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PUBLISHED IN: Harrisburg Patriot-News, Small Market Meetings, Toronto Star, Hummelstown SUN, Northern Virginia Magazine.

SPECIALTIES: Active travel for average people, cycling, hiking, meeting destinations, historic places, exploring cities, conservation/ environment, Mid-Atlantic region, literary and travel and the offbeat.

AWARDS: SATW (Atlantic-Caribbean Photo/Writing) 2006

PHILADELPHIA: C'mon Baby, Let's Do the Twist

by Ann Witmer, Sunday Patriot-News (Harrisburg, PA)

Fifty years ago, an 18-year-old kid from South Philly made his mark on history with a song and dance called The Twist. Chubby Checker’s single still stands as the biggest chart hit of all time.

A half century later, Philadelphia still loves a good twist, especially when it means new ways to tell stories about the 300 years of history that give this city cachet.

1. Take Ben Franklin, that paunchy old scientist, inventor, philosopher, printer and statesman.

Did you know that when Franklin arrived in Philadelphia in 1726 he was buff? He could lift 200 pounds and swim for hours. “He was the Mark Phelps of his time,” said Ed Mauger, who does custom walking tours of historic Philadelphia. “He invented swim fins at the age of nine, had a hot tub and was a vegetarian.“

We don’t picture him that way, Mauger continued, because it was very expensive to get your portrait painted back then. People didn’t do it until they got older and wealthy.

The twist: Paunchy or not, Franklin is in rare form as the host of Liberty 360, a new 15-minute 3D production on a huge cylindrical screen in the new Historic Philadelphia Center. Franklin holds a small wooden box and, with a little help from his friends at the Niles Creative Group (who also made the Comcast Center’s video wall), puts a new twist on symbols this country reveres, like the eagle, the flag and the National Anthem. He also confronts symbols of our failures (slavery and the treatment of Native Americans). “We can’t change what is past, but we can change what will be,” Ben challenges. So what’s in his box? Liberty, of course, and a twist that will astonish you.

Liberty 360 opened September 29; next summer Historic Philadelphia will add a 3D outdoor nighttime show.

2. Or take Betsy Ross who stitched the first American flag and whose house is one of Philadelphia’s top ten tourist attractions.

Did you know that Betsy didn’t just sew flags? She worked her fingers to the bone as an upholsterer making chairs and mattresses and fancy fringes for Philadelphia’s upper crust? All while caring for seven children and a series of three husbands. She didn’t become famous until 57 years after her death when an artist, Charles Weisgerber, decided to compete for a $1000 prize for the best rendition of an historic event that took place in Philadelphia. He painted a picture of Betsy Ross in her parlor, presenting the finished flag to George Washington and his flag committee. Overnight, this painting of a meeting that probably never took place made Ross famous. Weisgerber later bought her house, set up the museum and lived there for the rest of his life.

The twist: This summer Betsy Ross’s upholstery shop became living history when Plexiglas that had long enshrined it was removed and Betsy went back to work making curtains, cushions and flags. If you drop by between 10 and 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday in October, she’ll show you what she’s doing, answer your questions and talk about her life.

Starting October 16, you can learn how she coped with losing her husbands, two of her children and two sisters to war and disease in a new exhibit, Death in the Life of Betsy Ross.

Twist again: And Weisgerber's painting that made her famous? The Birth of Our Nation’s Flag hangs close to home in the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.

3. The Liberty Bell, that icon of freedom, has its own glass house on Independence Mall.

Did you know it was cast in Britain? Twenty-five years later, it rang to herald the this country's Declaration of Independence from Britain. For years it tolled in the tower of the Pennsylvania State House (now called Independence Hall) and wasn’t known as the Liberty Bell until abolitionists began calling it that in years leading up to the Civil War.

The Twist: Did you ever wish you could hear the Liberty Bell ring? Sadly, because of its crack, the last time it rang with its clapper was on George Washington’s birthday in 1846. But twice a year the National Park Service does “ceremonial ringings” on the Fourth of July and near Martin Luther King’s birthday (January 18, 2011). Someone in white gloves taps the bell gently, very gently, to the sound of the Centennial Bell that now hangs in Independence Hall.

