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Wild West comes to Winnipeg — Buffalo Bill entered the arena during the grand review of all performers
Nov 01, 2012

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
The entire crew for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East Show  was scheduled to arrive in Winnipeg on August 21, 1910, with the twice daily shows (2 and 8 p.m.) slated for Monday, August 22, and Tuesday, August 23, at the grounds at North Main Street and Matheson Avenue. John M. Burke, the show’s advance publicist, said the open-air arena had a seating capacity for 12,000 people. “The seats are covered with waterproof canvass sheds, perfect protection against sun and rain, and the performance is given, whether it is clear, cloudy, raining or snowing” (Manitoba Free Press, August 19, 1910).
Admission was 50-cents per person and 25-cents for children nine and under. Reserve seats were 75-cents and $1 extra, “according to location.”
Burke said that: “The grand entry is a picture that should not be missed and is the key to all. There will be no street parade given (a usual feature of the Wild West Show) as Colonel (William Frederick, “Buffalo Bill”) Cody reserves every energy of horse and rider in order to give as spirited a performance as possible.”
What Burke didn’t mention was that Cody wasn’t in the best of health and was 64 years old when he was to appear in the Winnipeg show. His days of remaining in the saddle for an extended length of time were numbered.
Advance publicity for the show, published in the Free Press on August 6, 1910, promised to illustrate “various phases of western life ... Indian battles will be reproduced; an attack upon an emigrant train will be one of the particularly interesting scenes ... The sports of the cowboys will be shown, there will be lassoing, displays of horsemanship, and all sorts of typical western diversions ... As a climax an Indian attack is introduced and the scene of revelry is quickly turned into one of battle and conflict.”
The fact that the performance was part circus and part wild west show is demonstrated by Ray Thompson’s troupe of trained horses ridden by “girls in the saddle.” During their performance, one stunt was to have a group of the horses leap over a table while it was “surrounded by a party of diners.” The circus atmosphere was further enriched by the addition of “musical” elephants to the show.
In fact, when Buffalo Bill’s and Pawnee Bill’s combined show came to Winnipeg on August 21, the Free Press headline the following day was Circus Arrives.
By this time, preparation for the show had become a feat of standardized logistics and military-like precision. In fact, the possibility of adapting the show’s techniques for military transportation was recognized in Germany by Kaiser Wilhelm’s officer corps.
“We never moved without at least forty officers of the Prussian Guard standing about with notebooks, taking down every detail of the performance,” wrote Wild West Show sharpshooter Annie Oakley. “They made minute notes on how we pitched the camp — the exact number of men needed, every man’s position, how long it took, how we boarded the trains and packed the horses and broke camp; every rope and bundle and kit was inspected and mapped.”
The Buffalo Bill crew had created a clockwork organization for unloading the train flatcars in a “continuous procession by linking the cars with runways and using a single ramp at the end for bringing all vehicles to the ground in order ... This method was applicable to the unloading of artillery and other heavy military equipment ...
“The Buffalo Bill show served three (hot) meals a day to all employees, and the German Army’s rolling kitchens were developed after observations of the show’s methods” (The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill, by Don Russell, 1960).
The well-ordered techniques used to move the show from city to city became a feature of German army logistics that were used so effectively to push the French and British armies to the Marne River in the early days of the First World War. It was only after the Germans cut short their pincer movement and a wide gap between its two attacking armies appeared that the French and British were able to stop the German advance and bring about a stalemate that resulted in four years of bloody trench warfare.
“The great spread of canvass were run up very rapidly,” according to the Free Press article about the show’s arrival in Winnipeg, “and by noon the place was a hive of industry ... Gangs of men drove tent pegs and put up tiers of seats about a rectangular arena; others unloaded ... wagons; groomed horses; fed elephants and animals, furnished up lamps and other fixtures and prepared dinner.”
In addition, there was the “usual complement of refreshment vendors and two side shows at the entrance of the main show.”
With such an elaborate set-up, Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill needed 1,000 employees, including entertainers and crew, to stage their show in 1910. It is estimated that expenses for the show were $4,000 daily.
In a separate enclosure were found seven buffalo, including three bulls and three cows, as well as “a very small and frisky calf.” The six adult buffalo were to be used for a re-enactment of an old-time buffalo hunt with Cody playing the lead role.
The curious were allowed to visit the grounds and gawk at the preparations, performers and animals in anticipation of the coming shows. 
“The Indians, of whom there are a large number, are located in eight tepees, and near by are an old-fashioned prairie schooner of strong construction and an old (Deadwood) stage coach, the body of which was built in 1872. During the afternoon the Indians were taken for a streetcar ride, and afterwards received their weekly stipends at the pay office.”
Native Americans were so valuable an attraction that a number were sent to the local newspaper offices as a means of promoting the show. Iron Tail, Iron Cloud, Lone Bear, Black Horn, Run-Close-to-the-Lodge and Plenty-Bird, as well as others associated with the show, made an appearance at the Free Press Building. They were said to have been impressed by the “great (printing) machines in the basement ... and Iron Tail expressed his delight and surprise by a sharp whoop.”
When the same “old chief” — he was 64, the same age as Buffalo Bill — was shown a printed page with its ink still damp containing a picture of Pawnee Bill, he gave another whoop, and then held up the same page for his comrades to view. When they saw the picture of Pawnee Bill, out “came a chorus from the whole bunch, and they smiled from ear to ear.”
