Dressing up like Captain William Clark for a living was never more awkward than the day when Ritchie Doyle appeared at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.
“They wanted me there at 7 in the morning, in my costume, my uniform costume,” recalls Doyle. “My name was up on the marquee as you entered: ‘Welcome Ritchie Doyle.’ It was awkward. I don’t like to be treated special, but all day long they opened every door and shut every door for me. We went on a VIP tour starting around 7 in the morning and around 10 o’clock I was getting in a Bell helicopter and we flew for 40 minutes to Tango, which is the underground command center, where they have the buttons that actually launch the missiles. They need to have the utmost security. So we had guns pointed in our direction. It was strange, I felt like I didn’t deserve to be on such an important tour. Who am I, in my costume, with all these serious officers, where they can launch some of the missiles?”
The Lewis and Clark Trail crosses the Malmstrom base, and Doyle was there to remind those working at the nuclear weapon command center of their connection to American history. Doyle paraded around the base dressed in a red, white and blue replica uniform like those used by the American military in the early 1800s. He looked ridiculous, in a patriotic kind of way, his riding boots shined, epaulettes providing an authoritative fringe to his shoulders, and a black bicorn hat covering his dyed red hair.
“I was using henna then. Now I use Revlon Light 53, not 43, because that will make your hair way too red,” says Doyle, who didn’t bother to tell his hosts at Malmstrom that his red sideburns were fakes imported from communist China.
“They’re huge when you get them in the mail,” he says, “as big as a hamster.”
The Montana Committee for the Humanities paid Doyle $150 to tour the facility and give a talk about Lewis and Clark history. Doyle unfurled the story like an antique scroll and regaled a gathering of military and community members with tales from William Clark’s post-expedition career. “I assume it’s 1825, and I assume they believe me as well,” says the 42-year-old Lolo resident. “I pretend to be living in the past and it works.”
With his drug-store dye job and costume sideburns, Doyle embodies William Clark, the great explorer co-credited with opening up the American West.
The journey of the Corps of Discovery began in 1804 and didn’t end until 1806. For the so-called “trail states,” next year marks the beginning of a three-year bicentennial. Doyle and his acting partner, Missoula property manager and aspiring comedian David Jolles, hope to capitalize on the increasing fascination with Lewis and Clark. Jolles does a convincing Lewis, and the pair do steady business with a traveling act they call “Manifest Scrutiny.”
They provide entertainment for office parties, benefit auctions and the annual meetings of historical societies around the state. In Montana, the demand for all things Lewis and Clark remains high. The state is aggressively marketing itself to “cultural tourists,” who are expected to generate a 10 percent increase in Montana’s overall hospitality business during the bicentennial. Some think the bump in tourism will be greater, others wonder if the country is getting tired of Lewis and Clark. An Oct. 22 story in The Wall Street Journal reported that early bicentennial events in the Midwest are “getting a lukewarm reception.”
Hot or cold, the Lewis and Clark story remains the focus of a mass marketing effort that’s obsessed with what is and what is not “officially” associated with the bicentennial. There are official coloring sets for kids, and the Tamarak line of “official walking sticks.” In Missoula, the Internet company www.lewisandclark200.com is locked in a bitter feud with a host of foes, including the state-run Travel Montana, which is heavily invested in funneling the 200-year anniversary into an economic boon. The owners of lewisandclark200.com are furious because they feel like their company has yet to be anointed as truly “official” (see sidebar).
Ritchie Doyle and David Jolles find all of this funny. They have their ears pressed to the Lewis and Clark Trail, and as the bicentennial approaches, they too hope to hear the sound of ringing cash registers. But these two reenactors are hawking a patently unauthorized version of America’s manifest myth.
Their traveling two-man act can pull down $500 a night for bringing Lewis and Clark to life in a way that exposes the underbelly of mainstream history. This may be the last territory left uncharted by the Corps of Discovery. It’s a great, ironic frontier filled with costumes, props and darkly humorous jabs at our notion of heroism. Doyle and Jolles probe a side of Lewis and Clark that’s difficult to merchandize, but continues to sell.
