Longform

Cure for the Common Cody

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"Once in a while a guy would tell me he loves to shoot but can't act. I'd say, 'Hell, you're married, ain't you?' And they'd have to admit I had a point," he remembers. "I took amateurs and turned them into something. Every once in a while, I turned them into terrible big egos."

In the beginning, Mack's Gang performed for needy kids at holiday events held at Mack's Country. But as word spread, people were willing to become part of paying audiences.

"It took off like the plague," agrees Ron McMillan, a Garden City neighbor who honed Village Idiot and Preacher characters in his years with Mack's Gang. "I had done a little summer stock as a teen. I had a propensity for the theater. And once upon a time, years later, this thing took off."

Since the closing of Mack's Country also broke up Mack's Gang, McMillan has focused on a Native American character he plays with such sincerity that he carves his own flutes, tans his own hides and sleeps year-round in a teepee set up in his suburban back yard.

Mack's niece Vendla Bramble was also bitten by the Old West bug, creating and perfecting a ruthless outlaw alter ego she calls Liza Blue.

"She gut-shot a guy," Bramble relates. "She has steely blue eyes. She hates men because they beat the crap out of her. She's likely to whip her derringer out of her bonnet, do a rolling somersault dive and take a man down." The "Sweet Revenge" skit -- in which Mack is dragged out of town by a gang of female vigilantes -- inspired Bramble to start her own all-girl gang, also called Sweet Revenge.

"As a matter of fact, I'm four or five members short right now," she sighs. "Kids and real life and all that are always interfering. But I have to go on. Another gang, this bunch of real macho guys, hated that 'Sweet Revenge' skit so much they fought back with a skit where they ended up tarring and feathering a schoolmarm. Genuine hatred is what I feel for them," she says, a murderous glint in her eyes, "and I think that could work real well at a competition."

Tom Gregory, a Buffalo Soldier reenactor from Kansas City, ran into Mack at a Wild West show; he was the only member of his all-black cavalry company to accept the offer to visit Mack's Country.

"I ended up playing with him six years," Gregory says. "I did Cherokee Bill, an outlaw from that time who was hung at Fort Smith, Arkansas, for murder. Then I played Bass Reed, the first black U.S. marshal. I did Jim Beckwourth a few times, and even a Sergeant Gregory. I don't know if we're related, but I'm tracing it back. All my life I'd loved history and been a cowboy, but when I got into it with Mack, I got into it really deeply."

What started as a hobby led to the movies: Gregory served as an extra in Ride With the Devil and Buffalo Soldier. Once a man masters the costuming arts, he says, it's not difficult to get cast. What's harder is dealing with the real world.

"I go into city schools as a Buffalo Soldier, wanting to make kids proud of our heritage, and I can't bring a weapon?" he asks incredulously. "Times have really changed."

In fact, Gregory suspects that burnout had more to do with Mack's retirement than economics. "I don't do the Buffalo Soldier so much anymore, and Mack's out there wearing tennis shoes, but I will become a soldier again for him," he says. "I will attend his auction in character, to show support."

Mack didn't fall into character as quickly as some of his disciples did. He put in a few years as Robert E. Lee, but the role never really resonated. Assorted cowboys came and went. And then, finally, he found himself in Buffalo Bill Cody. With his white hair grown out and the first of many beaded buckskin jackets on his back, Mack discovered that he shared Cody's innate desire to banter with a crowd. Before long, Mack was appearing at parades, grand openings and rodeos. As Buffalo Bill, he no longer needed a make-believe skit: Cody's own life had been dramatic enough, and all Mack had to do was relive it -- the showman as showoff.

True to Bill's form, he befriended an Annie Oakley look-alike as well as a Calamity Jane, who was high-strung and hard-drinking but authentic as she could be. "One time I was walking with her through a fairground," Mack relates, "and someone said, 'Oh, look! It's Annie Oakley!' Jane turned on them, spat, and said, 'You idiots! Do I look like, by God, Annie Oakley to you?'"

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff