Title: The Wild West Show

Periodical: Manchester Times

Date: December 24, 1887

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THE WILD WEST SHOW.


Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at the Manchester Racecourse has been inaugurated at last. All its qualities have been tested, and it now rests securely in the confidence and unqualified approval of the public. There was an invited audience of nearly 10,000 people assembled in the building at the inaugural performance on Saturday afternoon. Among them we do not believe there was a single person who failed to experience the sensations which cannot be resisted when something is seen that is perfectly novel, stirring, and beautiful. The whole situation is quite different from anything that has gone before it. We are all familiar with the form of a circus, and we recognised in this building some resemblance. All of us can readily picture to ourselves the outline of a theatre, and here again were those features detected. But Buffalo Bill's great staged hippodrome, though it can be called neither, adapts to itself the peculiar excellences of both. In no circus in this country is there space in the arena for such swift wild gallops of horses; and, without straining the capacities of this enormous stage, a fair-sized theatre might be placed upon it as a "front set." Therefore, for the purposes of equestrian cavalcades the Wild West building goes far beyond the possibilities of any existing circus; and, on the other hand, its colossal stage has given scope to the scenic artist to produce effects of perspective and other illusions which even the stage pictures in a Christmas pantomime or a modern melodrama could never eclipse.

At half-past two we were introduced to the whole of the resources of the establishment. The curtain divided and horsemen and horsewomen dashed into the arena, troupe after troupe, Indians, cowboys, American girls, and Indian women. The critical and expectant audience were somewhat taken by surprise. There was a sudden dash and brilliancy about these entrances and exits that precluded the observance of details, but left a general impression of splendid horsemanship all round. It could be noted, however, that the Indians were arrayed with a full complement of war paint and feathers, and that the Indian women wore trousers and rode like men. After the introduction of the gigantic Buck Taylor, the King of the Cowboys, there was a pause. Then the name of Buffalo Bill himself resounded from the orator's perch. Amid trumpet peals from the band and thunders of applause surging round the vast auditorium, the great man made his appearance. He burst bravely into sight mounted on a long-tailed grey horse, galloped forward into the arena with many heroic gestures, halted suddenly in front of the private boxes, and then made a most impressive exit by forcing his horse backwards with surprising rapidity to the brown cloth curtain. Buffalo Bill looks as great a hero in his person as he looks in his pictures. The preliminaries were ended by the reappearance of all the horses and riders. The noble Red Shirt, conspicuous by the luxuriance of his feathery adornments, led his gorgeous warriors through mazy evolutions, and they whooped and galloped and intertwined till the air was again filled with thunders of applause. These quick kaleidoscopic changes of colour and form suddenly disappeared from the arena, the brown curtain dropped, and the voice of the orator, Mr. Frank Richmond, was heard. Chorus-like, he was foretelling what was to follow. What did follow was altogether wonderful. When scene followed scene it was always a "change into something rich and strange." The representation was hardly a play, but it had a leading theme, developed with a certain amount of dramatic sequence. It was the gradual civilisation of a vast continent that was to be depicted, beginning with the primeval forest peopled by the Indian and the wild beast only. The curtain slowly rose on a scene of great beauty. This was the primeval forest at midnight, a scene which was not only a splendid example of the powers of the scenic artist (Mr. Matt Morgan), but a stage picture very skilfully managed in regard to its illumination and general setting. A brown bear is seen prowling across the path, and disappears as the day begins to break. While the gradual dawn is flushing through the foliage the gaunt figures of deer and elk steal in, and a stampede of buffaloes is attempted, but evidently the animals are suffering from a form of stage fright, for their roamings are shyly broken off. Presently a noise of whoops and strange shouts is heard, and Red Shirt and his savages charge into the arena. There they dance and yell and cut strange capers, till the information of the approach of a hostile tribe cuts them short and puts them all on their mettle for the subsequent attack and battle which closes the scene. These Indians keenly enjoy their mimic warfare. They rush into it with such a zest and with such fearless skill in horsemanship that the audience is not only amused, but almost carried away with the realism of the scene. This concludes the first of seven "episodes," as they are called.