“As the 200th anniversary of our illustrious enterprise approaches, it would appear that the historical record of that enterprise has been besmeared, besmirched and dare I say blemished with inaccuracies, falsities, and irreconcilable poppycock,” Jolles told a recent audience, mimicking Lewis’ Virginia accent. The inaccuracies Lewis has in mind aren’t the kind stewed over by other reenactors. They have nothing to do with the authenticity of costume design or methods used to hollow out a canoe.
“Sorry, Lewis and Clark buffs, but new evidence presented by comedians David Jolles and Ritchie Doyle suggests America’s most famous explorers were more historical absurdities than heroes,” offers David Purviance, former director of The Core of Discovery at the University of Montana. Tongue in cheek, Purviance recommends the “Manifest Scrutiny” act for any event “where Lewis and Clark are in danger of being enshrined.”
Doyle, who also performs alone doing a non-comic rendition of Captain Clark, says the United States “didn’t need Lewis and Clark to open up the West, but we need them now to justify what we did.” The real Lewis and Clark put a virtuous and heroic face on the policy of Manifest Destiny. They opened the West to democracy, but they also paved the way for the extermination of Native Americans and the pristine environment in which the tribes once thrived.
“But you can’t hit them over the head with that,” says Jolles. Still, he and Doyle depend on the current Lewis and Clark hero worship.
It’s what keeps their act alive. They feed on the hype and ham in the spotlight cast by the approaching bicentennial. As Jolles puts it, “It’s the only commemoration that lasts three years, man! We can beat this to death. We want to beat this to death.”
Every time PBS re-airs The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, Montana’s tourism industry gets a boost, according to the state-run Travel Montana. The breathless Ken Burns documentary about Lewis and Clark portrays the pair as quintessential American heroes. In the film, Stephen Ambrose, author of the Lewis and Clark epic Undaunted Courage, offers a raspy cheer for his two favorite captains, and writer Dayton Duncan can hardly say “keel boat” without tears welling up in his eyes.
Doyle and Jolles have seen the film many times. It provides a great overview of the search for a Northwest passage, but it leaves out certain commentary that Jolles offers freely.
Take the expedition’s first meeting with the Nez Perce. Jolles tells the story in detail, as if he were dressed in an elbow-patched tweed blazer and sitting for a well-lit PBS interview. He recalls how on Sept. 11, 1805, the Corps left a camp near Missoula and ascended into the Bitterroots. Eleven days later, they’d be saved from starvation by the Nez Perce.
Jolles sets the scene. He talks about how the Nez Perce thought about killing everyone in the Corps for their firearms and other booty.
The men were saved by the intervention of a single Nez Perce woman, who asked that the expedition members be spared. It’s a dramatic moment, but for the woman whose kind words saved Lewis and Clark, says Jolles, “It’s the dumbest fucking thing she ever said.
That was the first Indian who really fucked up. And what did the United States of America do in return? They systematically fucked them for 200 years.”
My, my, Captain Lewis, what language. Jolles cleans it up when he’s on stage, but the 43-year-old Missoula transplant from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., has a history of off-color performances. In the early ’80s, he pulled the worst shifts at low-end stand-up comedy clubs in D.C. To make extra money, he delivered stripping telegrams.
After moving to Montana, Jolles got into the reenactor game by mimicking late television personality Vi Thompson, who hosted a public service announcement show on Missoula’s KECI. During a benefit variety show in 1993, Jolles performed a scene in which Vi is stalked by a psychotic groupie. It got a little out of hand when the groupie grabbed Vi and began humping her from behind, says Jolles. “The crowd started booing and that’s the one time when I thought to myself, ‘You know, maybe I’ve taken this too far.’”
Inside Jolles’ house on Blaine Street, whitetail pelts from past hunts cover the hardwood floors. In his record collection are the scores to several Broadway shows, and in Jolles’ stereo cabinet, there’s a video tape copy of Abs of Steel.
The house is a college-town bachelor pad where Jolles and his pal Doyle cook up new material. They’ve done shows on MCAT, and in 1998 the pair staged a bit of eco-political theater in front of Forest Service headquarters in downtown Missoula. Jolles played a doctor and Doyle played a tree.
Doyle usually plays the straight man when he teams up with Jolles. The Hellgate High School graduate and history buff is a versatile actor, who says he earns “oh, maybe 85 percent” of his income through acting. On New Year’s Eve, the city of Missoula hires Doyle to dress up as Father Time. He dons a grandfather clock costume, which doubles as a walking puppet theater. For a local tour company, he plays fur trapper Jean Baptiste Lapage, a member of the Corps of Discovery who paces the tour bus aisles recounting frontier history in a French accent.
