By Dan Davidson
Tom Byrne, known for nearly 30 years as the voice of Robert Service at the little cabin on 8th Avenue, and later on Front Street and at the Westmark Hotel, celebrated his 90th birthday on January 10 in Robert Creek, B.C. on the Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Byrne came to Canada with his family in 1956 and moved North in the early 1970s when he was hired to work for the NWT’s Housing corporation in Inuvik. There is some traffic between there and Dawson City, and Tom, who had started an amateur theatre troop in his new home, brought the group to the Klondike’s Break-up Drama Festival in 1979.
While in town he recited a bit of Robert Service and was asked if he would consider reciting regularly at the cabin during the summer seasons. “The Robert Service Show”, as it became known, ran at the cabin for the next 28 years, with one season’s absence to stage it in Vancouver during Expo 86.
Byrne acquired a cabin in the North End of town and spent his summers and parts of some winters here for many years. In the off-season it became his stock in trade to take the words of his favorite poet on tour to schools all over the lower mainland.
During his time in Dawson his performance became nearly as well known as the poet he had set out to honour, and spread through the creation of audio and videotapes. He became a national figure of sorts, and was featured on Wayne Rostad’s “On the Road Again” in 1998.
In 1999 he severed his relationship with Parks Canada over a contract dispute and moved his show, first to a storefront on Front Street and later, by request, into the Westmark Hotel. The initial move made the national news and was featured as an article in the monthly Saturday Night magazine.
By 2004 the breech had healed and Byrne was presented with a memorial Jim Robb print of the cabin by Parks Canada in a ceremony at the place where he had held forth for so many years.
His daughter, Christine Byrne, who has been living with him for the last three years, says that Tom is in fair health for a man his age. A life-long asthmatic, he has lung problems caused by his 85 years of battling for proper breath, but he takes a long walk every day.
There were two birthday celebrations, one on the 10th and another the next weekend. There are about forty people in Byrne’s extended family, including the recent addition of a great-granddaughter a week or so prior to his own birthday.
Though he hasn’t done a regular show for about five years now Byrne still recites Service at the drop of a hat and his daughter says he still has the verses by heart.
Christine Byrne says that she and her dad would like to plan a trip to Dawson this coming summer, to touch bases with old haunts and friends and perhaps to do something about selling Byrne’s cabin, which has been unoccupied for a number of years now.