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LATEST ARTICLE_______________________________________

Presenting Buffalo Bill's Wild West
by Bob Brooke

 

Annie Oakley, one of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West’s star performers, once remarked that William F. Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill,” was “the simplest of men, as comfortable with cowboys as with kings.”



Best known for bringing the Wild West to the folks back East, he was born in a log cabin near LeClaire, Iowa, on February 26, 1846. The third of six children, Cody grew up to be an icon of the American West, respected by everyone from American presidents and British royalty to military leaders and Indian chiefs. He counted among his friends such artists and writers as Frederic Remington and Mark Twain, and charmed the American and European public with a combination of chivalry and showmanship.

Cody's family moved to Kansas when his older brother died by falling off a horse, but tragedy followed them when someone shot his father. Isaac, while he was making an anti-slavery speech. By age 11, Bill was the man of the house and his education ended with the fourth grade.

At age 12, Cody signed on as a messenger boy with the wagon trains of Majors and Russell, initially traveling to Fort Laramie. A year later he was traveling the Oregon Trail to Colorado. His adventures continued at age 15, when he became a rider for the newly formed Pony Express.

Following the death of his mother in 1863, Cody enlisted in the Union Army, serving as a scout for the Union's 7th Kansas Cavalry during the last years of the Civil War. In 1866, he married Louisa Frederici. The couple had four children—Arta Lucille, Kit Carson, Orra Maude, and Irma Louise.

The Birth of “Buffalo Bill”
Cody began hunting buffalo for Kansas Pacific work crews in 1867, where his reputation as an expert marksman earned him the name “Buffalo Bill." In 1868, he worked as a civilian scout and guide for the U.S. Army. In 1872 he became one of only four civilian scouts to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Cody's reputation as a buffalo hunter and skilled frontiersman led to his eventual career as a Wild West entertainer. Accompanied by General Phillip Sheridan and Major General George Custer, Buffalo Bill guided visiting dignitaries on lavish hunting expeditions which glamorized both Cody and the military. Hearing about Buffalo Bill and his reputation, dime novel writer Ned Buntline began writing fictional stories about Buffalo Bill.

In 1872, Buntline persuaded Cody to perform on stage. The success of the show and Cody's flair for performance led to the formation of a "combination" troupe the following year. The group consisted of several authentic Western characters, including James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok and Texas Jack Omohundro.



In June 1876, during the height of the Plains Indians resistance to white settlement, Cody returned to the prairies to scout for the 5th Army. On July 17, 1876, just three weeks after Custer and the 7th Cavalry were defeated at Little Big Horn, Cody's regiment intercepted a band of Cheyenne warriors. In doing so, he proved that he was more than just another actor.

The Beginning of a Showman
Cody returned to the world of entertainment on July 4, 1882, hosting a show at his Scout's Rest Ranch in North Platte, Nebraska., which he purchased in 1877. Promoted with handbills, the show was an extravaganza of bronco busting, horse racing, riding feats and shooting exhibitions. Its success prompted Cody to create Buffalo Bill's Wild West.

Cody held his first show in Omaha on May 19, 1883. In it, he offered something for everyone—bucking broncos, saddle horses, stagecoaches, animals, cowboys and even Indians, secured by the approval of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It proved to be a timeless formula, lasting for more than 30 years.

Cody’s partner that first season was a dentist and exhibition shooter, Dr. W.F. Carver. Cody and Carver took the show, subtitled “Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition,” across the country to popular acclaim and favorable reviews, launching a genre of outdoor entertainment that thrived for three decades and survived, in fits and starts, for almost three more.

Horse shows and menageries with exotic animals had been popular in America since the 18th century. The “Indian Gallery” of artist George Catlin featured American Indians with native dress and accouterments to complement his paintings. Medicine Shows employed frontiersmen and Indian people to help sell tonics and other “natural” cures.

In 1872, legendary plainsman Wild Bill Hickok joined several cowboys and Indians in a “Grand Buffalo Hunt” staged at Niagara Falls. Buffalo Bill Cody himself had already been in show business for a decade, staging plays known as “border dramas,” which actually were small-scale Wild West shows featuring genuine frontier characters, real Indians, fancy shooting, and sometimes horses.



