First Night Review
The first night of Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack's stage career did not go as planned. They had only three days to rehearse a play that was written in four hours, and two of the three days saw major interruptions to their rehearsals. Then, on opening night, with Omohundro and Cody waiting nervously offstage while Ned Buntline—in the guise of trapper Cale Durg—talked them up to a packed crowd at Nixon's Opera House, the worst possible thing happened. A distraction. Before the titular scouts could join the dime novelist on stage, a man from the audience walked onto the stage, causing a few moments of confusion and commotion before he was removed, rather forcibly, by Buntline.
Those few moments of disraction were all it took for Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, neither of whom were skilled actors, to forget every line they had spent the last couple of days trying to commit to memory. When they walked out to join Ned, the audience cheered, and the pair just stood there. Buffalo Bill was supposed to greet Ned, telling him about the great buffalo hunt he and Texas Jack had just come from, but he had forgotten what to say, and the nervous energy in the crowd was growing by the moment. Finally, Buntline asked him if he'd been on a buffalo hunt. In the crowd, he spied a man named Milligan who had actually come west to Nebraska the previous summer, so he answered Buntline truthfully, if out of character for the play, that he had been hunting buffalo with Milligan from Chicago.
Cody talked for a few moments about the hunt with Milligan, but he forgot to introduce Texas Jack. Some of the audience, including at least one reporter, assumed that Texas Jack was playing the part of Milligan. But at the end of the day, Cody's inability to speak his lines confidently, the confusion over Milligan, the fact that every actor in the play seemed at a loss with what to do with their hands while they spoke, and the fact that the Indian maiden was an Italian ballerina and the warriors were actors from Chicago didn't seem to do anything to dampen the spirits of the capacity crowd. They weren't there to see great actors, they were there to see real heroes. "Reality is what the people want," said a Chicago reviewer. Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill were the first reality stars, presenting to the country a version of themselves. They would become legends. Review from the Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper, December 17, 1872.
NIXON’S AMPHITHEATER – “BUFFALO BILL.” “NED BUNTLINE” AND “TEXAS JACK.”
After all, reality is what the people want. Fine scenery, elegant appointments, unapproachable delineations, are all very well in their way; but if a theatrical manager means to succeed, he must put a spice of nature into his piece. “Nature, my dear Dombey,” said the faded Cleopatra, “give me nature.”
Mr. Vincent Crummies was a shrewd manager, although he could never draw such an audience as did Mr. Nixon last night at his amphitheater on Clinton street. Mr. Crummies, however, knew how to hit the public.
“We’ll have a new show piece out directly,” said Mr. Crummies on one occasion. “Let me see – new scenery – particular resources of the establishment. You must introduce a real pump and two wash tubs.”
“Into one piece?” said Nicholas.
“Yes,” replied the manager. “I bought ‘em cheap at a sale the other day, and they’ll come in admirably. It’ll look well in the play bills in separate lines—Real Pump! Splendid Tubs! Great Attraction!”
The manager of the amphitheater probably took a useful hint from Mr. Crummies, and he bettered the instruction. Let other managers take heedful note of it. There’s money in’t. Mr. Hooley hung up a real oil painting in one of his scenes the other day, and made an impression. But was that, or pump and washtubs, ever so real, to the reality presented last evening at Nixon’s? There was the real Edward Buntline, of the dime-novel and New York Weekly. There was the real Mr. William Buffalo, whom the aforesaid Buntline has a thousand times ground into paint for his pictures. There was the real Mr. John Texas, and the real Mr. Cale Durg, assisted by the—but here we enter upon dangerous ground. That peerless danseuse M’dlle. Morlacchi, and them Indians, we fear, betrayed a decided flavor of civilization, and alas, we are forced to admit, of stage culture. It was, perhaps, a mixture of wild reality and stage paint and spangles, and it may be that in the curious blending of these the true art of the dramatist was discernible.
