Longform

Cure for the Common Cody

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Over the next seven years, Mack experienced some of the celebrity enjoyed by the real Buffalo Bill Cody throughout most of his life. He traveled farther and farther afield to show off his Bill impression, adding more and more authentic accoutrements and commissioning detailed replicas of saddles, boots, gloves, hats, belt buckles -- anything Cody was known to have owned or worn. In 1999 he won the prestigious Buffalo Bill look-alike contest held annually at Denver's Buckhorn Exchange Restaurant, where the real Cody hung out.

Financial success never seemed far away. So when the money began to run out, Mack sold off chunks of his Garden City property to keep his career alive.

"I tried to market myself, and it didn't work," Mack now admits. "Or it didn't work well enough. Also, I was too close to Bill, and his life was dogged by tragedy. His finger was almost tore off in a riding accident, only one of his children survived him, and his wife Lulu put up with a lot of crap from him. I had a great time doing him, but I was too engrossed. I lost a quarter-million dollars, so I'm just doing what he should have done: Quit."

"I tell you what," Mack says, fanning his face with his hat as a defense against the 100-degree heat. "I do not miss that long hair and beard or them hot clothes. It wasn't normal. Normal people don't do what I did."


Fortunately for the financial prospects of Mack's auction, Buffalo Bill reenactors are not normal people. Nevertheless, the Old West reenactment business is a grand tradition, with some 130 years of history and showmanship behind it -- for the first Buffalo Bill impersonator was none other than Bill Cody himself.

"The first 25 years of his life, Cody did just about everything a man might want to do," says Steve Friesen, director of the Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum and Grave (and gift shop) on Lookout Mountain Road in Golden. "He hunted buffalo, rode for the Pony Express and came to Pikes Peak for the gold rush -- although he was a pathetic gold-miner. He was the scout of choice for the Army, and dime novels were written about him. At 25, when he went to New York, he was the toast of the town."

To Cody's amazement, a play about his life was running in the theater district. "Naturally, he went to see it," Friesen continues. "He must have thought, 'Hey, why should this guy get all the money playing me? I could play me.'"

This is how Cody, longtime friend of Wild Bill Hickock and dime novelist Ned Buntline, happened to open in a production called Scouts of the Prairie the following year. By all accounts, it featured a hastily written, stilted script and lousy acting, much of it committed by Cody.

"It was panned by the critics," Friesen says. "They thought Bill was a rotten actor but a wonderful stage presence. If only he could just be himself."

(Occasionally, he could. One story has him advancing to the footlights, where his wife was seated in the front row. "Oh, Mama," he reportedly said, "I'm a terrible actor.")

The next year, after spending the summer on the prairie, Cody, Hickock and Buntline returned to New York in Scouts of the Plains.

"This time they acted out real things," Friesen says. "It was much better. They ran around on stage shooting off their guns and yelling. Wild Bill thought that was such a hoot. He liked to discharge his gun right in an actor's face, give him powder burns and say, 'Now you look like a real Indian.'"

Cody went on to start his own Wild West show in 1883, which featured a huge cast of Native Americans, cowboys and Mexican vaqueros. By the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the financial and popular high point for Buffalo Bill's Wild West, the entire company had toured Europe several times, and trick shooters and Russian Cossacks had joined the "Congress of Roughriders." It was then that Cody impersonators began to crop up -- most notably one Samuel Cowdry, who changed his name to Cody, grew the requisite hair and bought the requisite wardrobe, and went into show business until a lawsuit filed by the real Cody stopped him.

After Cody's death, in 1917, a new wave of impersonators swelled up. It has yet to crest.

Today there are at least three home ports for Buffalo Bill Cody memorabilia -- Denver; North Platte, Nebraska; and Cody, Wyoming -- all of which routinely duke it out as Bill world headquarters. And beyond that, there are endless possibilities, as more and more museums embrace the idea of living history and more and more American events stress a connection to the Old West.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff