On the Brief, Transitory History of Wild West Shows

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Here’s another post in honor of Native American Heritage Month. 

The Wild West Show was a unique and popular branch of popular entertainment, akin to the circus, the sideshow, the rodeo, the Indian medicine show, and the melodramas. It is the immediate precursor of the cinematic genre known as the western. The Wild West Show flourished at the of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Its existence can be laid at the feet of the one and only William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who invented the form, took it to terrific heights, and was much imitated.

Cody was one of the greatest showmen of all time, second only perhaps to P.T. Barnum. He of course held many jobs before he went into show business: Indian scout, buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider, Union soldier, gold miner, etc etc, etc, but our main concern here is what he did in front of audiences.In 1872, under the management of Ned Buntline (who’d previously enhanced his fame with a series of popular dime novels), Cody starred in a number of melodrama plays reenacting his western adventures, often co-starring the likes of Texas Jack Omohundro and Wild Bill Hickok. In 1883 he founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (to reinforce the feeling of realism in his entertainments he omitted the word “show” from its title. Sharpshooters Annie Oakley and Frank Butler (subjects, along with Cody, of the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun) were among his famous performers, as was Sioux Chieftain Sitting Bull. 

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Just as Cody kept scores of “cowboys” under his employee to re-enact buffalo hunts, cattle drives, stagecoach robberies and duels, so too did he hire scores, probably hundreds of Plains Indians (mostly Pawnee and Sioux), many of whom like Sitting Bull were essentially playing themselves in re-enactments of famous Indian battles like Custer’s Last Stand. It’s hard to know what to compare this to…the Coliseum of ancient Rome perhaps. Thousands of people watching a vanquished “enemy” play war games. The Natives were fed, clothed, boarded and paid, of course. But they can’t have been oblivious to the fact that it was an affront to their dignity. Arthur Kopit wrote the terrific play Indians about this subject, which Robert Altman made into the 1976 film Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The Wild West’s 1887 trip to London inspired Alan Moore to include Buffalo Bill’s “savages” among the suspects in his Jack the Ripper graphic novel From Hell. Chief Joseph and Geronimo were also among the famous Native American chiefs Cody employed.

In 1893, Cody pitched his show outside the Chicago World’s Fair, having been denied participation in the fair itself. He drew as many customers as the fair did. It was this incarnation of the show that inspired young Chicago native Flo Ziegfeld to go into show business.

The success of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West inspired countless competitors and imitators:

Pawnee Bill Wild West Show, 1898, Strobridge Litho. Co-500

The greatest of these was Gordon William Lillie, a.k.a Pawnee Bill, whom for some time Buffalo Bill regarded as something of a turncoat. Lillie became Pawnee Bill in 1883 when he was hired by Bufallo Bill’s Wild West to be a Pawnee interpreter. In 1886 he branched off into his own show with his wife May Manning, “The Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West.” “Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West” flourished for over 20 years as Buffalo Bill’s principle competition until the two shows (which were both ailing) merged in 1908. The combined show went bankrupt a few months later.

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The 101 Ranch Wild West Show, run by the Miller Brothers from their Ponca City, Oklahoma ranch, toured the US and Europe from 1907 through 1932. This show produced future western stars Tom Mix and Buck Jones

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Then there were Texas Jack and Colonel Zack Mulhall, both of whom employed a young rope twirler by the name of Will Rogers (himself part Cherokee. “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower,” he once quipped, “but they met the boat.”)

Other major players in the field included Doc Carver, Captain Jack Crawford, Buckskin Joe Hoyt, the Gabriel Brothers, Mexican Joe, the legendary outlaw Frank James and the Cole Brothers, and for a time even the major circus imprasario Adam Forepaugh dabbled in the field.

Here is some actual footage of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West street parade down Fifth Avenue New York in 1902 taken by cameramen working for Thomas Edison. Ironically, this very technology would soon wipe out the Wild West show, and replaced it with something a bit more permanent: the Hollywood western.

But his legacies were many. There’s the town of Cody, Wyoming, which believe it or not is one of the places I went on my honeymoon! This is also the site of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, one of my favorite museums in the world.

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For more on the history of the variety arts consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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