In 1994, Doyle played Edward Charles Abbott, “a cow puncher who spoke out for the Indians,” as part of a program put on by the Montana Committee for the Humanities. That job led to another when Doyle was asked by the Committee to pick another historical figure to reenact. With the bicentennial approaching, a friend suggested William Clark.
Seven years later, Doyle’s still at it. He lives just a musket shot away from Travelers’ Rest State Park in Lolo, where Doyle reads everything he can about his alter ego. Captain Clark was an Army buddy of Meriwether Lewis. He was home-schooled by his brothers in the Kentucky outback and became the chief cartographer in the Corps of Discovery. Doyle carries on the Clark tradition of map making today. He’s learning to use a sextant, but for now his cartography consists of Xeroxing antique expedition maps. Doyle soaks the copies in coffee (fresh ground, not instant), then dries them inside his oven on a baking sheet with the temperature set at 110 degrees.
Each map costs about 50 cents to produce. At a recent benefit auction, one sold for $300.
Six years ago, Doyle booked a six-stop tour for his William Clark character in eastern Montana. Jolles came along for the ride in Doyle’s 1989 Dodge Caravan, which racks up 20,000 miles a year traveling to performances. During the tour, Jolles told Doyle his William Clark act “really bored the piss out of me.” So Jolles hatched the idea of creating a two-man lampoon squad. Their mandate, according to a Manifest Scrutiny promotional handout, is to “set the historical record straight with a fresh perspective on everything from the places they really slept to whether they actually discovered anything at all.”
“On one level, I’m just having fun,” says Jolles, who does bear some resemblance to Captain Lewis. “On another level, I have a point to make—we didn’t open up the West, we invaded sovereign Indian nations.”
Amy Mossett, a descendant of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribe who stays busy giving presentations about Sacagewea, says, “People look at the whole Lewis and Clark story from one lens. What [Doyle and Jolles] are doing is showing the certain themes that have been perpetuated inaccurately for so long.”
Heroism. Patriotism. Undaunted courage: In a word association game, these are the terms that come to mind when someone says “Lewis and Clark.” Doyle and Jolles have created their own game. They call it “Undaunted Jeopardy.”
The fun begins with a call for volunteers. A faux deer hide lashed to a pair of tree branches provides the game board. Captains Lewis and Clark are dressed in period costume. Clark sports his Chinese sideburns, and Lewis has combed his hair forward and sprayed it prematurely gray.
The audience tonight is the annual meeting of the Virginia City Preservation Alliance. Dinner is over and it’s time to play Undaunted Jeopardy.
“I’ll take ‘Medical Marvels’ for $500,” says one volunteer.
Lewis pulls a question off the buckskin and reads: “This was used as a deterrent for the men’s sexual appetite just by displaying it.”
A contestant pipes in: “What is a pair of pliers?”
Lewis and Clark confer while the crowd of historic preservationists laughs hysterically.
Lewis shouts over the laughter: “That is correct!” Then adds, “What we were actually looking for was the penis syringe. This is a replica.” The good captain then runs through the audience squirting a giant penis syringe. Something of the sort was actually carried by the Corps of Discovery, which suffered through several outbreaks of venereal disease.
The game continues, concluding with the crowd humming the musical countdown to “Final Undaunted Jeopardy.” The question: “The trail west was first blazed by these undaunted individuals.” The obvious answer: “Who were Lewis and Clark?”
“Wrong!” shouts Lewis, relishing the moment. “The correct answer is ‘Who were the Indians, who were the Indians?’”
The joke falls flat, but Lewis and Clark continue, undaunted. Clark picks up a banjo and starts picking the chords to “The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Rag.”
“Tom gave us twenty-five hundred bucks, pointed up the Missouri and said, ‘Good luck!’” sing Lewis and Clark as they contemplate in song what it meant at the time to nearly double the size of the country: “It’s a whole lot of room to trap and chop and plow.”
The night’s performance is light on message, heavy on yucks, and the audience hoots and hollers when the show comes to an end.
Back at the Dodge Caravan, Doyle changes out of his costume.