Of course, the Native Americans were playing a stereotype for the benefit of the press, as they had undoubtedly been told to do so by the show’s promoters.
“They also visited Eatons store where they made purchases of fancy articles ... They also visited the post office. Crowds followed them wherever they went, and the camera man dodged them at every corner ...
“Every member of the band, excepting the interpreter (American Horse), was dressed in full regalia and had their faces painted in the most hideous manner.” 
Making such a public spectacle was yet another example of fulfilling public expectations. The novelty of Sioux warriors appearing in full regalia in the city where the show was being staged was an advertising gimmick that Nate Salisbury (Buffalo Bill’s first Wild West Show partner), Burke, Cody and Lillie had developed to attract more ticket-paying customers.
And it was a gimmick that worked. The Free Press headline for August 23 was Crowds Throng to Wild West Show. The newspaper reported the show was “genuine from start to finish and is carried through in a whirl of dashing action. Those who were there yesterday witnessed daring and skillful feats of equestrianism that were performed with consummate grace. Some of these feats were reckless and exciting in the extreme, and were characterized by a grit, speed and abandon typical of the west.”
How the show could be described as “typical of the west” remains arguable, but since few in the audience would have expected the old days on the plains, what Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill presented was the closest the urbanites would ever come to a resemblance, however romanticized, of what life was like on the western frontier of decades earlier. 
But what the two show business entrepreneurs did offer in-person were “genuine cowboys and Indians,” as well as riders from other nations from across the world, although the roles they performed were fictionalized and exaggerated to the extreme for the purpose of putting on a fast-paced live-entertainment extravaganza.
As in every Wild West show, the action began with the grand review involving all the performers. Horse riders “tore along the length of the arena in sections at full speed,” stopping in front of the grandstand. They were followed by a Canadian horseman carrying a Canadian flag (presumably a Red Ensign) and a British rider bearing a Union Jack.
“When the audience had been brought to the proper pitch of enthusiasm the one and only ‘Buffalo Bill’ rode majestically into the arena on a spirited white horse. Col. Cody looked remarkably strong and vigorous, and he introduced the assembly in a voice heard from end to end of the arena. He is a big man physically, with face tanned by exposure, and hair almost snow white hanging over his shoulders.”
According to the article, he was accorded an enthusiastic reception when he entered the arena.
Even the Free Press reporter emphasized the fact that the show was “tuned to the proper spectacular pitch, and they ‘whoop it up’ with scarcely a breathing space.”
“There is a constant panorama of flying figures comprising rough riders from all over the world; scores of Indians in war paint and feathers ride bareback at top speed, their shrill cries sounding like the jargon of frightened wild geese; Mexicans, Cassocks, Arabians and Japanese perform riding feats of every possible variety ... There is a bevy of lady riders from the plains who emulate the picturesque attire of the cow punchers, and there is also a company of United States cavalrymen.”
The cowboys were clad in all their “picturesque gorgeousness of costume, consisting of scarlet shirt, brilliant neck cloths, fawn stetsons, and chaps.” They circled the arena at “break-neck speed,” riding “squealing, vicious broncos that leap and buck and twist in an effort to unseat them.”
The show was performed in dramatic reconstructions, such as a recreation of the pony express near the beginning, and all the performances were accompanied by a brass band, backing the action in the arena with the appropriate mood music (Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, by Paul Fees, former curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum). An orator shouted out the script of each skit to the audience from an elevated platform
The Free Press reported that cowboys fended off “in the nick of time” a “band of Indians” attacking the Deadwood stagecoach, “with a fusillade of revolver shots.” Two local Boy Scouts, who were among those occupying a section of reserve seats set aside especially for the Scouts by Buffalo Bill, rode in the stagecoach while it was under attack.
An attack on a settlers’ prairie schooner by Sioux was also repelled. 
In effect, Native Americans fought battles twice a day that they were scripted to lose to the advance of “civilization.”
There was a recreation of the Battle of Summit Hill, roping by Mexicans, “people of the Orient” giving a long exhibition, and boomerang throwing by an Australian Aborigine, during which horses, dogs, ponies, elephants and camels shared the arena.
Johnnie Baker gave a demonstration of marksmanship, and was followed by French Zouaves performing an infantry drill, a game of football on horseback between cowboys and Native Americans, which was extremely popular, army manoeuvres, cowboy fun and “reckless Russian Cossacks.”
But the main attraction was Buffalo Bill, who has been called the first American entertainment “superstar.” Cody began his performance by staging an “old-time buffalo hunt.”
“A herd of shaggy animals in prime condition were driven into the arena, followed by Col. Cody in a brilliant scarlet short. They swung around the square at a good clip, the veteran buffalo hunter using a repeating rifle to shoot left and right into the herd. A frisky calf trailing in the rear gave the proper picturesque touch.”
Following the re-enactment of the buffalo hunt, while riding his horse at a canter, Buffalo Bill shot black-coloured glass balls thrown into the air by an assistant.
The two hours of “dashing action” provided plenty of excitement for the well-entertained audiences attending each show.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East Show had made such an impression on Winnipeg youth that lads in the St. John’s neighbourhood began holding their own “shows” on vacant lots. They made their entertainment “more realistic at night” by building bonfires and indulging in native “war dances and other sports, not forgetting to finish up with a feast. The wherewithal, it is shrewdly suspected, being garnered from neighboring gardens when the owners are not on the lookout” (The Voice, September 2, 1910).
(Next week: part 3)