Title: Opening Of The Wild West Show at Aston

Periodical: Birmingham Daily Post

Date: November 7, 1887

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On Saturday afternoon Buffalo Bill's famous "Wild West Show" was given at the Aston Lower Grounds for the first time out of London. The great show—fresh from a London success unique in the history of entertainments—is expected to be located at Aston for the greater part of the present month, and all due preparations have been made for its reception. The meadow forms an admirable arena for the display. It is even larger than the famous amphitheatre at Earl's Court, and the change from the circus-like floor at Earl's Court to the green turf at Aston pleasantly heightens the illusion. The bicycle-track, too, comes in admirably for the racing, which forms a considerable part of the programme, though the track itself suffers terribly under the reckless heels of the fiery mustangs of the prairie. The accommodation for spectators is of course not so good as at Earl's Court, but a grand stand has been erected along the Trinity Road side of the meadow capable of holding at least three thousand persons. All the way round the side of the ground has been banked, so that an enormous number of visitors can obtain an admirable view of the display. On Saturday, as we were sorry to observe, the accommodation was by no means severely taxed. There was, of course, a great crowd, numbering three or four thousand; but the attendance was by no means commensurate with the extraordinary interest and merit of the exhibition. Of course the show has many disadvantages with which to contend. Of these, the weather is the chief. Saturday was as bright a day as could be looked for at this season of the year—the forenoon quite a blaze of glorious sunshine—but it was, nevertheless, a November day, and before the performance closed in the fierce tumult of an Indian attack upon a settler's house November had asserted itself, as the numbed feet and reddened noses of the spectators grimly attested. The show, too, comes at a time when the Birmingham public is in the first and worst stage of its football fever, and on Saturday two of the chief local clubs were pitted against each other under circumstances of unusual excitement. However, the cold and damp notwithstanding, Buffalo Bill's audience remained attracted and excited to the very last.

"Buffalo Bill's" Wild West is a really great show. The one unique merit of the exhibition is also, from one point of view, its only weakness. We refer to the fact that it is utterly destitute from the first to last of the tricks and graces of the popular entertainer. We have no doubt that the astute managers of the enterprise could, if they chose, make the exhibition more showy, give it more variety and excitement, and so to a certain class of pleasure-seekers endow it with superior attraction. But to those who are a little satiated of the shallow arts and tawdry frippery of the popular entertainer, the Wild West Show comes with the brisk freshness of the breezes that blow over those boundless prairies whose wild life it is the object of the show to mirror. The "Wild West" is not only realistic, it is real. It is an honest effort carried out with an enterprise and completeness, which in the whole history of shows have never been equalled, to bring to English audiences some real notion of the wild life of a few years back on the confines of civilisation in North America, when a little army of pioneers, holding their lives in their hands, were piercing the savage haunts of the redskins, and paving the way for the steady march westward of civilisation; and, too, of the wild life to-day, the life of the cowboys and vaqueros, on the cattle ranches of Kansas and Mexico. It is an American exhibition, but there is nothing American—as the word is sometimes used here—about it but the enterprise with which the advertisement department is conducted. There is no buncombe about it; in every detail it is genuinely, and with studious unpretentiousness, what it protests itself to be. There is no trace of tinsel or of the make-up box. As a result, a visit to the exhibition is like spending a couple of hours in the land of travels of Fennimore Cooper [1] and of Bret Harte [2] alternately. Instead of the "man in the ring" of the circus, in evening dress and with a debilitated smile, there is a stalwart "orator" perched on a timber stage, and clad in sombrero and deerskin gaiters. He is a brazen-threated son of thunder, and declaims to far and near—we had almost written to quick and dead—the few words necessary to explain each item of the programme, and introduces the various departments of the company at the review which opens the programme, Buffalo Bill, as he rode his grand old white horse round the ring on Saturday, raising his broad hat in acknowledgment of welcoming cheers, was not in the least "got-up." His six-foot odd of sturdy frame was clad in deerskin coat and gaiters, a suit long and roughly worn, looking just as he must have looked a hundred times when riding his cautious way over the prairies as the foremost scout of expeditions against the Sioux or the Cheyennes. One of the most attractive items in the programme is the delineation of an attack by Indians upon the "Deadwood Coach" carrying the United States mails, and its rescue by scouts and cowboys headed by Buffalo Bill. The coach used is itself a scarred and battered veteran of the Cheyenne and Deadwood route. The adventurous journey in the mimic representation of which it is now used it has performed in stern reality many a score of times. The driver who holds the reins, and who looks as sententiously saturnine as Yuba Bill, has often on that very box run the gauntlet of Indians and bandits. The passenger who smokes his pipe on the roof would have been a likely passenger on a real trip, since he has grown grey in adventurous pioneering. It may be—the coach used to pass through the Sioux country—that the very Indians who swoop down upon the coach with the half-barking yell which is the Indian's war-whoop, have in their time attacked the coach in deadly earnest. That is the character of the show all through. It is not stage-acting; it is the fighting over again of their battles by old warriors. The Indians—of whom there is quite an army—are almost painfully real. They belong to the Sioux, the tribe which was the very last to make its submission to the United States Government. They, riding bare-backed on fiery little steeds, take part in all the exciting episodes of the programme—in the attack upon the coach, in a fierce conflict with an emigrant train and its rescuers, and in a night raid on a settler's lonely cabin. In one part there is depicted an internecine affray between two bodies of Indians, followed by the war dance of the victors. This is realistic with a vengeance. The Indians, for the most part, wear only a girdle and a flowing sash over the right shoulder. From head to foot they are rudely painted in bright colours, and it is only on close examination that one discovers how perfunctory and infrequent is their clothing. This is the marvel of the show! On the fifth of November, in the dull cold of a wintry evening, these naked and barefooted savages—they had not even a coating of varnish—were to the sound of a very elementary band—the Sioux cannot have been great at musical festivals—performing a war dance on the sodden turf, and looking as if they liked it. It was the most impressive guarantee of genuineness it has ever been our lot to behold. Presiding in stolid majesty over the dance, sitting like a statue on his motionless horse, with the odd streamer, like a giant cockatoo's comb, which he and his brother chief only wear, reaching from his scalp-lock down to the hindquarters of his steed, was Red Shirt, the famous chief of the Sioux. And then there are the cowboys, a knot of sinewy and strapping lads in the early prime of vigorous manhood. Their contribution to the exhibition is to defeat the Indians—the managers ought in common fairness to let the Indians win sometime—in oft-recurring combats, to show the helter-skelter brilliancy of their daring horsemanship, to exhibit the skill of the vaquero with the lasso. They, again, are not actors. They are simply living over again some scenes of the life which they have just left, and to which they will soon return. On them, too, falls the burden of the most popular item in the programme—the riding of the bucking horses. The infinite impracticability, the variety of resource, and the energy of method of a bucking pony can be adequately accounted for only by the theory that it is possessed with an evil spirit. The struggle between steed and rider is tremendous, but the cowboy is always triumphant, though only as the result of the most daring exhibition of rough riding ever seen in this country. Even the horses are typical of the whole exhibition. One looks in vain for a specimen of the dandily groomed horse of the circus, trained out of all life and spirit. The horses seem fresh from their prairie life, rough, fiery, above all supremely serviceable. They quite entered into the spirit of the show. In the initiatory procession, and in the various races, instead of the lackadaisical jog-gallop of the circus horse, they travelled every foot of the way at a reckless tearing pace, and the final rush past the Grand Stand was like Chifney [3] finishing for the Derby.

