Benjamin Franklin. Born this day, three hundred and three years ago, he would go on to become an author, publisher, scientist, inventor, philosopher and diplomat.
And let’s not forget cartoon character and cutting edge audio-animatronic.
The Walt Disney Company has brought the illustrious founding father back to life twice. First as a somewhat incompetent and comic character in the 1953 short Ben and Me, and then in 1982 as the co-host of the elaborate American Adventure attraction in the then newly opened EPCOT Center.
Adapted from the children’s book by Robert Lawson, Ben and Me is more the tale of Amos, a poor church mouse, who according to the story, was the true inspiration and innovator behind Franklin’s numerous and notable accomplishments. It was actually Amos who invented bifocals and the Franklin stove, and who helped turn the somewhat dry Poor Richard’s Almanac into the successful Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper. When the practical joking Ben literally “shocks” Amos in the famous kite-flying electricity experiment, Amos swears off their partnership and returns to his original church home. Years later in 1776, Ben seeks Amos out for help as the colonies prepare for revolution. Wishing to protect himself from further mischief on Ben’s part, Amos insists on a contract, the words of which provide the basis for Thomas Jefferson’s opening to the Declaration of Independence.
Ben and Me is a fun and entertaining film with impressive pedigrees. It was directed by Hamilton Luske, and studio veteran Winston Hibler was part of the story team. Nine Old Men alumni Woolie Reitherman, John Lounsbery, Ollie Johnston and Les Clark were among the film’s animators. Sterling Holloway brought his usual charm and humor to the role of Amos, while Hollywood character actor Charlie Ruggles voiced Ben Franklin. Ruggles would go on to play the part of Haley Mill’s grandfather in Disney’s The Parent Trap in 1961. Released in theaters with the True-Life Adventure feature The Living Desert, Ben and Me was well-received, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Subject.
Ben and Me later appeared on the Disneyland/Wonderful World of Color television programs, and inspired a few merchandise tie-ins, most notably books and comics. Amos was clearly a member of a new species of Disney mice, all very similar in design, that began with Cinderella’s supporting characters, and frequently showed up in other products during the 1950s, including magazine stories and record albums.
Nearly thirty years later, Disney would reinvent Benjamin Franklin again, in another animated, but altogether different incarnation. In 1982, Franklin and co-host Mark Twain began telling the dramatic story of the American Advenute through music, film and audio-animatronic figure-filled vignettes. The AA for Franklin, at the time one of the most sophisticated and complex created, became famous in and of itself for ascending stairs and walking across a set piece. Imagineer Dave Feiten spent a week walking and practicing with a cane, in order to learn the movements and in turn program the AA for the scene that had Franklin interacting with Thomas Jefferson.Perhaps most distinctive about the Franklin character in American Adventure was the voice acting provided by Dallas McKennon. His performance as the "proud elder statesman" feels dead on accurate, despite the fact that we have no idea what Franklin sounded like. McKennon appeared in a number of Disney live-action films, and provided voice talent for features such as 101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. He also supplied voices for other theme park attractions, most notably Zeke in the Country Bear Jamboree, and the Prospector who imparts safety warnings at the beginning of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Historians and biographers characterize Benjamin Franklin as a man of wit, humor and intellect. He likely would have been amused by the charms of Ben and Me, and no doubt impressed by the technology that brought him back to life for one of Walt Disney World’s premiere attractions.
This post was originally published on 2719 Hyperion in January 2007.