(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.)
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.