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Philadelphia Story

I can't remember the last time someone told me a really good story that wasn't related to a bad boss or a clueless boyfriend. That is, until last Saturday. That's when I came upon a sort of story-palooza in the City of Brotherly Love. Yes, this is a Philadelphia story. Actually, it's many Philadelphia stories, dozens of them, unfolding daily throughout 20 square blocks of Philly's historic district. It's all part of Once Upon a Nation, the city's summer-long living history program of costumed Colonial figures, audience-participation movies and lots of period gossip.

Have you heard the one about Lydia Darragh, Quaker spy?

"She risked her life for the Revolution," said an enthusiastic yarn-spinner named Sherry Przybyszewski, 21, on a bench in front of the Free Quaker Meeting House off Arch Street. "If caught, she would be hung for a spy."

Turns out that British Gen. William Howe and his redcoats took over the Darragh house in 1777 to plan a surprise attack on George Washington's ragtag Continental Army encamped outside of Philadelphia. The young Quaker crept up to the drawing room door and knelt with her ear to the keyhole.

"Lydia was able to hear about the plan to attack the miserable and ill-equipped little army two nights hence," recounted Przybyszewski. "She listened for another hour, knees aching. She needed to use the privy. It was freezing."

But Darragh was able to get word to Washington. The "surprise" attack was a bust, and a livid Howe grilled Darragh on whether she'd been awake that night. "No," she told him, and she wasn't lying. Under the law of the day, husband and wife were one. Since Lydia's husband was asleep in their marital bed, so was she. (Lydia would have made a fine defense lawyer.)

There are nearly fourscore of these true tales from the 18th through 20th centuries being told at 13 semicircular benches, for six hours a day, every day, all free. Go from bench to bench for one untold story after another. You know about Betsy Ross's flagmaking; did you know she also was a three-time widow, entrepreneur and munitions maker? Who knew there was a witch trial in Philadelphia in 1683, when Margaret Matson was accused of bewitching several cows? How about Benjamin Nones, a Jewish man from Bordeaux, France, who ended up in a regiment of all Jewish soldiers in the South and later was brought north by George Washington?

Once Upon a Nation, new this year, is produced by Historic Philadelphia Inc., a not-for-profit company created by former mayor Ed Rendell to promote tourism and economic development by making history relevant and engaging. During the first three weeks of operation, 40,000 people visited the story benches alone.

Sit and hear about Henry "Box" Brown, a Virginia slave who mailed himself to freedom. "He asked a shopkeeper for help," said Jillian Pirtle, 22, leaning in toward five children on the bench outside Carpenters' Hall. "He got a box, a small wooden box . . . and on March 29, 1849, he left town in that box, saying 'this side up.'

"Unfortunately, the box didn't stay upright. And it got thrown off the express train at one point, leaving poor Brown upside down for an uncomfortably long while.

"The blood rushed to his head when that box turned upside down," Pirtle said. But Brown did make it -- from Richmond to Philadelphia, intact.

The storytellers and reenactors get 100 hours of training at the Benstitute, a temporary academy of the anecdote. The tales don't last more than a few minutes and can be altered on the fly to fit the age of the audience.

The story at the bench outside the City Tavern was food-oriented, natch. We were directed to shout "No more lobster!" every time our storyteller pointed at us. Apparently, local prisoners were sick of the "trash fish" and "sea roach" they were served day in and day out, while the more privileged townspeople got to eat high-class food -- chicken.

Once Upon a Nation is not all talk. Along

Harmony Lane
, craftsmen and women in Colonial costume make bobbin lace, play the hammered dulcimer and etch scrimshaw. I tried my hand at graces, a Colonial girls' game of hoop-tossing meant to teach gracefulness. Around me, children played whirligigs (a pull toy also called a buzz saw), hoops and hopscotch.

One of my favorite spectator activities was the military muster. Thomas Jefferson gathered up children near Independence Hall, thanking them for answering the "call to arms." He promised each 100 acres of land in the Ohio Valley, $3.12 a month in pay, and a pound of beef and a pint of ale a day. Benjamin Franklin came along and spotted a child who had not joined up. He pointed. "Sir, do you love freedom? Then come forward."

They marched off behind fife and drum players in tricorn hats to a "training camp" a couple of blocks away, clumps of parents in tow. The fictional Sgt. William "Mad Dog" Inglesby gave the recruits an eye test first thing. "Close your eyes," he said. "What do you see?" "Nothing!" To which Mad Dog bellowed, "Great, you passed the eye test." When Morgan Hoffman, 5, of Baltimore, returned from the war a few minutes later, she told her parents, "That was the best time."

History gets another ribbing at a version of the movie "1776" with "Rocky Horror"-like audience participation, shown weekends at Independence Living History Center. Using bags of props, the audience played plastic flutes along with the opening credits, threw plastic flies at the screen when flies were mentioned, and stood up and sat down every time John Adams was told to sit down -- which was quite often.

I also paid for the Hunt for Democracy, a two-hour walking tour. By the time nattering Archibald Plummer, our fictional tour guide portraying the 1776 owner of the London Coffee House, introduced us to patriot Thomas Paine, loyalist John Dickinson and others, I was no longer a woman of the '00s. I was centuries back, feeling the pressure of British tyranny.

We ended up at City Tavern, where we were let into a secret meeting of patriots. Paine pointed at our group and asked,"Archie, are they truly friends of liberty?"

The crowning moment for me, though, was my minuet with George Washington. The general entered the theater at the Independence Living History Center, where a group of us had paid to spend an hour with him. He said he was stopping in on his way to New York to be sworn in as the first president. "I am afraid," he admitted. "This is a path not trodden. . . . I am not sure I am up to the task."

But the general also reminisced about the good times, recalling, for instance, his wedding-night minuet with Martha. He offered to teach us the dance, although after surveying our modern garb he said we looked as though we were still in our sleepwear. Washington, of course, was spiffily attired in wig, formal coat, ruffled shirt and button-front breeches.

Let history show that George Washington does a fine minuet, and he's not a bad dance teacher either. "Step, two, three, four, honor your partner . . . " Others danced, but only I danced with the man himself. Now there's a story . . .


First published in The Washington Post. All rights reserved.

2007 Ellen Perlman. All rights reserved.