RE-ENACTMENT BECOMES A WAY OF LIFE by Janét Vincent Lee

(Note from Winnie:  Our guest blogger today is Janét Vincent Lee – an actress, singer, costumer, western re-enactor and most importantly, my friend.  She and I go way back (I won’t say how many years 🙂 ) to our high school days and have just recently reconnected via facebook.  She very generously agreed to cover for me today while I am away attending a writers’ conference.  In honor of her visit and as a thank you to all of you who I know are going to make her feel right at home, I am going to giveaway a book (choice of any book from my backlist) to one person randomly selected from those who post comments for Janét.)

 

There is no finer way of relieving stress in a marriage than shooting your husband with a shotgun.  At least once a week!

I don’t think there was any wife in our re-enactment troupe who didn’t enjoy opening up with both barrels on her spouse now and then.  Fortunately, the audiences’ favorite shootout skits were always those where the bad guys created havoc, the sheriff and his deputies either were killed or ran away (depending on whether it was a drama or a comedy), and the ladies of the town had to take down the villains on their own.

In the 1990s my then-husband and I managed a troupe of re-enactors known as the Cross Creek Cowboys, based in San Juan Capistrano, California.  The group began with a handful of members from the Living History group at the fabled Mission San Juan Capistrano.  Some of our members were actors but most were not.  Our roster included a physics teacher, a professional cook, an entrepreneur, a bird rescuer, a graphic designer, a mechanic, and diverse others, with our common denominators being a passionate love of the Old West and a burning desire to keep its memory alive. 

Over the course of several years, we had expanded to 22 members and had done hundreds of performances at festivals, parades, fund-raisers and civic events.  We made numerous television appearances, were featured in a number of newspapers and magazines, and amassed a collection of awards and honors for performance and costume authenticity.  Ultimately we produced a half-hour film, shot on a western set in the high desert, featuring all of our members.  But most of all, we had a lot of fun. 

We acquired and constructed enough sets, props, costumes, weapons and supplies to fill a two-car garage and a storage trailer.  We spent untold hours loading and unloading trucks, traveling, pitching and striking tents, designing and sewing costumes, repairing gear, cleaning guns, reloading blanks, doing safety training, researching, writing and rehearsing skits, and, always, looking for more indispensable old goodies.  Most of our free time was spent together.  While performing was undeniably fun, the best part of re-enactment was camaraderie with hundreds of other Old West enthusiasts.  Re-enactment is more than a hobby, it becomes a way of life.

Our troupe were all members of the Single Action Shooting Society, an international organization which formerly held its annual shooting championship in Norco, California before relocating to New Mexico.  The last of these Norco events drew 2500 competitors and over 20,000 members of the public to a five-day encampment.  In addition to wild-west shows, television and movie stars, vendors, artisans, cowboy poets, western musicians, chuck wagon cooks and suffragettes on parade, there was a rambling town set where our troupe and others performed re-enactment skits several times a day.

At the end of the day the gates would close to the public, all weapons would be stowed, lanterns would be lit, and friends would gather around campfires to share a cup of hospitality and rehash the events of the day.  These were the finest times of all.  After dinner there would be music, dancing and socializing in the main tent or the saloon tent, but the campfire visits stretched on into the night until weariness finally dictated that we all retire to our tents, trucks or trailers for the night.

Though some of these multi-day encampments such as End of Trail and Marching Through History no longer take place, the San Bernardino Harvest Fair is still held every November.  Many local troupes of cowboys, townies, mountain men, 7th Cavalry, native American scouts, Buffalo Soldiers, Civil War re-enactors and musicians perform throughout two weekends.

Several excellent annual events are also still held in Tombstone, Arizona, including  Wyatt Earp Days in May, and Helldorado in October, which commemorates the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral.  Re-enactors and tourists from throughout the western states gather to bring Tombstone alive with the sounds of spur jinglebobs on boardwalks and gunfire in the streets.  Although carefully coordinated and approved by a safety committee, gunfights appear to break out spontaneously, and tourists gather on the boardwalks to watch. 

The bad part of doing shootouts in Tombstone is “dying” on the street that is, literally, hot enough to cook an egg, and can raise blisters on any unexposed skin that happens to touch it.  Fortunately, our troupe was often invited to perform in the town’s amphitheater, where horned toads skitter across the dirt stage and hide in the shade of the wood-plank bleachers.  The famous Bird Cage Theater is not used for performances but is a museum and legitimate time capsule from the 19th Century, having been sealed for 50 years before reopening as a museum. 

