Tag Archives: Old West

Buffalo Bill

Tom Doroff as Buffalo Bill

Tom Doroff as Buffalo Bill

It dawned on me today that I haven’t discussed how this darn play ever happened to come about in the first place. It’s gonna take a few paragraphs to get it all out, so I decided that giving ya’ll some insight into how the actors became the character might be a good starting point.

Tom Doroff started his acting career with the Old West Society of Minnesota. These are a bunch of fun people in Minnesota who love the old west and like to dress up and portray a character from history (real or imagined). They do some community shows, parades, and events and I have had the privilege of being invited to participate in a few with them and get to know the great people who comprise the organization. Tom started 20 some years ago with them portraying the legendary Tom Horn, an American Old West lawman, scout, soldier, hired gunman, detective, outlaw and assassin. On the day before his 43rd birthday, he was hanged in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for the murder of Willie Nickell. Tom still portrays Horn and is called that by his friends.

It was during one spring evening, as he was shaving off his beard after a long winter that he decided to leave a small goatee just to see what it looked like. As he stared in the mirror, he proclaimed “I look like Buffalo Bill!”

That shaving “accident” as he calls it has led to Tom winning several national titles for his portrayal and resemblance of the great showman almost since the day he discovered the likeness. He has traveled the country performing for national recording artists, has been featured on more magazines and news papers than you could shake a stick at and won his fair share of contests.

As you can imagine, anytime you portray someone as famous as Cody, you better know your stuff.  In national competitions you are judged in three areas: Accuracy of Outfit; Presentation and; subject knowledge (usually quizzed by nationally known authors on the subject)  In 2012, Tom was named the official Buffalo Bill at the annual competition in Golden at the Buffalo Bill Birthday Bash in conjunction with the Buffalo Bill grave and museum on Lookout Mountain.  Pretty impressive when you consider he was up against the best impersonators in the country.

It was an evening together with our own Wyatt Earp (I’ll talk about him in the next installment) and Tom – that started the two wondering what a conversation between Earp and Cody would have encompassed – that got the creative juices flowing. You will need to wait for the next post to see how that came about!

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As nervous as a long tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs

Masterson sets the reporter straight

Masterson sets the reporter straight

Since we have been doing the play, yours truly has defended himself against a gun by using a notebook shield more times than I can remember.  Elliot Longfellow, the reporter is out of his element when he travels to the old west and it shows.

I enjoyed watching some westerns this weekend where a reporter was one of the characters and I have concluded that we all play our reporter characters as – well – nervous wimps.   Now, there is nothing I have found in any records to say that reporters were less than manly.  I also have not found anything to say they were.

The first movie was Unforgiven, a great Clint Eastwood western where a reporter is following around a famous English shootist to write his memoirs.  When he gets a gun pointed at him, he looses his bladder ability.  (I don’t do that on stage, but more than one of my fellow actors thinks it would bring great hilarity).

The second was the HBO show Deadwood, where the newspaper publisher / reporter is surrounded by the harsh realities of old west everyday.  When confronted, he merely turns the other cheek, which is usually due to a fist just before the turning.

So why have we decided that the newsman was the old west version of a tattle tale and not manly?  The reality was the many of the newsman of the day were  unfair observers, offering their opinion before the facts were even gathered.  No better example exists than the famous gunfight at the O.K Corral.  The two newspapers in town quickly chose sides and determined guilt and innocence. One paper called the Earps and Doc Holiday killers, the other innocent victims.  Depending on what side of the story you were on, those reporters were either your best friend or worst enemy.  Either way, they fought their battles not with a revolver, but with a venom dipped pencil.

That had to make for nervous reporters every time a new edition hit the streets.

 

 

 

 

 

Trader’s Jubilee returning in 2014

Getting ready for traders Jubilee

Getting ready for traders Jubilee

River Junction Trade Company’s “Traders Jubilee” will be back again this year after threats that it was over after last year’s event.   This is great news to anyone who has ever considered learning more about “old west” era historical re-enacting or wanted to learn some of the cowboy arts like trick roping, gun spinning or whip cracking. The sad reality is that these are truly becoming lost arts, as American kids have switched to fantasy computer games and cell phones as entertainment.

I suppose I was no different at their age. When I was growing up, Bonanza was the last western on TV, and I will tell you that I never watched a single episode. There were shows like Batman with cool cars and great gadgets that kept my attention. Those westerns just seemed like a bunch of old guys riding horses. Today, my tastes have turned 180 degrees. I have all the time in the world to see a good western with a gritty storyline and great acting and very little time at all for a high tech shootem’up with aliens from the planet Zotar.