The audience was not what the ordinary critic would stigmatize as select and cultivated; but it was appreciative, yes, enthusiastic. It was a “Dime Novel” audience. Beginning from the irrepressible, sparkling gamin, it traveled, row by row, through all intervening grades of intelligence, up to the hard-handed, sable-browed mechanic, who rests on Saturday night, and devours his dime novel, his New York Weekly, with their thrilling tales of the plains, and to whom the title of “pale face” for a white man still has some tincture of romance. It was worth more than all the play to watch this audience. It numbered fully 2,000 and never, out of an English pit, was anything ever seen like it. Auditors and actors were in deadly earnest about the performance and that is something that neither Mr. Barrett, Mr. Booth, or Mr. Fechter can accomplish nowadays with all their splendid Hamlets and “new readings.” No, this audience was an audience that seldom frequents fine theaters. To them, the novel is the intellectual stuff of life. The hairbreadth escapes, the thrilling adventures of Indian life, the heroic scout, the splendid Indian maid, the terrible redskin, are all conceivable entities, and here they had all been promised a chance of seeing the actual heroes of whom they had so long read and dreamed.
The play was “Scouts of the Prairie, written expressly for this occasion. Signal appearance of Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack, and Cale Durg,” and the dove-eyed Indian maiden, who, we regret to admit, was not transplanted from the wilds of nature. The audience sat patiently through the sadly-enacted farce (“The Spectre Bridegroom”) and came at last to the sensation of the evening. They could hardly wait for the fiddlers to stop and the curtain to rise upon the mimic scene. At last, however, there entered the renowned (and real) Cale Durg, the terrible scout, rifle in hand. Storms of applause. Cale has evidently been in the mountains, but never before on the stage. He don’t handle his rifle neatly, like Mr. O’Neil in Claude Melnotte; he speaks his first speech not trippingly upon the tongue, and he uses his arms like a pump handle. But what of that? Durg is the real thing, and the boys fairly yell with admiration as he alludes mysteriously to the redskins that infest his path. Here came in an incident. Just as Durg had clapped the butt of his rifle on the stage with a terrible thump, a half-tipsy fellow from the upper row stumbles on the stage. Possibly with the best intentions, he pulls a bottle of whisky from his pocket and presents it to Buntline. It was the poor fellow’s humble tribute of admiration—his way of throwing a bouquet. There was a moment of breathless suspense, and then the valiant Cale seized the offender by the neck and dashed him into the orchestra, smashing a half-dozen footlights as he went. Cale then addressed the audience as follows: “Let any renegade pale face dare to cross this red line, and he shall thus feel the weight of my strong arm”—a speech which was hailed with rounds of rapturous plaudits. The luckless admirer of the scout was plucked from the inside of a bass fiddle into which he had fallen, and was promptly handed over to a policeman, who dragged him through the audience, wildly protesting, and consigned him to the care of a regular, who led him to the station. The play proceeded. Cale Durg made some more speeches, accompanied with the pump-handle action, and presently Mr. William Buffalo came to the front, a tall, handsome-looking fellow, but looking, and evidently feeling, exceedingly ill at ease, and quite at a loss what to do with his hands. He was accompanied by a Mr. Milligan, of this city, dressed as a hunter, who made a wild attempt to walk on in the dare-devil easy fashion, and then stood stock still, only shifting his attitude occasionally, and simpering, while proceeding to relate a series of anecdotes about the famous Duke Alexis buffalo hunt, in which Mr. Milligan participated. [Here the excited policeman came back from his man, and went down to the orchestra for poor drunken friend’s hat, left by mistake in the violin.]
But hah! There’s trouble ahead. A white woman has been seen in the wilderness. And this brings us to the next scene to view a beautiful maiden, armed with a rifle and a dagger, roaming these deserts with evil intent on Indians. Possibly, to the select and cultivated audience it would have seemed strange indeed to see this lovely damsel, whose father had been a friend of the Indians, and who was roaming alone with her faithful rifle through the wilderness, suddenly pause in a passionate speech, and marching clear up to the footlights, troll off, in an artistic fashion, a select air from Offenbach. But to the dime novel audience all this was in perfect keeping. And then came a terrible scene in which Bill, Durg, and Milligan of Chicago, and all the Indians were hurried off to participate in a grand bonfire and barbecue, in which Durg was to be the barbecued. Of course he was rescued, and this circumstance naturally gave allowance for more scenes of red terror—rescues, savage pow-wows, battle scenes, oaths of vengeance—which ran through three dreadful acts, and all of them were hailed with such cheers of wild delight and sincere admiration as would have made the heart of the proudest manager happy. The play will be repeated—of course it will “draw”—night after night. It is the most successful drama which has ever been presented in this city. It has drawn one immense audience and will draw more of the same.