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She's a Character, With National Implications

July 3, 2008 By:
Aaron Passman
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Aileen Goldberg

The Declaration of Independence was lost, and it was up to Hannah Lee and her puppet frog François to help find it. Amid sweltering heat, they rummaged through Old City's cobblestone streets in search of a quill pen to be used by Benjamin Franklin to sign the famous document -- if and when it turned up.

Fortunately, they had some help from Cameron Rousseau and Jillian Dubuque, two youngsters visiting Philadelphia from Granby, Mass.

While searching the area near Dock Creek Bridge, digging through dirt and bushes, the foursome finally came upon the missing pen -- but not before Hannah, a dedicated friend of liberty (with the full assistance of her royalist frog), explained the "new" concept of self-governance and its importance to the American Revolution.

The tourists met Hannah and other costumed "colonial interpreters" as part the "Colonial Kids' Quest," a tour around Harmony Lane at Third and Chestnut streets.

Hannah is portrayed by Aileen Goldberg, currently in her second season with Once Upon a Nation, a program from Historic Philadelphia, Inc., that brings history to life at crucial sites related to American independence by means of tours, storytelling and shows.

In addition to her costumed work, Goldberg does storytelling at benches throughout the area and performs in Girl Wonder, a live show about women in the American Revolution.

"I think I'm one of the few here that hated history class in high school," said the 26-year-old New York University graduate. "It was all facts and dates and slides, and I couldn't remember it. But I love museums and I love theater, so this program is perfect for me."

The Abington native (now living in Glenolden) has been an ambassador to Philadelphia for visitors from all over the world, including India, Australia and England. In one day alone, she regaled tourists from Massachusetts, Iowa, Arkansas and even central Germany, near Frankfurt.

This summer, Goldberg does her storytelling at a designated bench within walking distance of the Independence Visitor Center. Last year, she was stationed near the National Museum of American Jewish History, and said that all of her stories then were "very site-specific." That's ended up giving her the ability to add in a dollop of Jewish history to her tales, peppering them with anecdotes about Philly's own Haym Salomon and Rebecca Gratz, among others.

"It's sort of dashed in," she said. "It's not like 'This is a Jewish story!' It makes it welcoming to everyone."

One such example was the story of David Salisbury Franks, the Jewish aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold. Although Franks had nothing to do with Arnold's eventual treachery, he was forever associated with the traitor, and died a pauper, buried in an unmarked grave for more than 100 years before being moved to Christ Church Burial Ground.

"Rather than have a tourist correct me on my placing of a battle, I prefer more human-interest stories," she said, citing the Franks story as an example. "I like doing stories that make people think, and that they have an emotional response to."

Though this is Goldberg's second year as a cast member, it's her first in costume.

"It takes a lot more outside research to do colonial interpretation," said Goldberg, "and I really admire that in a lot of my coworkers, because I'm just getting started doing it."

Though the costumed work is closer to what she was trained to do, there are definite benefits to being out of costume.

"I can say, 'I don't know,' about things when I'm on the storytelling bench. Colonial interpreters have to be really on the ball," she noted, and stay completely in character.

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