It’s hard to tell who’s having the most fun at the Great American Wild West Show—the spectators, who get a brief step back in time, or the performers, many of whom are living their cowboy dreams.
Max Reynolds gets to dress up as Western heroes Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill Cody—Cody founded the original Wild West Show—to sharpshoot, stand atop the backs of two galloping horses as they jump through a fire ring, and act out one of history’s most famous gunfights.
Paula Saletnik, who portrays sharpshooter Annie Oakley, is among the few women who twirls real Colt 45s, spinning, flipping, and tossing them up in the air, catching them behind her back. She also shoots them.
Demetra Risenhoover, a trick rider, stretches out flat alongside her galloping horse, linked only by a tiny leather strap near the stirrup. She also performs with Sundance, the show’s equine star, commanding him by hand and voice signals through maneuvers and tricks.
Filled with a grand array of trick riders, sharpshooters, cattle drives, stagecoaches, cowboys, and other Western hallmarks, the show relives the tradition of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show of the late 1800s.
“We’re re-creating real history, and people are learning things they never knew about the Old West,” says Reynolds of Lexington, Neb. “I like to think that’s important.”
To the thundering sound of longhorn cattle hooves and cowboys’ cattle calls, Don Endsley, the show’s producer and announcer, describes cattle drives and the hard, dusty life the cowboys led on the trail.
Historical highlights, such as the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral, pitting the law-abiding Earp brothers and Doc Holliday against the outlaw Clanton gang, are played out on the arena floor.
Indeed, each skit brings the past to life with fast-paced action and careful attention to historical accuracy. To the audience, it’s an entertaining history lesson and chance to relive the Old West. To many of the performers, it’s the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
‘What I wanted to do’
Reynolds, who began competing in rodeos at age 9, quickly found himself drawn to the entertainment side of the sport. “I was amazed by the specialty acts, the trick riding, and roping,” he recalls. “What fascinated me most was the way the crowd responded to them. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
So young Max began teaching himself the skills of his rodeo heroes—rope spinning and trick riding. Roman riding—standing with one foot on each of two speeding horses—was the most difficult, and painful, to learn.
“I got a couple of ranch horses and took them out behind the barn,” he says. “The horses and I were learning together, so I took some nasty spills in the beginning.”
The effort, and bruises, paid off. By the time Reynolds was 15, he had honed his craft well enough to become one of the trick riders he so admired. At 18, he left home to train with J.W. Stoker, now 75, a world-renowned roper, Cowboy Hall of Fame member, friend to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, and occasional actor who appeared as the trick roper in the Clint Eastwood movie Bronco Billy.
Reynolds and Stoker (Stoker is from Weatherford, Texas) now share a stage in the Wild West show. “J.W. taught me a lot about trick roping,” Reynolds says. “He really helped me refine my performance.”
Indeed, Reynolds portrays the image and spirit of Buffalo Bill so well that he won the role of Buffalo Bill’s stunt double in the 1994 made-for-television movie The Buffalo Girls.
Risenhoover, who is also from Weatherford, learned at the foot of the master. Risenhoover’s aunt and uncle were trick riders, her grandfather owned a rodeo company, and she wanted to follow family tradition. In her early 20s, she bought a horse and called her aunt and uncle for advice.
“I asked them if I could start training, and they told me that the best in the business didn’t live far from me,” she says.
“The best” turned out to be the same J.W. Stoker. Since then, the two have become fast friends and travel together when the show tours.
“You have no idea what an honor it is to work and travel with J.W.,” Risenhoover says. “He is a hero to so many people in this business, but the thrill for me isn’t just training or working with him. It’s living so near him, traveling with him, being his friend.”
Saletnik, who is from Phoenix, not only shoots as Annie Oakley, but trick rides as well. Saletnik began her entertainment career 20 years ago as a stuntwoman in California but ventured into the Western theme, where she’s stayed.
“It’s in my blood,” she says. “I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and I still love it as much as I did in the beginning.”
The Great American Wild West Show was born from a long series of conversations between old friends Endsley and Stoker, who both enjoy Western-style, family entertainment.
“It used to be a big part of rodeo. When you went to rodeo, you would see more of this stuff than the competition that you see today, but in the last 20 years or so, rodeo has taken on more sport and competition and they’ve begun to phase out a lot of the entertainment,” says Endsley of Drasco, Ark.
“But people still liked it and missed it and that’s what gave us the idea,” he says. “We thought, ‘Let’s bring it back, not just in little bits and pieces but as a whole, complete show.’”
So seven years ago, they did. “We put together the best in the business and took the show on the road,” Endsley says.
They’ve been playing to sell-out crowds ever since, presenting up to 100 shows a year across the United States and in Canada, Europe, and South America.
“The show has evolved over the years and we’re always adding new skits. It’s never the same from year to year,” Endsley says. “We always have something new to offer and we’ll keep on evolving and getting better as we go.”
‘A grand and entertaining scale’’
Legendary frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody, a scout, Pony Express rider, trapper, and gold prospector, created his Wild West Show in 1883 to preserve the history of his much-beloved Old West at a time when nostalgia for the passing frontier life was high.
Cody already had been in show business for a decade, producing “border dramas”—plays which were small-scale Wild West shows featuring genuine frontier characters and trick shooting, according to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo.
Cody called his Wild West Show, which featured cowboys, American Indians, trick shooters, and specialty acts, “an educational exposition on a grand and entertaining scale.”
The Wild West Show ran for 30 years, from 1883 until 1913, touring the United States and Europe with legendary figures such as Sitting Bull, principal chief of the Dakota Sioux, and sharpshooter Annie Oakley.