The second episode is a tableau representing the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers from the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock, and the third episode illustrates the saving of Captain John Smith by the Indian Princess Pocahontas in the reign of Queen Bess. It is interesting to learn that this lady was the first of her race to visit England, that she was married to an English officer at Westminster Abbey, and that her grave may be seen at Gravesend. But there is no time to reflect upon this beautiful romance. The Indians are upon us again. This time it is their purpose to show their manners, customs, and dances. Grouped together in a long procession they wander in and fix their little camps just the same probably as they did in the days of their nomadic sojournings in the Wild West. The women are, of course, the beasts of burden, and the men the privileged lords of leisure. The civilisation of the Indians before us is evidently of a lower order than when we were first introduced to them in their bright costumes. They are none the less gorgeous, however, although their raiment is more scanty; although, in fact, most of the men are nearly naked, and show their bare skins thickly powdered over with earthen dyes, green, yellow, blue, and red. They run races, they shout and yell, and then they end their barbaric carnival with an extraordinary dance, which had all the qualities of being quaint, fantastic, hideous, and funny. The monotonous beatings of a tom-tom, however, compelled a certain rough rhythm in the movements of the dancers. When they had taken their departure the curtain fell on the third episode. The next must be regarded as the finest of them all. It is a sunlit prairie stretching far back to an illimitable distance, where the mountains seem but faint shadows. A buffalo is started. In gallops Buffalo Bill, and the animal scampers all over the arena covered by a blazing fire of rifle shots. We are to suppose that the beast has had the fate of all his fellows who have been unlucky enough to cross the path of the famous sportsman. We know, of course, that the buffalo is not killed, but is being comfortably stalled behind the scenes. At the same time, this incident of Buffalo Bill chasing his native game is peculiarly interesting, and fires the imagination as much as greater things have done. The incident is followed by the arrival of a merry train of emigrant wagons. Once more the fancy is excited in a very genuine manner, for these wagons are real old emigrant wagons that have seen service, and the grey-bearded old man who rides in front has ridden many a time before at the head of such a throng. He is one of the oldest of the American scouts. While camp fires are being lit in the background and preparations made for a settlement there is a fine display of horsemanship exhibited in the arena. Eight cowboys and American girls perform a kind of lancers on horseback, with a splendid dash and freedom which no ordinary circus display of the kind could equal. That fearless pluck which distinguishes the cowboy on horseback was equally observable when the ladies were riding. The excellence of the female horsemanship subsequently reached its culmination in the brilliant performance of Miss Emma Hicock on a big brown horse. While it galloped and bucked and bounded she stuck to her saddle bravely, and balanced herself with an easy, undulant grace which fairly justified her claim to be regarded as "America’s Queen of the side saddle." At length the encampment was ready. The emigrants lay down to rest and sleep, and darkness soon almost hid them from sight. A faint red flicker in the far distance began to light up the hills on the horizon. Then a blaze sprang up distinct and terrible, and roared along the prairie, burning nearer and nearer to the camp in the foreground. The whole prairie was on fire. Real flames sprang up around the camp, and then the horror and excitement of the scene were splendidly realised. There was a stampede of buffaloes and deer across the stage, adding to the wild commotion that reigned among the emigrants. This scene was a triumph of scenic display and stage management. It produced a great impression on the audience, and is likely to prove one of the most memorable features of the entertainment.

There was a lull after the storm. The clever shooting of "The Cowboy Kid," who split balls in the air, was tame in comparison. Even the exhibition of fancy rifle shooting by Miss Lillian Smith, who appeared later on, was also tame in comparison with those great living pictures we had seen; although Miss Smith is an almost infallible shot who can smash glass balls by the score without a single failure. Another feature which made an impression was the lassoing of horses and the riding of bucking horses by the American rough riders. Buck riding is a revelation of what plucky horsemen can accomplish, and the bucking horses show us what an ungovernable brute a horse can be when he is only half tamed. Not a rider was thrown, although the chances often seemed to point to such a fate. The peculiarities of the bucking horse are great. He is as docile as a dog before the cowboy mounts him, and after he has bucked madly to his heart's content, he resumes his docility the moment the rider has left his back. But we were all assured by the orator that bucking is not the result of training nor of any irritation caused by a prickly substance secreted under the saddle. The horse bucks by instinct. Whatever may be the origin or the cause of bucking, it is certain that it looks very dangerous, and that it is very amusing, clever, and exciting. The fifth episode depicts a cattle ranch attacked by Indians, a massacre, a fight, and a rescue by cowboys. Once again we are all delighted by the dashing headlong rush of the Indian horsemen riding without saddle, and again we note the perfect training of the horses and their powers of coming to a dead halt almost within a second after galloping with all their might. We have another massacre in the sixth episode. It is "the fall of brave General Custer and his entire command, not one living to tell the tale." The orator tells us that "the reddest page of savage history was written in the Custer massacre," and from this representation of it we can well believe it was a terrible affair. After Buffalo Bill has exhibited his skill as a shot on horseback and on foot we come to the last episode. The mining camp of Deadwood City is placed before us in a beautifully painted landscape of rock, vale, and mountain. It might be Red Gulch, or Poker Flat, or Roaring Camp, or any other of Bret Harte’s famous settlements, so powerfully does the scene and the manners of the people who are moving about in it suggest his celebrated sketches of Californian life. And those rough men who settle their differences by stepping quietly aside and shooting each other may be quite readily taken for such scamps as Mr. Oakhurst or Jack Hamlin, or the oft-described Sandy, with his "blonde beard and saintly Raphael face." A great deal of nasal talk which cannot be heard goes on, and then the Deadwood Coach arrives. The attack by the Indians was a big sensation in London, where the whole of the scene was performed in the open air, in a larger space than is available here. It was exciting enough on Saturday; but it was hardly the supreme sensation of the entertainment. All the while one could observe a flag floating in a tent as if in a breeze. To those who did not know that there was a Blackman air propeller in the wings the phenomenon might appear strange. Presently its full powers were tested, and an absolutely novel stage effect was produced. A cyclone swept over the scene, carrying everything before it, and the curtain fell on the general wreckage.

The verdict of the audience on the Wild West Show was unanimously favourable. A less critical and more enthusiastic assembly filled the building in the evening, and went away with the impression that enormous enterprise had resulted in the production of a new form of entertainment, at once exhilarating, instructive, and delightful.