So what changed that made me feel that way? History. Antique stores. The guy with the story about growing up in a one room school house. Those things are real – I could touch them, understand them and relate to them. It was as if a lightbulb had been turned on in a dark room and I could finally see.

I hope that Traders Jubilee opens its doors to the next generation during this event. I hope that they loosen the “period dress” rules to allow the public to meet talented people who can show them and teach them history first hand. As a living history performer, I have seen kids light up as they hear the stories and ask their parents to take them to a library to learn more. That is the reward we all seek as people who do this. We do it because we love it. The art is just that, and a dying craft at that unless new people embrace and want to do it as well.

I invite anyone who has seen our show, or enjoyed a living history event to take in the Traders Jubilee in McGregor, Iowa in April. I promise you will be glad you did. You will meet highly talented people who would love to teach you their craft to leave behind the legacy as someone else did for them.

Legends at Jon Hassler Theater

In The Company of Legends to perform at the Jon Hassler Theater

In The Company of Legends to perform at the Jon Hassler Theater

The Legends got together for a rehearsal in the Bat Masterson’s barn last evening to get ready for the first two performances of “In The Company of Legends” that will occur in October.

If you haven’t been to the famous Jon Hassler Theater, you are in for a treat. The town of Plainview where the theater sits on main street is just north and east of Rochester. It’s a great community with fun restaurants and pubs for before or post performance fun. Like the Sheldon, this is a BIG stage, so we will be filling it to the brim with authentic items from Buffalo Bill Cody’s camp. This theater is of a more modern variety where the audience sits above the stage, so there will not be a bad seat in the house! Please, come out for a Saturday Oct 19 at 7:30 pm entertainment or a Sunday at 1:30 pm afternoon show. Please share with your Facebook friends and let’s FILL THE THEATER!

You’ll pay for the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!

Defeat of Jesse James Days

Defeat of Jesse James Days

Defeat of Jesse James Days

We always like to promote historical re-enactments that are accurate and interesting.  The Northfield Raid, as it is called by many Jesse James Buffs, was a disaster for the James Gang.  There is much speculation about what went wrong and why they had even chose Northfield in the first place.  But the result was deadly for members of the gang.

Each year, in the weekend after Labor Day, the town of Northfield is transformed back to the days of the raid.  The bank has been restored and the streets blocked off so that they can recreate the famous events.  True West Magazine has ranked the reenactment the finest in America several times, so if you haven’t ever been, you need to go!  visit www.djjd.org for info on the events of the week and raid reenactment times.  Our recommendation is that you buy a button so you can sit in the bleachers directly across from the bank.  That’s the best vantage point to really get a glimpse of how it must have been.

As for the Legends, we’ll be down by the art area near the river, handing out promotional materials about the performance at the Jon Hassler Theater.  We also have a tendency to find a bar or three, so just look for the cowboy hats!  As always, we love to pose for pictures, so don’t be shy.

Hard liquor and a hammer oughta fix that

Buffalo bill tells his Iowa story

Our magical tent

If you’ve seen our show, you know one of the stage props in Col. Cody’s camp is his tent.  Now, this tent has a few secrets, which I am about to spill.

First, it’s an authentic reproduction of an 1880 wall tent, just like the one that Cody used when he traveled with his wild west.  Second, it’s big. In fact, it’s too damn big for almost every stage we work, so we have a clever frame that we assemble to shorten it so that we can actually use the thing.  That frame is the bane of our existence.  It takes longer to put up the tent than it does for us to do the show!

You see, none of us are trained engineers.  In fact, most of us are barely  carpenters.  We can swing a hammer or run a screw gun, but if we had to build something that would stand the test of time, well it wouldn’t.  (unless that time is a few hours).

Now the reason for this story is that we have a show coming up in Cripple Creek, Colorado at the end of October (see Gold Bar Theater link at right) which is going to require yet another change in our tent frame design.  This could be the final straw for our group as we try to assemble it.  I figure this is a two-bottle, maybe three-bottle assembly.  I might sell tickets, as it is always good humor.  I’ll call it the “Hear the Legends cuss” show.  Hear Wyatt Earp obscenities.  Now that’s entertainment.

Our show tent.  It’s why they have hard liquor and hammers.

