Bat Masterson and the Show Business

The complex life of Bartholomew “Bat” William Barclay Masterson (1853-1921) contained enough incident to fill many books, and has. Today, as we did with his wild west colleagues Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody, we look at Masterson primarily through the prism of our usual beat, show business.

Born and raised on a Quebec farm, Masterson and his brothers moved to the American frontier circa 1870 to hunt buffalo. In 1874, Bat took part in the Second Battle of Adobe Walls against my distant relative Quanah Parker and a force of Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne warriors. Masterson and 27 other men held the small stronghold in the Texas Panhandle for five days before Parker and his band lost interest and moved on. Masterson went on to become an Indian scout for the U.S. army, and then a celebrated lawman in Kansas and Colorado.

In Dodge City in 1878 a variety actress named Fannie Keenan (real named Dora Hand) was shot and killed by the son of wealthy rancher Miflin Kenedy [sic]. Masterson, and a posse that included Earp and Bill Tiligman, brought him to justice. In 1886 in a Denver theatre comedian Lou Spencer was performing his routine onstage when he noticed his wife Nellie, a singer, sitting on Masterson’s lap in the audience. A brawl ensued and Masterson wound up briefly involved with Nellie, having stolen her from her husband. In 1888, Masterson purchased Denver’s Palace Variety Theatre. One of the performers there was a singer and Indian club swinger Emma Moulton, whom Bat moved in with and is thought to have married in the early 1890s. They were still together as of 1910.

During his western years, Masterson also became what might be best described vaguely as a “sport”. He ran gambling operations in saloons, he dealt faro, he was deeply involved in all aspects of boxing. This background (and his celebrated legend) made for a perfect transition to the last phase of his life, as a flashy New York City character. From shortly after the turn of the century to his death in 1921 Masterson worked as a columnist and sportswriter for various newspapers and was a widely seen man about town, later immortalized by his friend Damon Runyon as the character Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. The last known photo of him was taken with movie cowboy William S. Hart. 

From 1958 through 1961, a heavily fictionalized version of Bat was portrayed by Gene Barry on the television show Bat Masterson. The TV Bat was a stylish dude with expensive threads, derby hat, and pearl handled walking stick he liked to bop malefactors on the head with. Earlier, Mason Alan Dinehart had played Masterson on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-59), with Hugh O’Brian as the title character. Actors who played Bat Masterson in Hollywood movies included Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, George Montgomery, and Tom Sizemore.

To learn more about show biz history, including old time western saloon variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent era film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.