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Ballerinas & Cowboys

Did you know that without one Italian prima ballerina, there might never have been Wild West shows like Buffalo Bill's? Without this one La Scala-trained dancer, there might never have been Westerns starring John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.

When Texas Jack Omohundro and his best friend Buffalo Bill Cody stepped off the train at Chicago’s Great Central Depot on December 12, 1872, they couldn’t know what to expect. They had been lured to the city by Ned Buntline and the promise of fame and fortune, but it seems pretty clear, historically speaking, that Buntline wasn’t certain they would come at all. A brief notice in the Chicago Tribune speaks to the lack of familiarity with these men and their names: “Among the arrivals in town yesterday were Col E. X. Judson (“Ned Runtline”; T. Cody (“Buffalo Bill”); and J.B. Omerohunder (“Texas Jack”). Colonel Judson will give a free Temperance lecture on Sunday night at Nixon’s Amphitheater. All are invited.”

In addition to misspellings for each of the names, there is no mention of the play they would stage in just three days, which makes sense considering that at that point, the theater hadn’t yet been rented and the play hadn’t yet been written. It might be strange to consider from our vantage, but Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill at that moment were no more than frontiersmen with slightly more than their share of regional notoriety, far from the stardom that would soon be theirs.

Elsewhere in the city was a celebrity whose name the Chicago papers never misspelled, Giuseppina Morlacchi. On October 11, 1867, the Chicago Evening Post had run a short piece stating that “The French steamer Periere arrived at New York recently, having made one of the quickest trips on record. The vessel is presumed to have made this trip under the inspiring presence of another quick tripper, Mlle. Morlacchi, the celebrated danseuse, who was a passenger.” The ship had actually set a record for the fastest crossing ever from Havre, France, to New York, arriving in a mere 8 days, 15 hours, and 38 minutes.

Less than half a year after her arrival in America, Morlacchi was charming theater-goers in Chicago. She made her first appearance in the Windy City in April of 1868, playing La Belle Hellene at the Crosby Opera House with Jon De Pol’s “Great European Star Ballet Troupe.” Chicago critics lavished praise on Morlacchi, though they otherwise accused the ballet of being something other than fine art.

“La Belle Helene continues to run at the Opera House…audiences begin to be a little more appreciative, though it must be confessed that their more enthusiastic demonstrations are given to the ballet, which, though very deserving--in fact, we think Morlacchi is the best premiere we have ever had in Chicago--is no more so than the acting of the burlesque. An improvement has been made by cutting the dialogues and introducing the petit can can in the midst of the third act.”

Morlacchi returned to Chicago in June of 1868 with a production of the Black Crook, the very show she initially came to the United States to compete against. The Chicago Evening Post noted that “The premiere danseuse is Mlle. Morlacchi--one of the best and most graceful danseuses in America. Morlacchi has already made a reputation, which will doubtless gain new luster in this city.” The Black Crook opened to great success. Morlacchi continued to tour, but returned to Chicago and the Black Crook in July.

Morlacchi didn’t return to Chicago for two and a half years, though Chicagoans were kept up to date when newspapers like the Evening Post and the Tribune reprinted articles on her success from newspapers in New York and Boston. In November of 1872, an announcement appeared in the Tribune to inform readers that “Nixon’s Amphitheatre will be closed this week for the purpose of putting in a heating apparatus, and will be reopened next Monday night by Morlacchi and her dramatic and ballet combination, which will produce “The French Spy” and similar dramas.”

Again, reviews were glowing. On November 26, 1872, the Chicago Evening Mail said:

“The fame of Morlacchi in her well-chosen parts is as wide as the continent, and the treat enjoyed by those who witnessed her acting in the powerful drama of the “French Spy” last evening was equal to their anticipations. Her pantomime is more intelligent than many of the spoken parts played by some of those who have come here on starring tours this season. Grace and natural gestures are seemingly parts of her very nature, and the impressions made upon those who witness them are pleasing and satisfactory. In the most difficult steps ever attempted in the ballet she is perfectly at home, executing them with the utmost ease, and bringing frequent rounds of applause from the audience.”

