The West - Old & New
Last week saw the PC release of Rockstar Games’ hugely anticipated title Red Dead Redemption II. As of Tuesday, November 5th, millions of fans are immersing themselves in Rockstar’s vision of the American West. Released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on October 26, 2018, RDR2 has sold a massive 25 million copies, with sales of $725 million over its first three days of sales. For the sake of comparison, the highest-grossing western film of all time, Dances With Wolves, had a domestic box office of $184.21M. Red Dead Redemption 2's first 3 days was the sales equivalent of 4 of the top-grossing western ever.
The game is the sequel to 2010’s Game of the Year Red Dead Redemption, which put players in the role of John Marston, a reformed outlaw turned family-man forced by the government to work against his former outlaw brothers. Set in the waning years of the American frontier, the game masterfully toes the line between reverence for that mythologized time and place and trading on the tropes that make the setting so instantly familiar. The fictionalized setting (Rockstar brands the locations as New Austin, West Elizabeth, and Nuevo Paraiso) perches precariously on the brink of modernity, intimated throughout, but particularly in the conclusion of the game’s main storyline, as the game’s “big bad.” Should a player slaughter each of the game’s 20 buffalo they earn the dubious achievement “Manifest Destiny.” Though the exact time period and location for the sequel have yet to be released, Red Dead 2 will likely tread similar ground, allowing players to explore the Wild West through the eyes of new protagonist Arthur Morgan.
Rockstar’s headquarters, at 622 Broadway, New York City, sits just above the NoHo Best Buy, where consumers this weekend flocked to purchase the game managed from the quiet office upstairs. Likely neither the customers shopping downstairs nor the creators monitoring their IP’s rollout upstairs are aware that they are standing on hallowed ground for the Wild West aficionado, there in Manhattan.
In 1878 a different edifice graced the plot between 622 and 624 Broadway. Originally called Laura Keene’s Varieties for the resident actress who had once starred in Our American Cousin, famously and infamously attended by Abraham Lincoln on the fateful night of April 14th, 1865 at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., the theatre was by the 1870s known as The Olympic. It had been home to several of New York’s longest-running shows, including Humpty Dumpty, which had set Broadway attendance records in the 1860s. From February 18th to the first week of March of 1878, the theatre’s gallery and floor would be packed by the same kinds of patrons that might pick up a copy of Red Dead Redemption 2 some 140 years later, fans of the blood and thunder border dramas of the Wild West.
The figure that so captured the imaginations of New York theatergoers nearly a century and a half ago was the man they called Texas Jack. A tall and handsome man with a deep bass voice and charisma to spare, John B. Omohundro had already achieved fame for his exploits on the Chisholm Trail as a Texas cowboy and as a scout for the government in Nebraska when he took to the stage in 1872. That year he and his friend “Buffalo Bill” Cody joined dime novel writer Ned Buntline on stage in Chicago to bring their version of the West to the American public. Buntline had published stories of the two men for eastern publishers since he met the pair on a trip to Nebraska a few years earlier, and was convinced that he could make himself, and the two scouts, rich and famous if they’d give him a chance.
As a leading lady Buntline hired the country’s most famous ballerina, Italian danseuse Giuseppina “The Peerless” Morlacchi, who had been a guaranteed box office draw since she arrived in America to much fanfare in 1868. To the amusement of his friends, Bill Cody and his wife Louisa, Omohundro and the beautiful ballerina fell in love and were married in 1873, just before the second touring season. By this time, Omohundro and Cody had fired Buntline and hired as his stage replacement their old friend James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Hickok proved to be less suited for a life on the stage than to carrying a badge in the rougher towns of the American west, and he left the company after less than one full tour, heading back to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and ultimately to Deadwood in the Dakota Territory where he would meet his fate at the hands of Jack McCall.
Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack toured together for five years, from 1872 to 1876, separating in the summers while Jack lead wealthy Europeans like the Earl of Dunraven on hunts into the newly formed Yellowstone Park or high into the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, or Montana. In 1876, both men answered the call to return to government service as scouts in the wake of Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn. Cody famously took the “first scalp for Custer” and used his grizzly trophy as an advertisement for his new show while Texas Jack and his wife teamed up with native Warm Springs scout Donald McKay and veteran manager John M. Burke in the Texas Jack combination, which won accolades for its portrayal of western border drama on stage.
Jack’s appearance at the Olympic was accompanied by ads and reviews in all of the city’s major papers. The Sun reporter wrote that “The horse has always been a failure on the stage until introduced by Texas Jack.” The Herald’s writer agreed that “The handling of a horse upon the stage by Texas Jack is a sight worth double the price of admission.” Elsewhere, the Daily Herald claimed that “the arrival of the Texas Jack Combination at the Olympic appears to have attracted all the boys in New York, as last night the capacious galleries of that theatre were packed to suffocation, and the gallant Jack from Texas received a royal greeting when he made his first appearance.” Indeed, the theatre was so crowded that “the crush to witness [Texas Jack] was terrible. It was estimated that there were fully four thousand persons in the theatre, the greater proportion of whom were boys, eager to witness…Texas Jack and Arizona John.” With boys pressing into the confined space of the top gallery, one of the children fainted, and a stampede was only averted when the theatre’s manager forced his way into the crowd and demanded calm, escorting the fainted children to the relatively fresh air outside of the theatre. It was there determined that twelve different patrons had fainted.
In 1880, just over two years after his appearance at the Olympic Theatre, Omohundro died high in the Rocky Mountains at Leadville, Colorado, only 33 years old. His beautiful wife retired from performing and passed away at their Billerica, Massachusetts home in 1886. Jack’s old trail partner, hunting buddy, and later business partner and costar Bill Cody went on to become the most famous American in the world, traveling internationally with his Wild West show. This show incorporated Sioux warriors, Mexican vaqueros, Russian Cossacks, and rough riders from across the world. But the show’s highlight was always the arrival of the cowboys, riding to the rescue of the settler’s cabin besieged by Indians. In reality, cowboys and Native Americans seldom came to blows out West, but the time that Omohundro, the cowboy, had saved Cody’s life while under fire from enemy Sioux warriors left its mark on both Buffalo Bill and the world. When Cody cast the cowboy as the hero of the American west, facing off against the dangers of nature and man, he was enshrining his old cowboy friend Texas Jack as the ideal western man. When Cody’s show stopped in Leadville in 1908, some 28 years after his friend’s death, Cody brought the entire cast to Evergreen Cemetery, where he spoke about his old pard Texas Jack. Cody paid to erect the stone marker that still graces Jack’s final resting place today.
Fans of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption series or HBO’s Deadwood, Westworld, and other, more modern takes on the western may not remember the name Texas Jack Omohundro or his place in the pantheon of the great men of the American West. But every time an easterner dons a Stetson or fans the hammer of their virtual six-shooter, they are paying homage to that original cowboy hero of the American stage, Texas Jack.