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Tom Byrne Continues his Service in Dawson

by Dan Davidson

    When Tom Byrne thinks about the life and work of Robert Service he finds messages for living there. "The Quitter" has long been a staple of his long running Robert Service show, and he never delivers the poem without prefacing it with a little homily about its meaning.

    "The Quitter" comes form Service's third collection of verses, Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, material he wrote while living in the little log cabin on 8th Avenue where Byrne spent his summers from 1979 to 1998.

    Perhaps it had its origins in the years that the poet spent as a vagabond, before he succumbed to the lure of a steady pay cheque and returned to the banking life he had given up when he first came to North America.

    Perhaps he was thinking of the difficult lives revealed in the stories of the old timers, the hangers on from whom he soaked up so much gold rush era lore a decade after the event.

    For Tom Byrne it's about keeping on, no matter what. It ends with these words:

    "And though you come out of each grueling bout,
    All broken and beaten and scarred,
    Just have one more try - it's dead easy to die,
    It's the keeping-on-living that's hard."

    Tom Byrne is no quitter. When Klondike National Historic Sites posted the tender for the Robert Service Cabin concessionaire's position at the end of last season, it contained changes that Byrne decided he couldn't live with, so he didn't put in a bid.

    When we chat after his afternoon performance one day in early July he says he doesn't regret the decision. He's renting space in Chris Sorg's properties on Front Street, in a row of imitation gold rush storefronts that also features a video store, summer shop, ice cream shop and restaurant.

    The room is spacious, lit in part by a skylight that casts some real sunshine on the cabin set where Byrne sits to deliver his show. Pictures and prints from Arts Gallery decorate the walls, and Byrne's chair sits on a small riser in front of some red velvet curtains. If it weren't for the fact that the actual cabin Service lived in still sits on 8th Avenue, this location would be ideal.

    "I should have moved the show indoors years ago," he tells me, recalling days of chill rain and burning sun up at the cabin. The ends of the season (early June and late August) were nearly always uncomfortable as he recalls them. He'd often thought about just doing a show at the cabin when the weather was good, but it didn't go with the contract.

    He admits that his audiences are modest compared to what he's used to, but he's getting by. Regulars, some of whom come to see the show annually, have complained that they didn't know where he was, and it's true, he did miss the advertising deadlines when he organized this new venue. He thinks it will pick up as his location gets to be known. He even ended up adding a banner that reads "Starring Tom Byrne" to the front of his little theatre so folks would know which Robert Service Show this was.

    He's not fighting with Charlie Davis, the man who won the three year contract he used to hold, though he's still mad at Parks Canada. Off the record, people at KNHS still maintain that it was his decision, not theirs, and that a Byrne bid, had there been one, would have been a strong contender.

    There were sparks in the community and stories in the territorial press when he announced that he wasn't going to be at the cabin for 1999. The potential for controversy made it to the national stage when Saturday Night magazine published interviews with both Byrne and his successor, Davis, in the April 1999 issue. It continued on into June when another former cabin concessionaire, Conrad Boyce, wrote a letter to the magazine in response to the article.

    Some wondered if this might not be the summer which featured competing versions of the Robert Service experience shooting it out somewhere in the middle of town. But that hasn't happened.

    Byrne still delivers a great show, and markets his product live, on audio tape and CD as well as on videotape. He refers to the cabin as part of his presentation, knowing that true Service fans will want to go and look at it later.

    For the tourists, well, it just means twice the Service, and that's surely not a bad thing.

This article originally appeared in The Klondike Sun on Friday, August 6, 1999.

Robert W. Service: Bard of the Yukon