The golden age of outdoor shows began in the 1880s, and with his theater experience Buffalo Bill already was skilled in the use of press agents and poster advertising. His fame and credibility as a westerner lent star appeal and an aura of authenticity. Most important, Cody gave the show a dramatic narrative structure.

Features such as the Pony Express, the wagon train, or the attack on the stagecoach recreated specific and well-known events. Spectacles such as “cowboy fun” or the “tableau” of American Indian life usually served as prelude to a dramatic event, such as a battle scene. Skill acts such as sharp shooting with pistol and rifle, wing shooting with shotgun, roping, and riding not only showcased star performers, the show’s narration linked those skills to survival in the frontier West. An orator boomed the script to the audience from an elevated platform in the arena. The circus band became the “Cowboy Band” and backed the arena action with appropriate mood-setting music. The same skits and music later were easily adapted to film and television “Westerns.”



An Eminent Promoter
Buffalo Bill was a savvy promoter. To increase earnings, he started advertising farewell shows like the “going out of business” sales some retail businesses use. Although they were popular, his financial troubles led to bankruptcy in 1913, and the sale of the Wild West show at public auction.



Buffalo Bill understood that the Wild West fascinated people, and he created a phenomenon by promoting the hell out of it. His passion for publicity has given us an abundance of great ephemera, including posters and hand-bills, photographs, cabinet cards and three dozen different programs.

The role of Indian people was both essential and anomalous in the Wild West. At least in the big shows, they generally were treated and paid the same as other performers. They were able to travel with their families, and they earned a living not possible to them on their reservations.



Westward the course of empire takes its way.” In New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1886, Cody and his partners re-staged Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as “The Drama of Civilization.” Theater and arena were now merged, and America’s westward progress thus became an explicit theme in the show even when it returned to its more familiar Wild West format.

Star Performers
One of Buffalo Bill’s such performer was Phoebe Ann Moses, alias Annie Oakley. Called Little Sure Shot by Sioux leader Sitting Bull, Oakley joined Buffalo Bill in 1885. Although she left the show in 1901, she was reported to have earned $1 million dollars during her years with the Wild West. Oakley's act often included her husband, Frank Butler, who bravely allowed Annie to shoot at a cigarette in his lips, a dime in his fingers or a playing card in his hand.

Oakley was one of the 200 people and 200 animals Cody took to England in 1887, in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. This was Buffalo Bill's first overseas trip. He brought along an arsenal of color lithographic posters to advertise the event. The original show on May 11 was a smash success, and the Queen the troupe was invited back to do a command performance in June.



In 1899, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West covered over 11,000 miles in 200 days giving 341 performances in 132 cities and towns across the United States. In most places, there would be a parade and two two-hour performances. Then the whole show would be struck, loaded, and moved overnight to the next town. Europeans (and their armies) were often as fascinated by the ingenuity and efficiency behind the scenes as they were by the show itself. Not many shows could match Buffalo Bill’s in scale, but all subscribed to similar regimens.

The Wild West in Europe
Two years later, Cody took his Wild West to Paris, once again using show posters as the principal means of advertising. His 1889 poster, Je Viens (I'm Coming), announced his tour to the French in grand style.

The French received the show with much acclaim, where it ran for seven months at the Paris Exposition Universelle. The Fair’s management built a grandstand, campground, and an electric plant to support the show for its extended stay. The Wild West toured Europe for four years, playing throughout France and Italy.

In 1893, Buffalo Bill formed the Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, designed to display expert horsemanship from nations all over the world. The troupe had 640 members, almost 500 horses and played at exhibition grounds to enormous crowds.

The decade before World War I saw audiences decline. Plus, motion pictures captivated public attention—the West could seem more real on the screen than in the arena. Shooting declined as a spectator sport while the popularity of baseball and football soared. Riding and roping could be better showcased in rodeos, which were considerably less expensive to produce than Wild West shows. The old western stars were fading as well—even Buffalo Bill seemed a relic—and Indian people appeared to be quietly confined to reservations. The “old West” was no longer so exotic nor, at the same time, so relevant to a world of heavy industry and mechanized warfare.

Cody’s show went bankrupt in July 1913. The era of the Wild West can conveniently be said to have died in 1917 along with its greatest proponent, Buffalo Bill Cody.

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