Asked how he thought the performance went, he says, “The captains would have said, ‘That was of particular merit.’”
Doyle packs a corncob pipe with American Spirit tobacco and takes a couple hits. He then confides that while the show’s sight gags get a lot of laughs, “I don’t want to be remembered as the penis syringe act, but oh well.”
Doyle used to live in Virginia City, a tiny gold rush town south of Butte that’s filled with historic buildings and home to a community of reenactors. Allyson Adams is one. She’s an attractive, petite, 40-ish woman who travels the state playing Jeannette Rankin, a homegrown Montana heroine and the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress.
“I actually believe that powerful historical figures have powerful spirits and messages that they still want, still need to be brought to people today,” says Adams, who shyly admits to “channeling” Rankin’s spirit. “It just sounds hooey wooey to say I channel her. But this is something that the first actors, the Greek actors, did. Theater was sacred, and they were the messengers of the gods, the messengers of the spirits. This is where theater comes from when it was religion. You empty yourself as an empty vessel and you really do let the spirit or the gods speak through you. I wouldn’t say that that’s what happens to me every performance, but on a good night…”
Adams laughs and offers a punch to the shoulder for emphasis. To commune with the true spirit of Lewis and Clark, Doyle turns to journals kept by members of the expedition. He cautions that, “Among reenactors, there’s a rule that you don’t try to talk like they talked. We have no idea, don’t go there. That’s what some reenactors believe. But with William Clark, I can’t help think about it because he misspelled many words and some of them were very obvious phonetical spellings.”
For instance, Clark spelled “path,” P A R T H. So Doyle folds an “r” into his speech when pronouncing words ending in “th.” It’s a clever touch, but as Captain Lewis points out, “It’s nothing compared to convincing people that you’re psychotic. That’s tough.” (Lewis is thought to have been manic-depressive.)
Still in costume, a tipsy Captain Lewis celebrates at an after-party in Virginia City’s Pioneer Bar. He plays pool and basks in the cautious attention of a female fan (earlier in the evening, Lewis lamented his lack of star power, saying, “Let me put it this way, I’ve never had to come back to the room and tell Clark to get lost for a couple hours”).
While Lewis flirts, Clark stands by the bar and confesses his love of archaic words. Someone offers a new one for the act: “avast” (it means halt).
The word is a relic and reenactors deal in relics. They breathe life into history by becoming living, breathing and buckskinned reflections of the past.
Peter Drowne is a reenactor from Bigfork whose business—Rendezvous With History—specializes in providing a hands-on look at history. Drowne dresses up like a mountain man from the 1800s. He wears a coyote pelt hat and lets his audience experience what it’s like to hold a musket.
“There’s no substitute for bumping up against the real thing,” says Drowne, who has a history degree from Dartmouth and used to live year-round in a tipi. Drowne gets a charge out of reenacting because it gives him a chance to strip the Lewis and Clark story of its romantic tinge.
“I get to carry on the tradition. I get to be real with people,” says Drowne. “I give them insights and dispel the Hollywood, John Wayne image.”
Like most reenactors, Drowne reveres Lewis and Clark. He admires the incredible moxie each possessed, the teamwork demonstrated by the Corps of Discovery and the achievement of their expedition. Through reenacting, Drowne feels like he’s adding substance to a society that’s increasingly artificial.
“So much stuff today is instant and synthetic,” he says. “You can dial it up on the Internet or see it on the History Channel, but do you understand it?”
Doyle and Jolles wonder the same thing. They sense that if the story of Lewis and Clark is left unquestioned, it will become as superficial as the tale presented in the melodramatic 1955 Hollywood film The Far Horizons. Fred McMurray stars as Captain Lewis. Jolles keeps a picture of the actor in his office as a tribute to everything he finds funny about Lewis and Clark.
“It’s just ripe for political lampooning,” says Jolles, who’s in the reenacting game to point out the hypocrisy found in this corner of American history. “They didn’t ‘discover’ anything. And they called the Indians savages as if they were down on all fours barking. Well, it turned out we were the savages. For the Indians, it was the beginning of the end.”
This raw history isn’t exactly hilarious. “But if you tell it in a clever, funny way,” says Jolles, “the audience doesn’t realize what you were really saying until they’re on their way home.”
