Cure for the Common Cody

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At the Buffalo Bill museum in Golden, the line between impersonator and academic is often very thin indeed.

"There are an awful lot of Bills out there," says Friesen, whose museum maintains a database of Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Soldiers, Annie Oakleys, Belle Starrs and other denizens of the long-gone West. Friesen himself became Wyatt Earp for a trip to London, taken in the company of a Buffalo Bill, a Calamity Jane and a Sitting Bull, when British Airways introduced service to Denver. But Friesen, a peace-loving Mennonite, never really nailed the role. "I'm too analytical," he confesses. "Reenactors in general are not. They are not professional historians, but they're very good amateurs. And then there's the matter of being an actor. They're actors of a different kind. They become Buffalo Bill. And yet it's interesting -- if you give them lines, they have problems and develop actual stage fright. You have to let them improvise."

Which they are not only willing but eager to do, judging by the museum's front-desk gossip one recent morning.

"Tom and Terry are back," exhibit coordinator Kimary Marchese tells Friesen. "He's wanting to do Cody again, and he's available on weekends. He has a very nice chuckwagon."

"Have you heard from any of the young Bills?" Friesen asks.

"Oh, sure. There's Lance and then there's Kirk. And another guy, in Deer Trail, isn't it?"

"Any word about Mack?"

"Terry heard a rumor he'd grown his hair back. That he wasn't really quitting at all. But then I got a notice about this auction."

Neither Marchese nor Friesen will be attending the auction. "Mack's stuff is good reproductions," says Friesen, "but we're seeking out original Wild West artifacts."

In a pinch, Marchese passes as Annie Oakley. "She was petite and I'm not," she admits, "but I just went ahead and picked the outfit that made the most sense with my figure, and when we're short an Annie Oakley around here, I step in."

Her boyfriend Tom does a generic riverboat-gambler type. On any given weekend, an assortment of Civil War veterans, desperadoes, Victorian ladies and saloon girls can be found in the hills around Golden. It pays -- more in terms of satisfaction than remuneration -- to be flexible. Nevertheless, in other locations where Bills crop up, the occasional very specific John Wayne, Tom Mix or Roy Rogers has been known to appear. In Missouri, there's even a Mild Midwest Harry Truman.

No one would be surprised to see any of these amateur actors at Mack's auction. But this time it's the Codys who count.

"If you portray Cody, you can portray the entire West," says Kirk Shapland of Dighton, Kansas. Shapland calls himself "The Cody of the Plains" and is thought to be a leading practitioner of the Young Bill school of reenacting.

Fittingly, he started early. At fifteen, he and a friend volunteered for living-history training at Fort Hays, Kansas. "My friend portrayed a soldier, and I was supposed to, but I wanted to do a scout impression," he recalls. "Actually, I was interested in Wild Bill Hickock, who'd been the unofficial marshal at Hays, but I was too young, and the curator didn't want anyone doing a specific character."

Eventually, Shapland grew into a different role.

"I got older, and my hair got longer and my facial hair came in," he says. "The Fort has lots of pictures of Cody, and I guess I favored him, because people just began to assume that's who I was supposed to be. I was a bit relieved not to be taken for Hickock. As Cody, I didn't have to be quite the killer."

Shapland's portrayal evolved until it became the plainsman he is today -- the Cody of 1867-1869, a wild young man in his early twenties who had yet to be seduced by the muse he called The Show Business. At reenactments, 29-year-old Shapland sets up an entire buffalo camp, complete with dressed carcasses, a teepee and the appropriate firearms.

"I've been asked if I'm the reincarnation of Cody, but I don't think so," he says. "I talk about the man in the third person. I represent what he would have looked like and what he had, and I'm not sure we had all that much in common."

Still, Cody's life has bled into Shapland's. He never leaves the house without putting on a trademark white Cody hat, even if he's wrangling cattle or mowing lawns, two jobs he does to make ends meet. Money is tight, especially when his budget has to cover buckskin coats, thigh-high boots and whalebone corset stays. (Shapland's wife, Ella, is said to do a decent "composite Victorian woman.")

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff