Ben Franklin impersonator Mitchell Kramer
Courtesy of James Lockerbie

A Philadelphia Union fan wants to bring Ben Franklin to games

James Lockerbie has a dream, and if you’re a Philadelphia Union fan, he wants you to know about it.

The 40-year-old Egg Harbor Township, N.J. resident works as an emergency services (911) operator by day (and sometimes night). In nearly every other moment, he’s trying to cook up something for Union games – a goal-scoring, or other, celebration involving the city’s top Benjamin Franklin impersonator.  

It goes back to when the team was first announced in 2008, and Lockerbie joined an early wave of fans. Several years later, in the spring of 2013, he started talking to his older brother, Rob, about how he thought the Union should have a mascot.

Specifically, they talked about how great it would be if the Union had one in the mold of Timber Joey, at the Portland Timbers. He envisioned a human who could interact with fans, but more importantly, who could add something unique to goal celebrations as the chainsaw-toting Timber Joey does.

The concept was initially Rob’s: Get someone dressed as Ben Franklin to deliver some sort of goal proclamation upon the Union scoring. “We didn’t want a mascot like a Phillie Phanatic,” James Lockerbie recalls, referencing the plushy green monster that’s been a staple of Phillies baseball games since 1978. “But Ben Franklin, with all his symbolism and what he means to Philadelphia – how could this not be a good idea?”

Rob Lockerbie unexpectedly passed away in August 2013, and James has been thinking about their conversation ever since. So this year, he’s been leading a guerrilla marketing effort of sorts, getting one of the city’s best-known Ben Franklin impersonators, 48-year-old Mitchell Kramer, to make appearances at Union home games.

In fact, James Lockerbie has planned Kramer’s third appearance for this Saturday, when the Union hosts Toronto FC in a critical Eastern Conference showdown (7 pm ET, MLS LIVE).

Kramer also attended this year’s Union home opener, on March 20, in full Ben Franklin regalia, a day that the Union bested the New England Revolution 3-0. A GoFundMe campaign launched by Lockerbie also helped support a July 17 appearance by Kramer, when the Union battled the Red Bulls to a 2-2 draw.  The journey at both matches started in the Talen Energy Stadium parking lot, where Kramer-as-Franklin mingled with fans, and then progressed to inside the stadium.

Kramer-as-Franklin is still totally unofficial, and as such, his celebratory goal-proclamation signings, to date, have boasted considerably less pomp than an on-the-field signing might attract. Armed with a period-correct quill, he’s celebrated a table at one of the stadium’s Union Party Decks he and Lockerbie have been able to commandeer during games.

After the home opener, though, Kramer managed to get Union goalscorers C.J. Sapong and Sebastien Le Toux to sign the proclamation after the game. Lockerbie then donated the proclamation to the American Cancer Society, who in turn auctioned it off to a fan at a charity event.

As attention’s grown around the idea, some fans have come up with more fanciful ideas for a Ben Franklin goal celebration, perhaps involving a kite to reenact the legendary “kite experiment.” Lockerbie muses about the possibility of a printing press in the corner of the field to help print goal proclamations (or at least to allow Kramer-as-Franklin to set type, which, sure, isn’t as dramatic as a chainsaw).

With Kramer, they’ve found an ideal Franklin – an actor and teacher (and ninth-generation Philadelphian) who’s been doing portrayals of the Founding Father for more than a decade at some of Philadelphia’s best-known historical landmarks. “I’d never seen a soccer game in the U.S. before James reached out to me,” Kramer said. “It was so much more fun than I expected. I loved the pace of the game, and it attracted a big rowdy crowd.”

Kramer’s ability to play Franklin — the spry 50-year-old version of Franklin, he points out — has been playing best with fans who get to see him up close. He does, as Lockerbie does, see the potential for the goal proclamation to be an on-the-field moment to help connect fans to the city’s history.

“I’ve appeared with the Philly Phanatic before, and I can see where something like that would be disruptive and not the right feel,” Kramer says. “But Ben Franklin connects – it’s not arbitrary than the [team’s supporters’ group named itself] the Sons of Ben.”

For the record, the Sons of Ben aren’t officially part of the effort to bring a mascot to the Union, according to Ami Rivera, their president. But at least a few Sons of Ben members have been enthusiastic about Lockerbie’s campaign.

One of them, 23-year-old Paul Catrino, is convinced that the idea is “a marketing goldmine,” and became fully on board when he met Kramer-as-Franklin. “I tried to stump him with really intense trivia,” Catrino said, noting that Kramer passed his test with aplomb.

The team’s front office is certainly aware of Lockerbie’s campaign and unofficial activities. “We’ve been in contact with James throughout the year and it’s refreshing to see his passion and commitment to our club,” said Union vice president of marketing Doug Vosik said. “We are always looking for ways to improve our fan’s game day experience, which we already view as the best in Philadelphia. We’ll be looking at various new marketing opportunities to implement for future seasons, along with James’ concept, to build an even more entertaining fan experience in the future.”

Lockerbie will keep on with his unofficial celebrations for now, and holds out hope for the future. “It would mean that fans of all ages,” he says, “will be able to connect with a passionate and symbolic figure of our city's rich history.”

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