wild bill makes his new york acting debut -- 5/22/20

Today's selection -- from Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter by Tom Clavin. In the 1870s, Buffalo Bill Cody had opened a new play called Scouts of the Plains to take advantage of Easterners' fascination with the exploits of the frontier. One of the characters in the play was Wild Bill Hickok, who was justifiably famed as a lawman and sharpshooter. To play the part of Wild Bill Hickok, Cody was able to recruit a reluctant Hickok, always short on cash, to come East and play himself. Though panned by critics, the play was a smash hit in New York:

"Making his acting debut on a New York stage would be daunting for an experienced thespian, but for a prairie gunslinger, it could be a disaster. Hickok, however, did not skulk into town. According to a reminiscence written by Burke, the famous plainsman arrived at the Forty-Second Street Depot in New York wearing a cutaway coat, flowered vest, ruffled white shirt, salt-and-pepper trousers, string tie, high-heeled boots, and a broad-brimmed hat. He had booked a room at the Brevoort Hotel on lower Fifth Avenue, one of New York's well-known establishments, where Cody was staying.

"Outside the train station, Hickok got into a horse-drawn cab and was taken to the hotel. Cody had told him to pay two dollars, and upon arrival, that is what he did. The driver demanded five dollars. Hickok informed him that all he would receive was the two dollars. Climbing down, the driver growled, 'You long-haired rube, I'll take the rest out of your hide.' A minute later, Hickok was strolling into the hotel lobby, carrying his own suitcase because the bruised and dazed driver was not able to be of further service.

"That the legendary shootist Wild Bill Hickok was in New York City was indeed a boost to the box office. He was hailed as something of a celebrity as the well-dressed gunfighter strode to and from the theater on Broadway near Prince Street. Inside Niblo's Garden, during performances, the audience was witnessing up close not one but two heroes of the American West, detailing their most dangerous and thrilling adventures. A few of them were actually true.

"The excitement was not rubbing off on Hickok, though. The opportunity to become the next Edwin Booth did not inspire a personality change. It all seemed kind of silly to be an actor pretending to be someone else and sillier still to be Wild Bill Hickok pretending to be Wild Bill Hickok. And it was annoying that people laughed at his lines. Back in the West, if someone had laughed at him, Wild Bill might have gone for his gun. Now he had hundreds of people laughing -- what was so funny about this dumb dialogue, anyway? -- and he had to stand up there and take it.

"Mostly, the theater brought out the puckish part of Hickok's personality. To tolerate the swings between boredom and embarrassment, he played practical jokes. In a scene when the 'Indians' were supposed to be killed by Hickok, he instead fired blanks from the guns near their legs to make them dance for the audience. There were times he appeared to forget a line, and he watched the other actors squirm as the silence lengthened and the audience began to titter.

Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, and group

"Making it worse was that much of [Ned] Buntline's hackneyed dialogue remained in Scouts of the Plains. By this point, Cody, [Texas Jack] Omohundro, and [Giuseppina] Morlacchi were veteran troupers (and getting paid well enough) that they could figuratively hold their noses and get through each performance. Hickok, troubled by bouts of stage fright, had to bellow each soliloquy, such as the one after a rescue of Pale Dove, played by Morlacchi: 'Fear not, fair maid! By heavens, you are safe at last with Wild Bill, who is ever ready to risk his life and die, if need be, in defense of weak and defenseless womanhood!' (He may have recalled that former girlfriend Susannah Moore had proved anything but weak and defenseless during their Civil War exploits.)

"The crowds were not put off by the sketchy acting and poor dialogue. 'The money was flowing in,' Louisa Cody recalled. 'Bad as the "stars" knew their play to be, it was what the public wanted, and that was all that counted. Week after week they played to houses that were packed to the roofs, while often the receipts would run close to $20,000 for the seven days. It was more money than any of us ever had dreamed of before.'

"Hickok felt like he was risking his integrity and dying a bit with every performance because he became further convinced that acting was a foolish occupation. One night, hoping to escape attention, he took one of his real pistols and shot out the spotlight that had been fixed on him. The audience applauded the dramatic reality of the production as well as Hickok's famous marksmanship.

"There may have been another, much more serious reason for this incident. Hickok's vision continued to deteriorate. Sensitivity to light was one symptom of whatever the true ailment was. When he was out and about during daylight hours (which was not often), Hickok sported a pair of dark-hued spectacles. Supposedly, during performances, when he could not protect his eyes with glasses, the theater's lights were bothersome, especially a spotlight trained on him. It could be that on the night of the shooting, his frustration boiled over.

"Cody was not pleased with such unpredictable and destructive behavior, especially when payment for damage came out of his pocket. He and Texas Jack ad-libbed when Hickok went blank onstage or gagged on Buntline's dialogue. When they realized that Hickok gave a more natural and compliant performance after a few shots of whiskey, they encouraged imbibing before the curtain went up -- until one night. One scene had Wild Bill, Texas Jack, and Buffalo Bill passing around a bottle as they sat at a campfire offering stories about adventures on the Great Plains. Fed up with the iced tea the bottle contained, Hickok suddenly spit it out and shouted, 'You must think I'm the worst fool east of the Rockies that I can't tell whiskey from cold tea!' He then called offstage for someone to bring him a bottle of real whiskey.

"The audience cheered in agreement. A bottle was produced, and Wild Bill took a long pull and then told a story as casually as if he'd been sitting at a gaming table in an Abilene saloon. That was the good news. The bad news was from that night on, Hickok wanted whiskey before and during each performance. His acting became even more unpredictable, and during his scenes with Pale Dove, according to Cody, Hickok 'grew fonder of the heroine onstage than the script stipulated.' This added to the tension already percolating offstage between Texas Jack and Arizona John Burke caused by the latter trying to steal away the affections of the beautiful Miss Morlacchi.

"Critics finally gave up on panning Scouts of the Plains, and audiences kept flocking to it through the fall of 1873 and the winter. As spring approached, Cody and Burke decided to get out of New York while the getting was good and to take the show on the road. By this time, Hickok had settled into the city life well enough, especially the saloons and high-quality liquor -- which, thanks to the handsome and steady paychecks, he could afford. While still having a reserved personality, he enjoyed the attention and deference given to a celebrity. So Hickok was not keen on going on tour. He was overruled. The demand for the production was out there, and he couldn't welsh on a contract."

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Tom Clavin


Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2019 by Tom Clavin


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