When the elderly gentleman makes his appearance, ice has covered the parking lot, stairs and handrail leading to the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Museum for African American History and Culture.
Because of the weather, the museum, at 1901 Fort Pl. SE, is quiet, nearly empty. A group of students who were scheduled to be there are home, iced in.
But here comes the 75-year-old man. He's using a walking cane, held firmly in his right palm. Slowed by a stroke three years ago, he remains sharp and alert. In a dark overcoat and khaki corduroy beret, he's also dapper, even telegenic, one might say.
"Benson, how ya doin'?" asks one security guard.
"I've really admired your work, sir," gushes another.
The visitor takes a moment to speak to each guard. They beam with delight.
Robert Guillaume is in the house! In more ways than one.
The two-time Emmy Award-winning actor, known primarily for his role as the title character in the hit 1980s television series "Benson," was taking time to tour an exhibition of 150 items of personal memorabilia that he donated to the museum in 2001.
The show, scheduled to run through Jan. 1, is among the first major events that the museum has produced since reopening last February after a two-year renovation. It also marks an important moment for the 35-year-old museum.
Because of its location far from most of the major Smithsonian buildings on the Mall, the Anacostia museum relies heavily on students and group tours. Directors would like to increase attendance, not an easy feat for a building that is a mile from the Anacostia Metro station, a mile that essentially must be traversed up a slight hill.
The museum has lured between 30,000 visitors in a down year to a high of about 45,000, Director Steve Newsome said. But he hopes to build on that and in a few years reach an annual attendance of 65,000.
Newsome said he is considering relaunching shuttle bus service from the Mall. It was discontinued years ago because of budget cuts.
"We want to develop more exhibitions that can draw people," he said. "This is a challenge, and an opportunity. After being closed for 2 1/2 years, we're starting to see traffic pick up. We're almost back to the level we were at the year before we closed."
The Guillaume showcase is a significant step toward reenergizing the place.
The exhibition includes his ABC television parking sign complete with gold star, two gaudy Vegas show outfits, posters from his stage roles in "Porgy and Bess" and "Phantom of the Opera" and the Emmy envelope from the 1985 show in which his "Benson" work was judged better than that of Ted Danson ("Cheers") and Bob Newhart ("Newhart") for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.
There is also a short video presentation with an interview of Guillaume, something he couldn't help but glance at during his recent tour.
"I'm not impressed," he said with a chuckle as he watched himself on screen. Told that the museum had high hopes that his collection would kick off a publicity blitz, he laughed again and said, "So I'm the guinea pig?"
"It's strange. I've never gotten over my humble beginnings. I don't know whether to be proud or to think, 'How much is too much?' " said the man born Robert P. Williams to a poor mother in St. Louis in 1927.
Guillaume changed his last name, he explains in the video, because "every Robert Williams I knew coming up was on death row." Why did he choose "Gillaume"? Well, the name was unique, and it added flair. Besides, it's French for "William," he said.
Guillaume donated his memorabilia to the museum after a Smithsonian official who knows one of Guillaume's assistants suggested the idea. Guillaume and his wife, Donna, invited Smithsonian staffers to their Los Angeles home and quickly agreed to the plan.
To Newsome, Guillaume is a perfect fit for a museum that celebrates African American achievement in the arts. "The way he combined his comedic skills with dignity was groundbreaking," Newsome said. "His work on 'Soap' and 'Benson' paved the way for African Americans on TV."
Guillaume started playing the Benson character on "Soap." He was a butler. But he quickly got a spinoff series as Benson Dubois, who became chief of the governor's office, then rose to lieutenant governor during the show's run from 1979-86.
Asked whether he considers himself a pioneer, Guillaume scoffed.
"I never thought about that," he said. "I just wanted to see how truthful I could be. I rendered the character from people I had known and personalities I had seen when I came up. People are attracted to people like Benson. It just turned out that way."
Whether the public will be attracted to a show on Guillaume remains to be seen. The winter ice has at times kept crowds light at the museum, which also features painting and photographs. After the exhibit closes, Newsome said, the museum plans to use Guillaume's memorabilia as pieces in future shows and possibly create a "virtual" show on video or the Internet.
Guillaume is keeping busy despite suffering a stroke while on the set of the sitcom "Sports Night" in 1999. His latest project is hosting HBO's upcoming series "Unchained Memories," a documentary of slave narratives scheduled to air in the spring.
Asked if he occasionally misses his personal items, Guillaume said: "Heck, no. Some of this stuff I don't even recognize because I haven't seen it in so long."
So he didn't display it at his home? "If I was the type to display it at my house," he said with a final chuckle, "no one would have asked me to do this in the first place."