Bruce Miller studied names and dates, poring over history and culture lessons.
He needed to absorb every detail about Anson P.K. Safford. He needed to understand the man. He needed to be him.
A museum docent portraying one of Tarpon Springs' most famous characters, Miller wore what Safford would have worn, walked as he imagined Safford walked, knew what Safford would have known.
And then someone asked him: What did Safford's father grow on his Midwestern farm?
For Miller, playing the role of a city founder is part history, part acting — and part staying ahead of attempts to stump him.
"It's like doing a one-man show," Miller, 56, said. "You have to react. You just go with the flow. It's a mix of lines and improv."
Miller brings Safford to life throughout the year at the Safford House Museum. On Thursday and Friday, he will be joined by his historical family for the annual Victorian Christmas tour of the house where Safford lived. The home has been decorated and draped with poinsettias and garlands.
"Would you like to take a look around my house?" Miller plans to say when he greets guests as Safford. He will read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, and the Safford children will play throughout the house under the supervision of their governess.
A former Arizona governor, Safford founded Tarpon Springs in 1887. His third wife, Soledad, and his sister, Dr. Mary Jane Safford, lived with him in the Victorian house on Parkin Court in the late 1800s.
The home later became a boardinghouse and then sat abandoned for years. The house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was donated to the city of Tarpon Springs, restored and turned into a museum.
To watch Bruce Miller launch into his re-enactment of Safford is to watch history spill out onto the floors.
First, there's the look. The former repertory theater actor stands in pin-striped pants, a crisp white shirt overlaid with a vest, tailed coat and red velvet bow tie. It's his own outfit, a costume acquired from an acting gig as a butler.
Then, Miller knows the names and ages of all Safford's children, his first wife, second wife and third wife. He knows that Safford was fluent in Spanish and that he "didn't mess around with people, he didn't take people's garbage."
Sometimes, it can be hard to tell where Safford ends and Miller lives.
In a hallway portrait, Safford appears with abundant facial hair.
"I definitely keep the moustache for him," Miller said.
A cane is a crutch shared between the two men. Miller leans on it for his own back pain and as an actor to hint at Safford's impending death from heart disease in about a year.
Still, Miller wonders about a man he knows so much about but can never meet.
"What made this simple little boy from Vermont decide to go out and venture west?" he muses.
All Miller has are his best guesses. And so he answers the questioner, in the most convincing way possible, that Safford's father probably grew barley and oats.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.