Such is the Wild West Show—a really great enterprise carried through in a spirit worthy of its magnitude. Nothing like it has ever been seen in this country before; nothing like it will be possible ten years hence. On Saturday afternoon those who went with the expectation of seeing merely a superior circus were disappointed; but those who went in the hope of witnessing a realisation of the stirring scenes of the wild life in the far west of civilisation, of having their knowledge widened and their imagination quickened, were very deeply gratified. Buffalo Bill has brought the prairie to the East. We take it that the name of his exhibition is meant to tell its purpose. He has essayed to show the Wild West, and he has succeeded to admiration. From that point of view we do not see how the exhibition could be improved upon.

We have spoken only of those items in the programme which are intended to effect the chief object of the organisers of the enterprise, the items, too, which create the most vivid and the most permanent impression. But there is much else in the programme deserving of mentioning. The racing becomes, perhaps, a little tame, and a winning post, which was not possible at Earl's Court, but which is quite feasible at Aston, would add immensely to the interest. Some admirable specimens of backwoods skill are given. Buffalo Bill himself contributes a brilliant exhibition of shooting on horseback at full gallop. Master Johnnie Baker, a young cowboy, and Miss Lillian Smith, a young lady from California, also showed extraordinary skill with the gun, the former at the trap and the latter at fixed and swinging objects. Miss Annie Oakley, whose phenomenal shooting was one of the chief attractions of the show in London, was announced to appear, but for some unexplained reason was unable to do so. An exhibition of horse-back riding by American frontier girls pleased the audience immensely.

It only remains to add that the show will be repeated at three o'clock every afternoon until further notice at Aston Lower Grounds.

Note 1: James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), an American writer of the early 19th century. [back]

Note 2: Bret Harte (1836-1902), an American poet and author of the 19th century. [back]

Note 3: "Chifney in the Derby" probably refers to Samuel Chifney (the elder, 1753-1807), a prominent jockey who caused a racing scandal in 1791 while riding a horse owned by the Prince of Wales. Chifney's younger son was also an English jockey named Samuel Chifney (1786-1854). [back]

Title: Opening Of The Wild West Show at Aston

Periodical: Birmingham Daily Post

Date: November 7, 1887

Topics: Buffalo Bill's Wild West in Britain

Keywords: Cheyenne Indians Cowboys Cowgirls Firearms Frontier and pioneer life Horse racing Horsemanship Horses Lasso Mustang Pioneers Sharpshooters Shooting Sioux Nation Stagecoaches

People: Chifney, Samuel, approximately 1753-1807 Cooper, James Fenimore, 1789-1851 Harte, Bret, 1836-1902 Oakley, Annie, 1860-1926 Red Shirt, 1845?-1925

Places: Earl's Court (London, England) Kansas London (England) Mexico

Sponsor: This project is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Geraldine W. & Robert J. Dellenback Foundation.

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