A favorite memory of mine is of standing alone on the deserted street in front of the Bird Cage, with yellow lamplight in the street and a full moon above.  I heard faint music and laughter from Big Nose Kate’s Saloon a block away, and the clip-clop of hooves of a lone horse walking unhurriedly into town.  It whinnied several times before coming into view at the corner of Allen Street, and the cowboy rode it up to the saloon, tied it to the hitching post and went inside.  It was a magical moment, frozen in time.

There are things I don’t miss about re-enactment.  I don’t miss setting and striking tents in the rain, or dodging horse apples while “dying” in a shooting show on a parade route.  I don’t miss having the police called by neighbors who heard gunfire and hadn’t been informed that there would be a shootout show (“Oh, it’s you guys!  Call off the other car; it’s the Cross Creek bunch again.”).   I don’t miss performing all day in corset, bustle and petticoats in 110-degree heat in Cucamonga.  I don’t miss loading and unloading truckloads of gear as if I were in training as a carnie.  But, as life will do, it parted us and we drifted in different directions, and I miss the countless hours spent with my comrades in arms, bringing the Old West back to life and stepping through the veil of time to live there for a while.  Because, basically, everyone enjoys dressing up and playing cowboy with our friends.

Guest Blogger
Updated: July 24, 2010 — 10:54 am

23 Comments

  1. Hi Janet, We used to live in northern Virginia, where Civil War reenactments were popular. Every once in a while I’d see a guy at the mall with a Civil War era hairstyle. It’s not as obvious with women. The costuming is such a cool angle of the re-enactments. I visit costuming websites for clothing ideas for my westerns. The details are super helpful.

    Thanks for visiting Wildflower Junction today. Like Winnie, I’m headed to that writer’s conference, but I don’t leave until later in the week.

  2. Janet, so much fun and creativity in reenactments…well, except for the corsets! Thanks for a detailed look at reenactment troupes. I grew up in Maryland where there was a lot of Civil War groups so it was interesting finding out about other types.

    Peace, Julie

  3. Hi Janet, thank you for visiting us. I live near the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library which hosts many re-enactments. They also have an annual Civil War re-enactment in nearby Moorpark. What I didn’t know until attending the one last fall is that they’re not just shooting out there on the field, the actors are actually following the original battle plans.

    Like Victoria and Winnie, I’m heading for that writer’s conference–leaving bright and early tomorrow. “See” you all when I get back!

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    Hey, Janet, LOVED your article … such an interesting experience … I can certainly understand the appeal, considering I’m a history buff … your costume designs are incredible … thanks for sharing and congratulations on your successful careers!!
    Elaine

  5. hi Janet!
    thanks for coming by!!
    oooh, i loved your post…i am so envious (not so much of the miserable parts) but i bet it was so fun playing dress up and making a great set of friends!
    it’s times like these i wish i lived somewhere bigger where i could be a part of such fun…i mean if a bird rescuer can do it…i could too, right? 🙂

    i loved hearing about your favorite memory…you are a bit of a writer too, eh? you had me right there with you 🙂

  6. A big welcome to you, Janet! We’re thrilled to have you visit with us. Winnie sure chose a good replacement. I find your work fascinating. I’d love to design and create old west clothing, especially the women’s. They really had such a sense of style back then. It’s not easy I would think though. You have amazing talent. I’m going to have get your book. It’d be very helpful for me when I attempt to dress my characters.

    I saw some western reenactments when I visited Deadwood, South Dakota. They were so realistic. Made me feel as if I were back in the Old West. Nothing sticks in my mind better than visual images and I sure got a good dose of that.

    Hope you come back again sometime.

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    Hey, Janet! Very interesting AND impressive! And to think I knew you when….

  8. It sounds like a wonderful hobby and like most, the friends you make along the journey and having the same interests makes it all the more fulfilling. I was lucky enough to see the reinactments in Tombstone a long time ago. Watching was quite enjoyable but I can’t imagine the heat!

  9. Hi Janet, what a terrific blog. The Olivas Adobe near me (I blogged on it last Wednesday) has Cowboy Days in June where a lot of “characters” re-enact. Great fun. I’d like to be a cowgirl for a day LOL. Thanks for visiting Wildflower Junction today.

