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The Scouts of the Plains Meet the King of the Wild Frontier

From January 22nd to the 27th of 1874, Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack, and Wild Bill were starring as The Scouts of the Plains in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On Saturday the 24th, they took an afternoon trip to catch a matinee performance of "Davy Crockett" at the Boston Theatre.

The Boston Post, January 24, 1874.

The play was about the frontiersman and later Congressman from Tennessee Davy Crockett. Crockett, much like Cody, Omohundro, and Hickok, had been a legend in his own time, the fables spun by himself and others overshadowing reality and turning him into a folk hero as much Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan as David Crockett from Limestone, Tennessee. And it was far from the first play about Davy Crockett.

While Crockett was serving in the House of Representatives, a play based on his life—but with the main character's name changed to Nimrod Wildfire—called The Lion of the West; or, a Trip to Washington was put on by an actor named James Hackett. When Hackett and the play came to Washington D.C., Crockett himself was in the audience. When Hackett, costumed in buckskin, stepped onto the stage, he spotted Crockett and bowed to him. Crockett, in fancy theater-going clothes, stood and returned the bow, then acknowledged the applause from the rest of the audience. Hackett would do versions of the same show for more than twenty years.

The show that Texas Jack, Wild Bill, and Buffalo Bill went to see had been started two years earlier, around the same time that Omohundro and Cody were launching their first show with Ned Buntline, The Scouts of the Prairie. The actor was Frank Mayo, and audiences loved his portrayal of the famous Crockett. Reviews of his show told theater-goers that "Mr. Mayo's fine physique and voice of great pathos and flexibility are no small portion of his advantages. He has disciplined himself into a subdued and picturesque style of interpretation, which is exceedingly effective." Another typical review stated that "Mr. Mayo is the ideal backwoodsman, a hero in buckskin, commanding in statue, an Apollo in appearance, strong as Hercules and as tender as a woman. He possesses a face for manly beauty."

Frank Mayo as Davy Crockett

Unlike the three scouts that played themselves in The Scouts of the Plains, Mayo was a trained actor and not an "authentic hero." His success as Davy Crockett meant that it was essentially the only role he was allowed to play for the majority of his long career, retiring from the role just five years before his death in 1896, 24 years after he began playing the "King of the Wild Frontier." "My head is getting gray and every hair is a Crockett," he told a reporter later in his career. "This is a special night, the 3000th one. I have played it so long that the public has identified me with it and the demand is so strong that I am essentially prohibited from producing anything else. In one sense, I am regarded as the real Davy Crockett. In nearly every town I visit, I am invited to hunting parties, when the truth is that I never shot a gun in my life. Buffalo killing expeditions have been organized for my benefit. They are surprised to learn that I have neither the experience nor a taste for that kind of sport. I am passionately fond of appearing in other settings of legitimate drama. I was the principal supporting actor for Julia Dean Hayne (American actress) in all the classical characters in which she appeared. I favor variety so, consequently, the continual playing of one character is becoming monstrous to me." When the reporter followed up by noting that "You certainly had a full house tonight," Mayo countered with "Oh yes, the house is always full. The late Davy Crockett is very popular, but it exasperates me to be compelled to play it all the time."

Frank Mayo as Davy Crockett

Wild Bill Hickok grew tired of playing himself on stage before the season was up, leaving acting and his friends Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro before the touring season was out for a return to the west and an inevitable end in the frontier town of Deadwood. Texas Jack branched out after he and Buffalo Bill split up their combination, playing roles like Mohammed in the French Spy alongside his wife. Buffalo Bill Cody continued to play the role of Buffalo Bill, leaving stages behind after a decade to launch the outdoor spectacle of Buffalo Bill's Wild West. He kept playing the larger-than-life version of himself until his death in 1917.

Illustration shows a young "Boy Scout" standing outside his tent, meeting "Davy Crockett, Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack Omohundro, Kit Carson, California Joe, and Dan'l Boone".

Frank Mayo died in 1896, suffering a heart attack on a Union Pacific train on the prairies of Nebraska that Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill hunted before they had joined Mayo as theater stars. His son, Frank Lorimer Mayo, became a Hollywood actor, starring in over 300 films before his death in 1963, including a good number of early westerns.

Every generation since has had its Davy Crockett. Fess Parker made the roll his own with his coonskin cap, winning smile, and memorable theme song. John Wayne, Billy Bob Thornton, and Trevor Bardette are among the dozens of actors who have portrayed the famed backwoodsman, ensuring that the legend of Davy Crockett is as appealing today as it was when Crockett went to see a play of himself in 1831; when Texas Jack, Buffalo Bill, and Wild Bill went to see it in 1874; when families gathered around the tv to watch Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier in 1954; John Wayne in The Alamo in 1960; and Billy Bob Thornton in that movie's remake in 2004. Crockett endures, as indelibly tied to our vision of frontier America as Cody, Omohundro, and Hickok are to the Wild West.

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