Robert “Doc” Boyle Ignites the Spark of History Through Holliday
The door to the new Doc Holliday Museum whispers open. A gentleman, worn black ball cap pulled low over his dark 1970s aviators, ghosts through. Silver sideburns edge the valleys of his lean face; a gunmetal gray horseshoe ‘stache emphasizes his square chin and pursed full lips. A beat-up suede vest slides over a pinstriped collared shirt, seemingly from another era. Altogether, he’s a man you’ll look at. Twice.
At 76, Robert W. Boyle commands attention. A true westerner and historian, Boyle is notorious as Glenwood Springs’ gambling gunslinger, Doc Holliday.
While Boyle has a blast portraying Doc, his truest love is history; his life’s work is his website, OldWestDailyReader.com. On it, he hosts a weekly radio show exploring the “fascinating story of the American Old West.” It’s also a membership reference site, with access to more than 3,000 pages all penned by Boyle.
“I’ve always been tangled up in cowboy stuff,” he explains, starting with a stint at a theme park. There he recalls getting “shot down in the street three times a day all summer. I was young enough to fall down back then,” he chuckles.
Boyle genuinely cowboyed years later, “pushing cattle for a fella over in the North Fork Valley. I was never a ‘real’ cowboy—in the sense that, yes, I could ride and shoot, but I couldn’t rope worth a hoot.”
Cowboys, gunslingers, and history are inseparable for Boyle.
“I’ve always—I can’t remember when I didn’t read history. It’s always been with me,” he says.
You can hear it in his voice, his accent, his cadence. The ghosts of two centuries seep from Boyle—the culture and mannerisms of the educated, the southerner, the banker, the gunslinger. Boyle has become his fascination.
As an adopted child, Boyle was long inspired by his sister Betty, 16 years his senior. “She had a high IQ,” he stage-whispers in awe. Betty retained much of the oral history of their family and brought it to life for her little brother.
“One uncle had been a bit of a ‘town tamer’ out in Western Kansas, and had worked one time, allegedly, with Wyatt Earp,” he intones quietly, as though either Betty or Wyatt might hear.
What were “town tamers”?
Moving into his rancher’s drawl, “Back then, a group of rowdies might take over a town—say, cowboys in town for payday and the weekend. If the town couldn’t deal with it, there were men who did deal with it, up to and including killing the group of necessary people. Usually, the scenario was, they were asked to move on.”
“The story is so good,” says present-day Boyle, “that it hooks you so bad—that some of us can’t lay it down. It becomes a lifelong attraction.”
And what does that look like for Boyle?
“I tend to follow Western history, and that’s how I became involved here. Years ago, Michael Chamber [patron/contributor to the Doc Holliday Museum] recruited me for the gunfight at 9th and Grand that he had put on at Pioneer Park. I played Morgan Earp, brother to Wyatt.” As Boyle puts it, “there’d be a thousand people in downtown Glenwood, I mean, this place would be packed. The cowboys’d be to the Holliday Saloon and there’d be this pushing and shoving match, grabbing at guns. ‘I’ll see you at the O.K.!’”
Back in those days, Boyle played it up, pulling crazy stunts with fellow reenactors. “We’d greet the Amtrak train,” he says, boarding with pistols and shotguns, pulling passengers off and threatening to string ‘em up.
Soon enough, portraying gunslingers became a career for Boyle. When the Doc Holliday Saloon hired him to impersonate Doc Holliday, he never looked back. So began Doc Boyle.
A highlight of his Doc years?
“One day,” Boyle’s voice drops, capturing the audience: “One day, Marty [owner of the saloon] had that round table up front, just inside the door. And there were about a half dozen Japanese tourists sitting at that table and the bar was full. I came through the doors, double-barrel shotgun and hide quirt. Harv came through behind me, mounted on a black horse, and the horse came right into that space, wheeled around, and I shouted ‘He ain’t here!’ Harv went back out the door, and I went back out the door and those Japanese looked like they had just—gone to God! Gone to heaven, ‘cause they are so cowboy-crazy it’s unreal! Marty says, ‘That was fantastic! Don’t ever do it again!’”
Bill Kight, executive director of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and longtime friend of Boyle’s, is the force behind the new Doc Holliday Museum and a veteran of the Society’s annual Ghost Walk with Boyle for 18 years. “When you’re seriously in character like Bob is with Doc,” says Kight, “you’re shining a light on parts of a person and parts of history that don’t normally get a light shined on. If that spark can ignite for other people in that moment, you’ve done your job.”
“You will not find this word in the dictionary,” Boyle says, “but I am a ‘portrayalist.’ I’m not a reenactor. There’s a real difference. My intent is to have people suspend judgment. At the end of the Ghost Walk, after a 15-minute performance, standing in front of that grave—people say to me,” (Boyle’s voice going sweet and submissive), ‘Doc, can we take your picture?’”
“I don’t work from a script. I work from a character in my head,” he adds. As Boyle dove into portraying Doc—everywhere from Telluride to Durango, Vail to Glenwood, New Mexico to Mexico—he realized he needed context. “And so I run a timeline. I have a loose leaf notebook that’s this big, thick timeline to me. I answer questions as Doc, not about Doc.”
Boyle’s comprehension of history is far from a timeline though. It’s become three-dimensional and dynamic, as interwoven with people and stories and as alive as your own history and memories are to you.
“Here’s the thing. Sure the cowboys and shootouts are a great come-on. We are a violent culture. Look at our television and our children—raised on a thousand killings before they’re 10. But the trick is to show the world behind it; show the relationship of that world to this one. How did we get our perceptions of the West? And how did that happen?”
Boyle is still working at that, and not only through his website.
With cancer and housing economics a looming reality for Boyle, he hopes to make it to his 20th Ghost Walk before finding greener pastures, whatever and wherever those may be. He hopes to mentor a replacement Holliday understudy. He’s also committed to helping the Historical Society secure a new, expanded home in the downtown historic core of Glenwood Springs, increasing the value of history as an economic engine.
“I have a lot to do still.” So says Doc Boyle.