From the fabled “medicine show” to actors to circuses — entertainers and entertainment advanced westward as settlements and towns grew up throughout the Old West. It’s surprising to see how widespread and important this part of westward expansion really was. So many stereotypes like gunfights, cattle ranching, town marshals, covered wagons, railroad expansion, etc., make up what we all think of as the Old West. But we forget that people who settled on the Great Plains and throughout the mountains and valleys of the Western two-thirds of our country were folks who brought with them many of the same desires for entertainment and for “culture” that they had when they lived back East in more settled lands.
And sometimes, all they really wanted after a hard days work in the wheat fields, corrals, and gold fields, was just a good show.
That desire for a good show, and the fame of many entertainers which spread through the West, brought about some fascinating events and made for some interesting tales.
A famous actor/comedian of the day, Jack Langrishe, and his actress wife, found themselves taken captive by a band of outlaws while the duo was traveling to Denver in 1862. But someone among the bandits apparently had a love for frontier entertainment. The couple were recognized and sent on their way with all their money, possessions, and body parts intact — after a round of drinks with the bandits. (By the 1870s, Langrishe had gained the nickname “Comedian of the Frontier” and established a well-known theatre in Deadwood, South Dakota. The Langrishe Theatre actually provided the facilities for the famous trial of Jack McCall for the killing of Wild Bill Hickok.)
A famous “medicine man” of the day was “Doc” Ray Black, who reportedly roamed the entire West with nothing more than a Bible, human skull, and cases of potions and pills claimed to cure just about every ill. He would setup on a street corner and begin to preach both about salvation and about the pains and ills that shortened this life. Reportedly, Doc’s medicine — as was generally true with all medicine show libations! — ran between 5 and 55 percent alcoholic content.
A fascinating variation on the one-man medicine shows was a company called “The Big Sensation Medicine Company,” which traveled throughout Nebraska with a staff of 31 people, including a 12-piece brass band. This group’s featured offer was supposedly painless and free dentistry. If someone came forward to take advantage of the service, the very large husband-and-wife team running the show would wrestle with the dental problem, as the band played loudly to drown out any yells of anguish from the customers.
Circuses and accompanying carnivals were a longstanding Western tradition dating back to the days of
Mexican influence and settlement, when traveling shows from Europe would come up into California and other Southwestern regions. By mid-19th Century, circus shows from the East began to travel west — first by wagons, later by the expanding railroad routes — to more accessible regions of Kansas and Nebraska. Such shows let children (of all ages) throughout the West experience the thrills of watching acrobats, clowns, and trapeze artists. They saw such exotic marvels as elephants, lions, and tigers.
In addition to traveling entertainers such as the circuses and medicine men, town bands sprang up in settlements as diverse as Denver and Dodge City and even smaller towns all over the West. Dodge City’s “Cowboy Band” became famous nationwide not only for their performances but for their colorful “cowboy uniforms,” including chaps, boots, spurs, sombreros, bandannas, loaded cartridge belts and loaded guns. The Cowboy Band’s humor included a routine where the director of the 18-member group would conduct using a six-shooter as a baton. He explained to a St. Louis reporter that he kept the “baton” loaded so as to be ready “to kill the first man who strikes a false note.”
Entertainers and entertainment ranging from homemade fun to professional quality moved westward with the settlements and towns. Whether in the West or in the East, Americans have always valued a sense of fun. From boxing matches to Shakespeare, from circus calliopes to grand pianos, a good show brought many a good time to all.
(Sources for this article include “The Townsmen” from the Time-Life Books Series “The Old West” and the Wikipedia entry for “Jack Langrishe.”)