Unfortunately for Morlacchi, the supporting orchestra and cast at the theater were not up to snuff.

“The support accorded her in the piece was, with one or two exceptions, very deficient and unworthy of so imminent an artiste and the orchestra showed a pitiful lack of training in the music of the ballet.” The Tribune critic agreed, saying that the supporting cast and orchestra “demonstrated the extreme depth of imperfection to which a dramatic production may be brought by reason of poor material and preparation together with insufficient rehearsal. Mlle Morlacchi is a danseuse of first-class reputation…that a lady as graceful and attractive personally should fail to appear to advantage in a character which admits of such a liberal display of a pretty form and lithe and supple movements would not be for a moment maintained, but that she has been unfortunate in the linking of her name with a “dramatic and ballet troupe” wholly deficient in dramatic and saltatory merit is an equally evident and not less disagreeable fact.”

Morlacchi continued to perform the French Spy at Nixon’s until the end of November. The final advertisement for the show appears in the November 30, 1872, issue of the Chicago Tribune.

Nixon’s Amphitheatre--Clinton Street between Washington and Randolph. Morlacchi Ballet and Dramatic Combination. Afternoon and evening. “French Spy. “Dodging for a Wife.”

Compare this to a similar notice in the same paper from December 16:

Nixon’s Amphitheatre--Clinton Street between Washington and Randolph. Morlacchi Troupe. “The Scout.”

The dramatic star of “The Scouts of the Prairie; Or, Red Deviltry as It Is,” as the show was formally named when it opened on the night of December 16, 1872, in Chicago, wasn’t the scout Buffalo Bill Cody. It wasn’t the cowboy Texas Jack Omohundro. And it wasn’t the dime novelist turned playwright Ned Buntline. It was the Italian prima ballerina, the Peerless Giuseppina Morlacchi.

We know how the story goes. Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill make their stage debut that night, revealing themselves as handsome men, true heroes, and bad actors. Faced with their surprising success, Jim Nixon agrees to partner with Ned Buntline to take the show on the road, and he also takes Buffalo Bil under his wing to teach him how to be a better actor than he was on the night of the debut. Similarly, Texas Jack is assigned to work with Morlacchi. When they were formally introduced, Louisa Cody wrote in her memoirs, “Texas Jack put out his hand in a hesitating, wavering way. His usually heavy bass voice cracked and broke. There were more difficulties than ever now, for Jack had fallen in love, at sight…and never did a pupil work harder than Texas Jack from that moment!”

Morlacchi leaves the show after a few months, but she’s never far from Texas Jack’s mind. When Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill decide to tour again, this time with the famous lawman Wild Bill Hickok instead of Ned Buntline, Jack races to see Morlacchi in Rochester, New York, and they are married the following day before heading to New York together to start their lives as a married couple and as permanent costars.

Through thick and thin, up and down, East and West, they are by all accounts incredibly devoted to each other for the scant seven years they share as husband and wife before Jack’s death. When he dies, she is heartbroken. Some newspapers worry that she has gone insane, some whisper that she has already attempted suicide, and some say she has fallen under the dark influence of spiritualists to reach her beloved husband from beyond the grave. In truth, she leaves the bright lights behind for a simple life on the farm she had once shared with her husband. She takes care of her ailing sister, who dies of cancer three years after Texas Jack. Just over two years later, Giuseppina Antonia Morlacchi Omohundro passes away, also from cancer, and is buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts, 2082 miles from where Texas Jack was buried in Leadville, Colorado.

