Bob Jolly; beguiled history buffs, gave life to Lyric roles

Bob Jolly, with Renee Miller in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,’’ and giving tours on the Freedom Trail in Boston as Nathaniel Balch (left).
Bob Jolly, with Renee Miller in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.’’

As a Boston actor for nearly 30 years, Bob Jolly breathed life into roles ranging from the Lord Chancellor in “Iolanthe” to Major General Stanley in “Pirates of Penzance” to his final role as Ko-Ko in the Lyric Stage Company’s production of “The Mikado” last fall.

But it was not only theater-goers who knew Mr. Jolly’s work. For thousands of tourists, he was the much-loved interpreter and guide who portrayed John Hancock’s friend and hatter on hundreds of Freedom Trail tours during the past decade.

“Bob was generous, funny, and always creative, no matter what role he was playing,” said Spiro Veloudos, producing artistic director of the Lyric. “He took his work very seriously.”


Mr. Jolly, whose colleagues at the Freedom Trail say he was the most popular, most committed, and most talented of the 40 or so tour guides who bring Colonial Boston to life, died of a brain tumor Aug. 2 in Elizabeth Evarts de Rham Hospice Home in Cambridge. He was 60 and lived in Brighton.

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Mimi LaCamera, president of the Freedom Trail Foundation, said Mr. Jolly’s death left “a real hole here.”

“He was a powerhouse,” she said, adding that repeat visitors to the Freedom Trail, the brick-etched path that leads to 16 historical sites, often called in advance so they could time their visits with Mr. Jolly’s tours. The organization also relied on Mr. Jolly to train new guides.

“He was a wonderful guy, and he really knew his history,” she said.

Sam Jones, creative director of the Freedom Trail Foundation, met Mr. Jolly in the 1990s, when he was working for the Old Town Trolley Tours.


“I would see him in the Granary, just holding court,” Jones said. “He would be at Samuel Adams’s headstone, regaling the group, and they would all be spellbound.”

Mr. Jolly, Jones said, was the only Freedom Trail tour guide who supplied his own costumes.

“I’ve heard people say that Bob wore houndstooth better than Sherlock Holmes did,” he said. “He was a very snappy dresser.”

The character Mr. Jolly portrayed on the Freedom Trail was Nathaniel Balch, who was known to be a close friend of John Hancock, as well as his hat maker.

“Because he was a hatter, it was very important to Bob that he had the best three-corner hat on the Freedom Trail,” Jones said. “He was always adding little touches: abalone buttons, different colored plumes.”


Mr. Jolly also was very well read, Jones said, and a great fan of the Boston 1775 blog about Revolutionary Boston. “He put everything into it: the way he dressed, the way he spoke, the way he studied his history,” Jones said. Matt Wilding, a former tour guide who is now media and contact manager of the Freedom Trail Foundation, said his tours often crossed paths with Mr. Jolly’s, which resulted in “improvised banter.”

“He was the nicest guy you could ever meet,” said Wilding, who added that “everyone acknowledged” that Mr. Jolly was the best tour guide on the Freedom Trail.

As a stage actor, Mr. Jolly performed a wide range of roles in many Boston theaters and was well known for his interpretations of “patter” roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operettas at Publick Theatre Boston and the Lyric.

In a 2001 Globe review, Ryan McKittrick wrote that Mr. Jolly was a “top-notch” comedian in his portrayal of the Major General in “Pirates of Penzance.”

Mr. Jolly giving tours on the Freedom Trail in Boston as Nathaniel Balch.

Anthony Tommasini, reviewing “Iolanthe” for the Globe in 1990, said that “the deft comic choreography of the cast may be in part the work of a cast member, Bob Jolly, who was also credited as the special assistant to the director. For as the scheming, nimble-toed Lord High Chancellor, Jolly stole every scene he was in.”

The Gilbert and Sullivan roles were a natural fit for Mr. Jolly’s over-the-top personality, friends said.

“Bob never just walked into the room; he made an entrance every time,” Jones said. “He was very quick-witted, a joy to work with, he always made working fun.”

A grandson of a former Louisiana secretary of state, Bob Conway, Mr. Jolly was born in 1953 in Baton Rouge, La. According to his brother Bill of Baton Rouge, Mr. Jolly began his theater career by performing magic shows when he was 7 or 8. He learned to ride a unicycle for his first acting role, as the little brother in the musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” when he was in seventh grade.

Mr. Jolly graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., in 1975. He studied theater in the graduate program of fine arts at Louisiana State University and worked as an engineer and occasional on-air personality at a radio station.

In 1986, he was drawn to the theater scene in Boston, where he helped support himself early on by performing magic under the name Jolly Jinks, his brother said.

Over the years he worked with Emerson Stage, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, American Classics, and other companies, in addition to the Publick and the Lyric, sometimes as a writer and director.

He was also a board member and actor in the Watertown-based Improbable Players, a national touring company that teaches alcohol and drug awareness to students. He also appeared on television programs such as “Unsolved Mysteries,” “American Experience,” and “American Masters.”

In addition to his brother, he leaves two sisters, Eugenia Jolly Goff of Asheville, N.C., and Mary Etta Jolly Fizer of Mount Blanchard, Ohio.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Sept. 21 in Story Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

The service, said Mr. Jolly’s longtime friend Marshall Williams, “should be very joyful” and will include a New Orleans-style funeral parade from “Story Chapel to Bob’s gravesite on Willow Pond Knoll, with a Dixieland brass band leading the procession.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66