  10. Enjoyed reading your coments. Glad you filled in for Winnie today.
    I first visited Tombstone in 1950 while it was just a dusty old town in the foothills. Now it is very commercialized with paved streets and neon signs. I was in high school and we went there as a Journalism class to do research on the Tombstone newspaper. It was like stepping back in history and at the time I did not really enjoy it. To a teenager it was an old dusty place that smelled of aged newspapers and dust. We got to go inside the Bird Cage and sit in the balcony and that was a fun part. Today only the lobby is open to the public. I would recommed anyone visiting that area to go see it even now. An interesting place.

  11. Hi Janet, glad you stopped by to visit us today! I really enjoyed your post. I have never seen a real re-enactment of an old west scene with a shoot out. They do have a re-enactment of a Civil War battle every year near where I love but I have never been to it. I laughed about shooting your husband everyday, I know there our times I would love to do that. Thanks for being here today and sharing with us!

  12. It would be great to take part in a re-enactment,
    but I can’t see wearing all the “gear” that goes
    with a woman’s costume! The heat alone would cause
    me to fall out! You all are to be congratulated for
    your realistic presentations!

    Pat Cochran

  13. Oh that sounds like a wonderful experience, but I can understand not wanting to wear all of that or fallin in some “apples”! 😀 Thanks for sharing this post with us!

  14. Janét, welcome to The Junction! My dh and I have been consdiering joining the fun of SASS. Sounds like it would be worth it.

    Reenacting is one of those things that sounds like it would be fun–until you realize how much work is involved. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  15. I enjoyed your post.
    Re-enactment sounds like a lot fun.

  16. Janet, we were lucky enough to visit Tombstone but didn’t get to enjoy the reenactment of the shootout. I loved reading your post.

  17. Hello, ladies! Please excuse me for not touching base until 5 p.m., but Monday is my busiest day in the office.

    Thanks again to Winnie for the invitation to join in and share with you a mutual enthusiasm for the Old West, and thank you all for making me feel welcome! I enjoyed your comments and appreciate your feedback.

    I expect to be moving to Austin, Texas soon, and looking up the nearest SASS group will be high on my list of priorities. Reminiscence has made me wistful for the smells of black powder, cheroots and horse leather. Oh, dear me, I mean for lavender water, and roses outside my window! (We musn’t forget what’s appropriate for a lady, must we? But just between us girls…)

    Thanks again, gals. I’ll be checking in to visit often. Happy trails!
    Janét

    PS – Charlotte: Small world!

  18. PPS – Oh, my goodness, I just took a look at the names and realized Elaine Constant Hebert is among them. This feels like old home week. 🙂

  19. Awesome article. I can’t tell you how many small communities we passed through in our 10 years in the desert that conjured up pictures of your reinactments in my mind. We lived in El Paso and traveled throughout southern New Mexico extensively. I know it was a hard way of life,but I have always felt drawn to it.

  20. Thank you! It was indeed a hard way of life, in the desert areas in particular. I love living it for a weekend, but I’m always incredibly grateful to come home to my microwave, washing machine, and air conditioner. I’m impressed by the strength of the women who coped with the rigors of that life, and did it all while strapped into corsets and buried under layers of clothing. They have my respect.

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    Janet, Thank you for a wonderful post. We have been involved in re-enactments many times over the years, but mostly as observers. We have attended medieval events, Ren Faires, Revolutionary War and Civil War events, gone to many Pow Wows, watched the shoot out show in Jackson Hole, WY, and attended the Rendeavous at Fort Bridger, WY. We have regalia for the Pow Wows and costumes for several of the others. I am currently working on Civil War dresses for my daughter who is involved with a re-enactment group. When I do childrens programs that deal with history, I usually try to have costumes and hands on activities as part of it. It makes things more real for the kids and they remember it much better.
    I can relate to your experience in front of the Bird Cage. I had a similar experience at Fort Toconderoga, NY, where time shifted and a couple hundred years slipped away. It really is a special experience.

  22. There are many reinactments and living history opportunities here in Nebraska too. I especially enjoy Fort Atkinson, where the participants never get out of character.

    Thanks for you visit and blog today, Janet.

  23. Patricia, I love that you share so much with the kids. One well done living-history encampment teaches them more than a history textbook could ever convey. My favorite thing about the Civil War rendezvous that I have visited is the little kids in period clothing, playing amongst the tents and enjoying themselves, with nothing electronic or electrical to amuse them.

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