After 28 years before cheering international crowds, the final curtain likely has dropped on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
No, you’re not reading a reprinted Telegraph story from 1911.
From 1992 until its March shutdown due to COVID-19, Disneyland Paris offered a scaled-down, dinner-theater-style tribute to William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s iconic show that toured North America and Europe from 1883 to 1913.
It’s an authentic location in that North Platte’s world-famous resident twice played extended Paris engagements: May 18-Nov. 14, 1889, and April 2-June 4, 1905.
But “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show ... With Mickey and Friends” may not resume once the pandemic passes, says Trent Vance, a Wyoming native who has shared the role of Cody in Paris for 23 years.
“We’ve received word via the (performers’) unions, but no written confirmation from Disney, that Disney does not intend to reopen the show,” Vance said in a Facebook Messenger interview with The Telegraph.
Vance, who partly grew up in Cody, Wyoming, said Disney has written cast members that it wants its Paris park to focus on “ephemeral, Disney franchise-themed offerings.”
Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters were added in 2009 alongside the human performers portraying Cody, “Little Sure Shot” Annie Oakley and famous original Wild West scenes like the robbery of the Deadwood Stage.
If his Wild West show is over, Vance said, he can look back on a production that has staged about 17,000 performances before some 13 million guests.
“It has been a true honor to represent (Cody) on stage in front of millions of spectators from all over the world,” he said.
The Paris show has lasted nearly as long as the original Wild West, which Cody launched from North Platte and rehearsed at Columbus before its Omaha opening on May 19, 1883.
Cody himself had intended to bow out after a lengthy 1910-11 U.S. “farewell” tour, which included the Wild West’s third and last North Platte performance on Aug. 19, 1911.
Debts from unrelated business enterprises, however, forced Buffalo Bill to keep going for another 1½ years.
The Wild West ended ingloriously in Denver on July 21, 1913, where its assets were seized to help satisfy debts Cody owed to Sells-Floto Circus co-owner Harry Tammen.
Disneyland Paris’ tribute show, which opened on April 12, 1992, “started out as kind of pretty close to what you would have seen at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” said Jeremy Johnston, historian of the Buffalo Bill Center for the West in Cody.
But Disney also has made good use of its theatrical techniques, said Laura Arata, an Oklahoma State University assistant professor of history who sat through a pair of performances on May 24, 2016.
Spectators sat at tables, divided into color-coded sections to root for certain performers, and ate dinner above an ice-rink-sized arena.
The barbecued-chicken dinner, served on cast iron with cornbread, chili, apple pie and a Coke, was “much more a testament to how Europeans imagine American cuisine,” said Arata, who grew up on a working California ranch and competed in rodeo.
Whereas Cody’s Wild West thrived on “a certain sense of inherent chaos,” she said, “Disney’s show, because it’s Disney, is carefully scripted and you pretty much know what you’re going to get.”
The real Annie Oakley, for example, “was really shooting at targets.” For safety, Arata said, Annie’s exploits in the Paris show were mechanized so “it’s ensured she won’t ever miss a shot.”
The cast staged relay races and jumped on and off horses, she said, but “there is no way they could have what American audiences recognize as ‘rodeo’ events” given European animal welfare laws.
But “to be fair,” she added, “Buffalo Bill also carefully scripted parts of his show” like the Deadwood Stage robbery and a staged attack on a settler’s cabin.
The Paris show would choose a couple of audience members to ride in the stagecoach, which “was something Cody delighted in doing, especially when he had notable visitors in the stands,” Arata said.
Just as Cody sought authentic Native Americans as well as real cowboys, she said, Disney has turned to registered Crow, Navajo and Lakota tribal members to fill the Paris show’s Indian roles.
Wyoming has been a popular U.S. source for Paris cast members, Johnston said, though Vance — the former resident of Cody’s namesake town — was in Los Angeles pursuing an acting career when Disney hired him in 1995.
He had Western credentials going for him, he said. Born in Sheridan, he started acting at age 8 but grew up on ranches and worked summers for his parents’ Rockies “wilderness hunting” camp based at Cody.
Vance played a supporting Wild West role before being cast as Buffalo Bill in 1997. He knew quite a bit about him, having stayed with his parents at Cody’s Buffalo Bill-built Irma Hotel and gotten into a bar fight at age 17 in the Sheridan Inn — where Cody “used to audition cowboys,” he observed wryly.
He appreciates Buffalo Bill even more after playing him for 23 years, he said.
“I view him through my Wyoming eyes, so I think of him as an earnest, honest, hard-working man with an entrepreneurial spirit. ...
“He saw all men as equal and treated everyone the same, black, white, female or Indian. And, of course, he had an insatiable thirst for adventure and a deep love for the wildness of the expanding American West.”
Arata, whose Italian immigrant grandfather grew up fascinated by the Wild West and became a cowboy, said the Paris show helped her appreciate how “my own identity had been subtly shaped” by Buffalo Bill.
“Cody did more than create a show,” she said. “He gave audiences around the world a specific set of expectations for what the West was like ...
“Cody’s vision continues to define our vision. It’s hard to imagine a more impressive legacy, if you think about it.”