 

 

Reaching out to the Schools

Teaching kids branding

Teaching kids branding

We love it when kids come to our play and enjoy meeting them afterwards and hearing their great questions or comments. Our team often works with schools and other organizations to educate kids about the old west and cowboy life. Last week, we visited an elementary school where kids had a chance to get out of the classroom and into the past.

Our own Buffalo Bill was teaching kids about the many jobs of a cowboy on the trail. These little cowpokes learned about branding and got a chance to safely try out the hot iron themselves. (We used boards instead of a real steer!)
Elliot Longfellow was of course portraying his alter ego, Theodore Roosevelt where kids learned the importance of conservation and about the land that was set aside for them to enjoy.

TR teaches conservation

TR teaches conservation

We also had in tow one of the nation’s best lady whip artists; An expert on cowboy clothes – where kids learned and tried on real cowboy clothes and; Skeeter, our own cowboy trick roper.

These events are great fun and for many kids the only chance they will ever have to see the cowboy arts. In the school that we visited, which goes to 4th grade, they are not taught American History. I am glad we were able to change that for them.

So you wanna see our faces huh?

footlights

Our footlights from England

One of the things that we get comments about with our western entertainment play “In the Company of Legends” is our footlights.  In the old west, theater lighting consisted of open-flame oil lamps with floating wicks.   The light was soft and required significant reflection to get it to illuminate a stage.  Because the lighting was soft, lights were placed along the front edge of the stage, called “footlights” which reduced overhead shadows and illuminated the actor’s faces so people could see them.

The lamps themselves were gradually improved, and footlights remained a major source of stage light until the first half of the 19th century, when high-intensity lights such as the limelight made it possible to illuminate the stage from the front.  In the open stage footlights are no longer used, which created a dilemma for us.

We decided that since the footlights added a certain historical feel, we needed them for the play.  That meant we needed to build some that we could transport with us as part of our props.  They needed to have an authentic look and match the time period for the set.   This became a much more difficult task than any of us imagined.

After many weeks, I found a supplier in England and had them ship the “Light shells” – the part that shields the light (the part that the audience sees), so I could start building the lights.  They turned out great and we afterwards found out that that our play could not actually function without them.  Those big cowboy hats create shadows on the actor’s faces that makes it very difficult to see them – actually impossible without the footlights.  We also found that since theaters no longer use footlights, we had to improvise how we turned them on and off.

In most theaters, there is a light technician with a control panel who controls the lights from the back of the house.  However, since almost no theaters have a control to plug into on the front of the stage, we needed to use a remote control that allowed us to run the lights.  I carry the remote in my pocket which has led to some funny new lines as the button on the remote shut off the lights due to me sitting down or some other movement.  It’s created some additional comedy in the show from time to time!

We are sticklers for historical accuracy, right down to the lights!

Wyatt Earp, loved or hated?

The Nature of Wyatt Earp

The Legends Play's Wyatt Earp

The Legends Play’s Wyatt Earp

Tombstone, Arizona, October 26, 1881 is potentially the most famous date in the history of the west.  Wyatt Earp stood tall after the smoke cleared from the gunfight at the OK Corral.  He was already a famous lawman who now became instantly immortalized by this legendary fight.  Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp by all accounts was a decisive man with nerves that compared to the hardest tempered steel.

Wyatt was loved and hated by those who knew him, and to this day he remains a polarizing figure.  According to Lee Silva, the most comprehensive author to put pen to paper on the subject of Wyatt Earp, he finds a devoted friend in Bat Masterson.  Lee quotes Bat as saying of Wyatt that he was a consistently fearless man under trying conditions.  “I have always found him a quiet, unassuming man, not given to brag or bluster, but at all times and under all circumstances a loyal friend and equally dangerous enemy.

This I believe is the answer to why Wyatt could by some be so loved or hated.  He was not given to compromise. His hardened and uncompromising manner made him dangerous to cowhands and others who threatened the towns he protected.   His deliberate approach coupled with the direct nature of solving problems as a lawman created a polarizing figure.  If you wanted protection you loved and respected him, but if you wanted to do otherwise in his town he cut no quarter.  No matter the opinion you have of Wyatt Earp – a point of agreement is that he did enforce the law.

Proper use of the cowboy boot in the 1880’s

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Back in the day, a good pair of cowboy boots was worth it’s weight in gold.  In fact, taking a dead man’s boots from him was sensible thing to do, since he wasn’t going to need them anymore and there was no sense wasting them.