If you wanted to take a road trip between the final resting place of the courageous cowboy Texas Jack and the beautiful ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi, you’d start in Leadville. [24] You’d leave Evergreen Cemetery in the shadow of Mount Massive and head down the Rocky Mountains. You’d pass Lookout Mountain, where Buffalo Bill Cody was buried in 1917, and Denver, the last city Texas Jack performed in before heading to Leadville in 1880, the place he met the Earl of Dunraven before their trek into Yellowstone Park in 1874. You’d head Northeast, passing Summit Springs where Cheyenne chief Tall Bull was killed, his famous horse ending up in the possession of Texas Jack, who rode the horse to lasso buffalo. Following the Platte River to North Platte [27], where Texas Jack worked as a teacher and a bartender, and past the spot where Fort McPherson once stood on the frontier, the place where Texas Jack met Buffalo Bill and later Ned Buntline, who would write them to fame. Continuing east past the sand hills where Texas Jack saved Buffalo Bill’s life in April of 1872, where he hunted with the Grand Duke of Russia, and where he tracked buffalo with the Pawnee tribe. Halfway between Jack’s grave and Morlacchi’s, you’d be near Chicago. The place they met for the first time before the premiere of The Scouts of the Prairie at Nixon’s Amphiteatre, the birthplace of their love, and a city they returned to often. They spent the final anniversary of their first meeting together in Chicago, where they performed in theaters throughout the city from December 15th, 1879, until January 24th, 1880. They played at the National Theatre, the Lyceum, and at Mueller’s Hall, one week with Jack’s “Blood and Thunder” western drama and the next with Morlacchi’s ballet.

From the cold winter of 1879, let’s go back to the winter of 1872. Remember the reviewers who noted that despite Morlacchi’s incredible artistry and skill, the supporting cast and orchestra were wildly deficient, not up to the standards of such a phenomenal star? One of the mysteries that will never be solved is why, after all that, she agreed to be part of a show that hadn’t been written, with stars who had never acted, as part of a cast that had never rehearsed. Morlacchi could have taken her act, her show, and her talents literally anywhere, but she chose to throw her lot in with bad actors, a bad playwright, and a bad show. Why?

Sadly, we’ll never know the answer. There are no interviews with Morlacchi where she explained her reasons for sticking around in Chicago in the winter of 1872. There are no facts, which is why I couldn’t put anything in my book approaching an answer to one of my big questions. Maybe the closest we can come is that she was excited to move past dancing and pantomime into a speaking role. Indeed, the Chicago Evening Mail’s review of the very first show of the Scouts of the Prairie concludes by saying that “The honors of the evening were divided with Mlle. Morlacchi, who showed that she could do something else than dance. This is her first speaking part in English, yet she had her say with much spirit and with scarcely any perceptible foreign accent.”

But I’ll tell you what I believe. In December of 1870, Morlacchi traveled to California, where she stayed for four months, performing to full houses in San Francisco, Sacramento, and throughout the state. Returning east in April of 1871, Morlacchi’s troupe stopped in Omaha, Nebraska, to perform for a few nights. The Omaha Herald newspaper said, “She was superb. Her wonderful art and grace charmed all witnesses. Seeing her, one can well understand how, with her for a star, the California theatre was crowded night after night for weeks, and how the bluff Nevada miners brought wines and a silver brick to her carriage as she passed. She is magnificent.”

I like to imagine that somewhere in the audience that night was Texas Jack, perhaps with his friend Buffalo Bill. They’ve come to Omaha to see off some Eastern businessmen they led on a buffalo hunt for the last few weeks. The businessmen insist on buying their guides cigars and drinks, and on showing the men the beautiful, graceful, and talented dancer that has charmed them in New York, Boston, Chicago, or Philadelphia. I like to think of Texas Jack and Giuseppina Morlacchi being there together.

I like to think that at some point in that night’s performance, there is a moment where the eyes of the cowboy and those of the ballerina meet for just a moment, just long enough that when one sees the other again in the most unexpected of circumstances a year and a half later, its enough to throw caution to the wind, to sign on with a bad writer, bad actors, and a bad show. Because whether it was love at first sight or not, it was Giuseppina Morlacchi that propelled Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill to superstardom. If the diminutive Italian ballerina hadn’t agreed, for whatever reason, to star as Dove Eye alongside her future husband and his best friend, I don’t think there would be a popular culture version of the Wild West. Her stardom ignited theirs, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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