From a lunchtime lecture at the Institute of Northern Studies… Note that I’m paraphrasing – I may be printing the legend.
William Cody (aka Buffalo Bill) wild west tableau took Europe by storm. He was the real enough deal – slaughtering native americans in the morning and performing in US theatres by night. This was not a show. This was living history featuring the actual participants from the Sioux to Annie Oakley. After the event you could wonder round and talk to them. Reportage as entertainment – live not CGI or CNN. Scenes from the plains – but with some important changes. This time Custer wins.
It was a sensation. Cast of hundreds (the third and final British tour had a cast and crew of 800), portable purpose built stadia, and it’s own train to transport the spectacle around the country. Mass marketing. Buffalo Bill – the biggest global celebrity in the world. So famous that the poster above didn’t have to give his name. The immigrants returning to the homeland with one hell of a tale to tell. The ones that stayed behind were impressed! Some claim this was the beginning of the americanised strain of British popular culture.
The reverberations from the these world tours still echo. There are more books about William Cody than any other American, three streets in Salford are named after him. .
One of the immediate effects was impersonators.
In those days people didn’t know for sure that Buffalo Bill had gone home. England was a big place without the mass media. All sorts of show people took on wild west personnas. Claimed to have been part of the original Buffalo Bill show, a relative or a companero. They started to half believe it themselves. Everyone half believed it – the audience and the performers.
One of the most extraordinary manifestations was Texas Bill Shufflebottom and his Yorkshire brood. Some of those offspring that he had thrown knifes and war axes at on stage – went off and started their own tribute acts. Rotating the Yorkshire feasts and fairs – which at that time were more about shows and performances than mechanised rides.
One of the shufflebottom brood was the Yorkshire Annie Oakley – the striking Florance Shufflebottom. She lost the part in the play about Oakley at the Leeds Playhouse because she used live ammunition at the audition. As time went on the Buffalo Bill tableaus mutated as the Western myths were taken up in films and stageshows. The cowboy outfits went velvet. Some of the English stars took their genuine wild west hokum to the states – supported Elvis, appeared on US cable. Turned up at the son’s schools back in England with cow horns on the front of the chevies.
The wild west shows finally died out in the early seventies. But to this day hundreds of people a year contact the National Fairground Archive to have their (false) claims confirmed that they are related to Buffalo Bill. Many more say they saw him, or their relatives did. They didn’t – he died in 1917. Chances are if they are from Yorkshire it was one of the Yorkshire Texas Shufflebottoms they saw…