Originally, Cowboy boots didn’t have a left and right.  The wearer would try to move them to the other foot every other day so that they would wear even.   Remember, a good pair of boots, even from Sears and Roebuck was $3.90! A lot of money. (the average cowboy made about $30 a month)

On the trail, the cowboy boot was the perfect horse riding shoe.  It possessed a good solid heel for the stirrup and a shelf on the back of the heel to hold the spurs level.  Just like the trail, when a cowboy went to town, there was mud and horse manure everywhere.  Cleaning his boots was much easier than cleaning his pant legs, so the simplest way to protect them was to tuck them inside of the boots.  That way, he could walk in horse poo almost up to his knees without getting his pants legs dirty.  He just needed to find a good puddle and he could get a lot of grime off his boot before he went into the saloon or hotel.  Best of all, his pants were still clean!

The simplest boots to pull on had flaps that hung down on the outside called “mule ears” – they gave the cowboy a little extra leverage to get them on.  Just pull on the “ears”.

To take boots off, many hotels had “boot Jacks”, a simple device that grabs holds onto the heel of the boot while the cowboy pulled their foot out.  The best boot jacks were risqué in design with ladies in provocative poses helping the cowboy out. (sorry, you are just going to have to use your imagination).  If he was lucky, there was a actual  woman there willing to pull them off for him.  (cost more but worth it)

Next time you see a reenactment and see the cowboys with their pant’s tucked in, you’ll have a better idea of why they do it!

Traders Jubilee 2013

The Ladies Dance

The Ladies Dance

Another great weekend in McGregor Iowa has just ended where we were fortunate enough to spend time with our “Old West” friends. There are so many talented people at that event each year and it’s fun to hear about the projects they worked on the previous year and what they have booked for the coming season.

People who perform as historical characters do it as a labor of love – as there is often little to no money in it.  Nothing is more indicative of that than the dancing girls. Each year I see the them I am reminded of when I was an MC for the Jubilee and the incredible amount of hours of practice that went into a single 10 minute dance. This year, the dancers came from all over, so the coordination of people to learn something long distance and then have only a few days to actually be together practicing and “getting it right” before performing for hundreds of people is truly amazing. They did a great job and were once again excellent.

Along with all the great entertainment is the tradeshow, by itself fun and educational. The people who work the booths are old west enthusiasts or re-enactors who bring their “finds” and old gear to the show to sell and allow others to enjoy. For me, it’s a chance to pull out my laundry list of things I discovered I needed from the previous year. A pocket watch, a pair of dress pants, a hat stretcher, etc. This is the only place that many of us can find the kind of products we need without going to an antique store and hoping they might have it (seldom is the case by the way). There is always someone who has something unique with a story behind what they found or what the item did.

There is a rumor that the Jubilee will be back next year, but after 40 years, River Junction Trade Company’s founder Jim confided in me that the show is too much work for him and that he won’t be doing it. That would be a shame as the event is the one time that all of us can get together before the show season and take time to connect, share ideas and laughs. I hope that the tradition can continue with new leadership for many more generations to enjoy.

The good, the Bad and the Ugly

Buffalo Bill Cody

Buffalo Bill Cody

Bat Masterson Legend

Bat Masterson Legend

Wyatt Earp Legend

Wyatt Earp Legend

Pecos Bill

Pecos Bill

Trick Roper Skeeter

Trick Roper Skeeter

Legends6

Each year, before the show season starts, we usually design a new poster. This years poster is a bit (not a lot, just a bit) of a take from the TRUE GRIT Poster. This year, we are also trying to ad some additional posters to create some “buzz” when we go into a town. Our first test will be in the beautiful Rice Lake, Wisconsin area for our June 1st show. Of course, Skeeter will be graduating high school on the night before, so for us its hurry up and get moving in the morning of the show, leaving the heavy lifting to my other actors. (Skeeters not in the show, but as a proud papa, I made him a poster too.)

We would love to see you all at the show.  Watch the ticket tab for ordering information.

The grandma with the butterfly tattoo

Never mess with a Grandma with a Tattoo

If you follow this blog, you know that when we go out on the town together we dress “western” but with some old west flair. (Or sometimes just pure old west with no flair) Last evening was no exception, with three of us and our respective ladies enjoying a few whisky’s and dinner and then a few more whisky’s.

“You guys mind helping me for a second?” The man asked as he approached the table.

“Sure, what do you need?” We all ask back.

“Its my mom. She’s a real big cowboy fan and she saw you right when you came in. I was kind of hoping you could give her a hard time when she gets back from the restroom.” He asked.