But any day of the week you can visit a web site to hear how the bell probably sounded. Gary Koopmann, the retired director of Penn State’s Center for Acoustics and Vibrations, did the re-creation. (

4. Then there's war. The Revolutionary War for independence, so well documented in Philadelphia, was only the first chapter in the succession of conflicts that mark our history.

Did you know that ever since World War I, the United States Army has commissioned artists to portray the human experience of war? It has been amassing paintings and sketches done by soldiers in the line of duty for nearly 100 years. There are more than 15,000 pieces of art in the archives.

The Twist: A stunning and powerful new exhibit, Art of the American Soldier, opened at the National Constitution Center September 24 and will run through January 10, 2011. It displays, for the first time ever, 250 works of art from the collection. In the heart of the exhibit, Michael Dees portrays an Army artist in his small studio in Vietnam: “We speak to a different place in people'fs hearts,” he tells those who stop to listen. “We capture the pain, the joy and the hope that survives.”

Artwork is grouped by three themes -- a Soldier’s Life, a Soldier’s Duty and a Soldier’s Sacrifice. Within them, paintings that span 100 years are intermingled in a blend that reveals the timeless sameness of death and courage, cruelty and compassion whether it happens on the lava of Ascension Island, the dust of Fallujah or the red-packed clay of Vietnam.

Touch iPads feature video comments by the artists and veterans can sign up to share their stories.

5. William Penn, the proprietor of the British colony that became the state of Pennsylvania, was a Quaker who lived his beliefs.

Did you know that Penn got his large tract of land as payback for a loan his father gave to King Charles II? Penn guaranteed freedom of religion in his "Penn’s Woods," but never turned a profit. He was imprisoned for debt in England and died penniless in 1718.

The Twist: You can get up close and personal to this principled man, or at least to his 37-foot bronze statue atop City Hall, by taking an elevator up to the 7th floor of City Hall, following red lines to an escalator, ascending to a waiting room, and taking another elevator through the innards of a 548-foot tower to a small observation deck just below The Founder’s feet. The views are breathtaking.

When Penn’s statue was put atop City Hall in 1894, it was to be the tallest building in the city. “Now eight buildings are taller,” said Susan Kellogg of Specialty Tours. “But Penn looks north and east and all the taller buildings are behind him. We hope he doesn’t notice, although he was a Quaker and wouldn’t have wanted to be up there anyway.”

6. Penn’s freedom of religion was unique among the colonies.

Did you know that Penn had many takers on his offer of religious freedom? English Anglicans, French Huguenots, Scottish and Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Irish Catholics, German Lutherans and Quakers flocked to Philadelphia. So did one of the country’s earliest congregations of Jews.

The Twist: Philadelphia will soon be home to the National Museum of American Jewish History. It opens November 14. “This is not another Holocaust museum,” said Jay Nachmann, the public relations director. “It is the American story as seen through a Jewish lens. It speaks to all people, not just Jews.”

Exhibits begin on the top floor and are connected by architecturally striking glass staircases that take you through the Revolutionary and Civil wars, covered wagons moving west, mass immigrations and life today.

One side of the sleek museum, made of transparent glass, overlooks Independence Mall. “People wonder why the national museum is in Philadelphia and not D. C.,” Nachmann said. “Jewish history is the story of the search for freedom. What better place to put it.”

7. Penn’s design for a “greene country towne” included five park-like squares and a grid of roads.

Did you know that Franklin Square, one of Philadelphia’s original five squares, has had a tough life? While the other squares have ornate buildings and fountains, Franklin Square has been a pasture for animals, a storehouse for gunpowder, a drill field for soldiers and a burial ground for victims of a yellow fever epidemic. Then it was squeezed by the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Vine Street Expressway. It got dirty and dangerous, not a place you’d want to go.

The Twist: After a $6.5 million restoration, Franklin Square is now a place to take the family. It has a carousel with an eagle, a Chinese sea dragon and two hometown race horses. There’s also mini golf with hometown holes like Boathouse Row and the LOVE statue. Restaurateur Steven Starr has a burger stand, known for Square Burgers and cake shakes made from ice cream and Philadelphia’s iconic Tasty Kakes.

Nearby, Isamu Noguchi’s 101-foot, 60-ton steel sculpture, Bolt of Lightning, twists skyward, memorializing Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment.

Twistin' time is here.

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