An actor's passion for playing the role of Maj. David Salisbury Franks, the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the Continental Army, has kept him roaming the streets of Old City in a hot wool coat for six years.
Mitch Kramer couldn’t impersonate Haym Solomon — someone else already had the plum role of portraying the Jewish financier who helped bank-roll the American Revolution — so he settled for a lesser-known but equally notable figure from the same period.
It’s been six years since he took on the role as Maj. David Salisbury Franks, the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the Continental Army. As a first-person interpreter, Kramer has become passionate about telling Franks’ story, which he says contains valuable lessons of embracing diversity and religious pluralism.
The passion he has found for his character is “exactly the same as biographers” feel when they connect to their subject said Kramer, who worked as a drama teacher in Maine before moving back to his hometown of Philadelphia.
“They’re not perfect people, but you fall in love with your characters. You find incredible qualities about them.”
Most summer days, Kramer is one of some 40 actors haunting Independence Mall, wearing Colonial-era garb and interacting with visitors, using 18th century dialect and giving them a sense of their characters’ history and values.
The program is run by Historic Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization that uses re-enactments and educational programing in the city’s historic district and beyond to make “our nation’s history relevant and real,” said the group’s chief executive, Amy Needle.
“It’s very important that we’re not just telling the stories of our founders but all the people that made history,” said Needle, who also is Jewish.
Franks is one such person whose contributions during the Revolutionary War aren’t widely known, even among Philadelphians. He spent five years under the command of Gen. Benedict Arnold, who eventually committed treason when he defected to the British side in 1780. By association, many thought that Franks had also been a traitor and, though he was exonerated, he never was able to fully restore his reputation.
For Kramer, 44, one of the things that makes Franks such an admirable figure was his intellectual abilities — he spoke at least seven languages — at a time when Jews were widely viewed strictly as merchants.
Kramer cited a book that describes Franks as the Jewish person George Washington would have been most familiar with. The actor said telling Franks’ story creates an easy opening for sharing information about the ways different religions coexisted during the Colonial era.
For instance, he notes that in 1776, 25 different religions were practiced in Philadelphia. He also tells how in 1788 many members of Christ Church donated money to help Congregation Mikveh Israel, where Franks was a member, overcome its financial struggles. In 2004, the two religious institutions joined to honor Franks at the Christ Church burial ground, where the patriot is buried, and to dedicate a plaque commemorating him.
Franks died in 1793, at the age of 53, a victim of the yellow fever epidemic. Kramer said it’s not clear why Franks was buried in the church cemetery where Benjamin Franklin and other more well-known figures were buried, rather than in a Jewish cemetery.
The people who hear about Franks’ connection to different faiths “discover that these separate communities can be turned to as neighbors to help each other,” said Kramer, who is married and lives in Elkins Park. “It is the key to our future. It’s the key to our country’s future and our success. But, equally as important, it’s the key to the Jewish future. It’s the key to our strength.”
Trying to animate those values for tourists helps Kramer ignore the hassles that come with walking around in a thick wool coat and a three-pointed hat when its 100˚ outside. But for him, it’s not the heat as much as people asking — sometimes 20 times daily — “Is it hot in there?
To which he often responds, “A gentleman is not seen without his frock coat.
Withstanding the city’s notorious summer temperatures is a point of pride. “When it’s 100 degrees and we’re outside doing a military muster with our wool coats on, I’m not a contractor. I’m not out building a tar roof,” said Kramer, who also portrays his character at schools, synagogues and churches and off season, is a storyteller. “I am happy at entertaining visitors for a living.”