Giving people a hard time is our specialty, so we all quickly agreed.

We learned that they were in town from Green Bay for a wedding and we were directed to “Mom”, the well dressed gal with the corsage.

This gal was a fire cracker! 83 years young and could keep up and top any quip we came up with. She was dressed in a nice grandmother like dress for a wedding, and we talked, she proceeded to roll up her sleeve and show us the Butterfly tattoo she had gotten on her 76th birthday. She informed us that on her 90th, she was going to get a rooster on the other arm because she figured once she hit 90, she had something to crow about! Of course she wanted her picture with Buffalo Bill because “He had the best mustache” and he also bent down on a knee begging forgiveness because he walked by her without saying “hello”.

She smiled at us and told us we were great, and that more people should be doing what we are doing because life is about having fun. I think we all walked away with a smile for the having the chance to meet the other. She was an inspiration with her infectious attitude and love of life.

I have said it before, our clothing always gets stares when we walk into a room, and usually leads to a conversation with people who if we had just dressed “normally” we would never have met.

We do it because it’s the way I think we all feel, that we were born 100 years too late. For us, it’s like a pair of comfortable sweat pants. Old west clothes just feel right.

After meeting so many great people I doubt any of us will be changing our attire any day soon.

The Whiskey Chronicals

Leave the bottle

Leave the bottle

If you watch any good western, a bottle of Whiskey is part of the plot.  “Leave the bottle” is akin to “you know…it’s been a really, really bad day”.

Now, often in a good western, there’s a complete idiot who thinks “Leave the bottle” means, “Hey, come over to me and say something stupid”.

Buffalo Bill and I had that kind of day Last Saturday in Golden, Colorado. After being in the portrayal competition all day (which is very stressful) we decided to visit a saloon that we had never been to and drink a few beers.   Now, keep in mind we stay dressed in older fashioned cowboy clothes.  We both have large mustaches, like the old west.  We both have big knives hanging from our belts, like the old west.  We both just wanted them to “leave the bottle”, just like the old west.

Will and I chose a booth and started to talk.  A woman at the bar turned around and just stared.  Not the polite “quick-glance”, or even the slightly longer “turn the circle so it looks like you aren’t looking”.  Nope, this was a 2 minute “what the hell” stare.  Will looked at me and glanced his eyes towards her and back at me.

“She’s staring” he said.

“Well, you are pretty ugly” I said.

He then scrunched up his face and stared back at her. She turns quickly back. We laugh.

The next few minutes are sort of a blur. But soon she is at the end of our table, bent down and staring at him, almost face to face. But no words. Nothing. Will has sent his signal “Hey, come over to me and say something stupid”.  She didn’t disappoint.

“You freak me out”.

Always a strong pick-up line.

“You look like someone very special to me”

Better.

“He’s dead. I think you are his ghost”

Uh-oh.

I come in to diffuse the situation. “You are pretty old Will, maybe you are dead” I smile to him as I say it.

If looks could kill, I would be dead myself.

She finally left, and sat back down after some tense minutes.  A few minutes later, a drunk walks by the booth , does a Charlie Chaplin put-on-the-brakes and backs-up.  “Whoa. You guys from the hills?”

“Yep, been panning all day, only found one nugget” Buffalo Bill doesn’t even look up as he mutters it.

The drunk does a long stare.  Head darts back-and-forth between both of us. He Shrugs and walks away. We both left the bar before anyone else blew smoke up our dusters. “Just leave the Bottle”.

The Buckhorn

The Buckhorn Exchange, Denver Colorado

The Buckhorn Exchange, Denver Colorado

In the city of Denver sits a saloon built in 1893.  It wasn’t the first bar in Colorado but it does hold the distinction of having liquor license number 1, and has continuously operated since it opened.  What’s more significant for us is that both Buffalo Bill and Theodore Roosevelt frequented the place.

Because of its history, (and awesome food) we always stop by for a drink or dinner when we come to Denver and always dress old west. So many tourists come to the Buckhorn, that we are having our photos taken with people constantly, and yesterday was no exception. A lovely lady with a great southern accent asked if she could have her picture taken with us. In talking, we learned she was an opera singer turned lawyer. I think one of the greatest joys of doing what we do is meeting such interesting people. People interested in history (and theater) are a diverse bunch, and it’s a glue that connects us all together in a way that is fun and peace-loving. No political agenda, no religious bias. Just interest in the past.

Buffalo Bill at the Buckhorn

Buffalo Bill at the Buckhorn