Being funny is what really matters to Jolles. His buddy Doyle is also in it for the laughs, but he wants to continue doing more conventional work as well. In order to protect their careers, they turned down an offer to appear in a local TV commercial for Ole’s Country Stores. As Doyle says, “We didn’t want to be remembered as the two captains who sell corn dogs and gas.”
Officially yours: The Lewis and Clark pecking order
First there was President Thomas Jefferson, who bestowed the privilege of exploring a new piece of real estate known as the Louisiana Purchase upon Meriwether Lewis. Next came William Clark, who dutifully and officially pledged his assistance to Lewis.
Two hundred years later, we have Diane Norton, a woman in Yankton, S.D., who is officially responsible for separating the unofficial from the fully official in merchandizing matters related to Lewis and Clark. Today, consumers can sample Lewis & Clark Sea Salt (“Taste the Adventure”) or a BISON-TENNIAL snack and supper pack of buffalo products. To hang from their rearview mirrors, Lewis and Clark devotees can purchase an official air freshener: “Legendary Scents to freshen your journey.” Choose from “Missouri River” with its “birch and earth scent,” or “Trail Berry,” which promises an enticing mix of aromas: “Wild buffalo and Juneberries with a touch of moss.”
Companies hoping to cash in on what’s anticipated to be a bicentennial buying spree of “official” products associated with Lewis and Clark must submit a sample to Norton, who can reject the product or give it the L&C seal of approval. When asked about the products she’s rejected, Norton says, “I’m looking at a whole shelf of them.” There’s the poster that pictures Sacagawea leaving with the Corps of Discovery from St. Louis, and another product that includes “some sort of fake liquid gold,” says Norton.
Norton’s company, www.lewisandclark trail.com, received its mandate (in the form of an exclusive contract) from the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in 2000. The National Council is a non-profit group based in St. Louis. It was created in the 1980s by the 35-year-old Lewis and Clark Trail Foundation, which is the recognized “keeper of the story” and “steward of the trail,” according to its Web site.
Working closely with the National Council, trail states like Montana have formed their own bicentennial commissions. These commissions network with other public and private agencies in a collective effort to market the bicentennial and organize a series of official “signature events.”
Such events are expected to attract millions of “cultural tourists” who want to commune with American history. That’s great news for Montanans in the hospitality business, but Brent Lane with the Missoula company www.lewisandclark200.com accuses the state of not being prepared for the coming onslaught of Lewis and Clark buffs. He worries that a signature event planned in Great Falls could turn into “another Woodstock” with an overwhelming wave of visitors trampling sacred ground.
Clint Blackwood, director of Montana’s publicly funded state bicentennial commission, says it’s hard to predict whether or not Montana will have to deal with hordes of Lewis and Clark fans driving minivans that smell like buffalo and moss.
“I won’t lie to you—it’s an unknown,” says Blackwood. “Does it frighten me? It doesn’t frighten me. But it is an unknown.”
An outspoken pariah in “official” Lewis and Clark circles, Lane routinely blasts Blackwood and the state for their “stupid” approach to the bicentennial. Seems the bad blood stems from an ongoing dispute between Lane and various organizations that have never blessed Lane’s company with any “official” Lewis and Clark recognition.
Betsy Baumgart with Travel Montana won’t even discuss the state travel office’s ongoing feud with Lane. The head of the state travel office became Lane’s mortal enemy after Travel Montana refused to link its Web site with www.lewis andclark200.com.
“I’m a huge threat to [Travel Montana],” says Lane. “My site is more beautiful and I’m way ahead of the game.”
Before others thought to do it, Lane’s company purchased hundreds of Internet domain names related to Lewis and Clark.
“Brent beat them to the punch and he pissed off a lot of people,” says Doreen Krabbenhoft, executive director of the Lewiston Idaho Chamber of Commerce. Krabbenhoft recalls how Lane’s company was uninvited to a Lewis and Clark convention in Lewiston by the official powers that be: “They didn’t want to give him official acknowledgement,” she explains.
Lane’s company feels so snubbed, it’s considering a move from Missoula to Nebraska. According to an undaunted release put out by www.lewisandclark200.com, officials in Nebraska state government are interested in working with the company because, “We own the entire Lewis and Clark Trail on the Internet.”