character actor, Ralph Archbold.
Archbold has been playing Ben Franklin for about as long as anyone can remember and has turned the gig into a full-time profession. His face can be found on buses and taxicabs, in countless magazines and tourism brochures, at local events and just about anyplace a Ben Franklin look-alike would fit in. HPIs Bill Moore says Archbold took the news of budget cuts hard, and set out to do what he could to raise money for HPI and his fellow colonial actors.
"HPI has done a wonderful job and is a great asset to our fair city," Archbold says. "I get hundreds of letters and calls from tourists who say its the colonial actors who keep them coming back to Philadelphia. Anyone, especially children, who sees the colonials leaves here with a richer experience. Without the personal interaction, youre just looking at a bunch of old buildings."
Archbold says that hes been using personal appearances to put the bug in the ear of Phillys corporate types that HPI could use some help from the private sector.
"I hope someone will step up to the plate, or many someones," Archbold says.
HPI was started in 1994 by then-Mayor Ed Rendell and charged with marketing and promoting the citys historic district. As governor, Rendell has pledged his continued support for the program.
"Governor Rendells commitment to HPI is as solid as Ralph Archbolds," says Rendell spokesperson Kate Phillips. "These are tough economic times, but the governor hopes the economic stimulus program hes instituted will make a big difference next year to programs like HPI. Meantime, he supports the efforts of Mr. Archbold and others to secure more corporate and private industry donations."
As for the citys shortage of funds for HPI, mayoral spokesperson Joel Avery says that Mayor Street has not abandoned HPI, but hard times call for hard choices.
"HPI is a wonderful, creative way to expand the tourism experience, and the mayor loves the program," Avery says. "But the fact is that all city agencies have been asked to make sacrifices and HPI is no exception. That doesnt mean the mayor isnt committed to the program, because he is."
Told of Ralph Archbolds comment that without the actors, Philadelphia is just a bunch of old buildings, Bill McKeon and Mark Saxton laugh heartily and nod in agreement.
"Tourists come to Philadelphia for the history. What we do is make history come alive," says Saxton.