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Life Span: May 1872-July 1873
Location: Clinton Street, near Washington Street
Clinton Street, Looking South from Randolph Street
Chicago Tribune, May 21, 1872
This really elegant and comfortable place of entertainment, planned and erected within a fortnight, on Clinton street, between Randolph and Washington streets, was throw open to the public for the first time last evening, and was densely packed with a fine looking audience of ladies and gentlemen, the former being in hand in great numbers. Hundreds of people were turned away, unable to gain audience, while every available men of room inside, even to the broad and spacious promenade at the top of the circle, was occupied. The exterior presented a brilliant and attractive appearance with its hundreds of flaming gas jets and transparencies, while the interior scene, with the tasteful adornments and blaze of light, was none less attractive. The auditorium is, of course, circular in shape, with ten tiers of seats descending to the ring, and capable of comfortably accommodating about 2,500 people, for the entire area is to be supplied with chairs, but half of which could be obtained in time for the opening last night. There were man other slight imperfections in the internal arrangements, but it was evident that the place is ot be made a model of comfort and convenience. The performance last night was on a par with the establishment. It was elegant throughout, and in many respects brilliant.
Under this head should be classed the pedestal gymnastics of Master F. Runnells, whose movements were so rapid as to literally shake the clothes off his body, resulting in an awkward predicament, which may be guarded against by stouter buttons. Signor Francis’ juggling was an artistic performance, and Mr. H. Wambold introduced some striking feats in trapeze balancing. The dancing horse “Blind Tom,” under the skillful guidance of Miss Ella Stokes, was a gem in its line, and the posturing and contortion act or Mr. G. Wambold, the horizontal bar by the Laisesli Brothers, Kline and Murtz, the trapeze business of the Laiseli Brothers, and the double Patt-rre by Masters Fred and Barney, were all received with great applause. But the finest feature of of the evening—indeed, the finest thing of Mr. George Wambold’s trained dogs and monkeys, which alone would repay a visit to the amphitheatre. There was manifest on the part of the management a determination to cater only to the v=best class of patrons by a careful regard for delicacy and refinement. Mr. Nixon gives assurance that such will be the rigid rule of the establishment. and he also promises to bring out from time to time novelties and varieties of the highest order of excellence. In proof of this, he announces for this evening the famous Yeido Japanese Troupe, who are said to be altogether superior to all the Japs who have preceded them.
Prairie Farmer, June 22, 1872
Chicago Tribune, December 18, 1872
At Nixon’s Amphitheatre, the new drama of frontier life, by Ned Buntline (Colonel Judson), intorducing Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack, and Cale Durg in propria personae, attracts more people than the house can hold. Crowds are turned away nightly.
Chicago Tribune, December 19, 1872
This long-neglected piece of amusement has suddenly loomed up as the most largely patronized of any in the city, the audiences making up in quantity what they lack in quality. The drama entitled “Scouts of the Prairie,” written in Chicago by Ned Buntline, and introducing two frontier celebrities, is the immediate occasion of the large attendance. It purports to be a vivid picture of life in the Western wilds, and is such to a certain extent—as much so as are the average sensational novels on the same subject, and like the latter, full of inconsistencies. The original plan was to concoct a play to suit the material at command, and it is apparent that the design was carried out. “Buffalo Bill” (William F. Cody), now a member of the Nebraska Legislature, and Texas Jack, both widely known scouts, and a half-dozen genuine Pawnee Indians, having nothing in particular to do, stood ready to accept a histrionic engagement. They had never been on any but the overland stage, and the copper-colored portion of the troupe had generally been accredited with a greater capacity for robbing than ranting. It occurred to Colonel Judson (“Ned Buntline”) that here was a chance for a sensation. The “Scouts of the Prairie” was the result, and it proves to be a sensation. The Pawnees, however, failed to keep their engagement, probably on account of pressing duties with reference to a projected horse-stealing expedition, and in their places there have been substituted a collection of talented supers in tan-colored frocks and cambric pantalettes. Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack are on hand, however, completely equipped in buckskin shirts and leggings, and fairly bristling with revolvers, knives, rifles, etc. Of course, they look like “Scouts of the Prairie,” but they seem to labor under a distressing uncertainty as to what they ought to do with their hands, fidgeting uneasily when silent, and when in dialogue poking out the right and then the left at regular intervals, with an evident determination to show no favor between the two. Their elocution differs somewhat from Booth’s and Barrett’s, but then Edwin and Lawrence are not scouts, and cannot be expected to stand as exemplars under the circumstances. The fact that Bill and Jack speak their places after the manner of a different school-boy in his maiden effort must not be taken as an evidence of meagre dramatic talent or training; all this weakness of voice and nervousness of deportment is but an artful assumption, designed to show that beneath the rough exterior of the daring scouts there beats a heart as tender as a chicken’s, while his reckless bravado is merely put on to conceal a delicate, shrinking nature. The illusion is so complete, however, that one would be almost ready to swear that these gentlemen are not great actors. What with the aid of numerous bloody conflicts, wherein persons, who a minute before, were twenty miles away, are telegraphed back and get there just in time; the beautiful Indian maiden with an Italian accent and weakness for scouts; the lovely white girl held in captivity by the aborigines; the poetical trapper and his felicitous homilies on the beauties of nature and the superiority of water to rotgut as a beverage; the cambric-clad Pawnees from Blue Island avenue; the inexplicable inebriate who manages to keep drunk for several days without a drop of anything; the prairie fire, the fight for life, the vengeance wreaked on the murderous redskins, and the grand tableau at the close—all these put together furnish rare entertainment for the toiling masses who patronize the show.
There is a plentiful lack of ventilation at the amphitheatre, where, in the presence of 2,000 bad breaths and twice as many unclean feet, it is well to adopt that tactics pf Casca, who “durst not laugh, for fear of opening his lips and receiving the bad air.” These defects are easily remedied, and should be looked to at once, unless Mr. Nixon courts an indictment for manslaughter by slow poison.
Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1873
Chicago Tribune, July 27, 1873
Chicago Tribune, January 6, 1952
SEVENTY-NINE years have passed since William F. Cody made his first stage appearance in Chicago as Buffalo Bill. He had been accidentally discovered out on the plains three years earlier by Ned Buntline, the famous dime-novelist who was traveling across the continent on the newly constructed Union Pacific railroad in search of a story.
Buntline found Cody employed as a scout by the United States army. Attracted to him at once, he wrote about the Apollo of the Plains in a romance entitled “Buffalo Bill: King of Border Men.” Buntline’s novel attracted many readers. James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, promptly hired Cody “sight unseen,” to guide a party of New York society men on a lavish hunting expedition. The young man’s dashing appearance and amiable disposition delighted the easterners. He taught them to shoot buffalo from the back of a racing pony and to drink a snort of bourbon before breakfast-a delightful western custom pronounced “more refreshing than brushing the teeth.”
Cody followed this triumph by guiding the Grand Duke Alexis on a buffalo hunt. Rich men and fine horses appealed to the tall plainsman and he was contemplating a trip east—where he hoped to get a job as coachman or, better yet, driver for a fire engine—when Buntline wrote him to bring another scout and 20 Indians to Chicago for his first theatrical performance.
Buntline was a man who made no little plans. Most of the time he was either abysmally broke or throwing money to the birds. He happened to be broke, far up in the Catskill mountains, when Cody replied that he was heading for Chicago. The mighty promoter did not have sufficient money for a ticket to the Windy City, but such predicaments seldom annoyed Ned Buntline. He knew that Chicago was recovering from the biggest fire in its history, so he hunted up a fire insurance company with big ideas and was soon on his way to sell insurance out west.
Buntline looked at the seething activity in the recently ruined city with confident eyes. He noticed in the charred rubble a crudely constructed amphitheater with board sides, canvas top, and ample seating capacity. The manager, Jim Nixon, seemed interested in Buntline’s plan for a performance by real western scouts with wild Indians, and signed a contract for the show.
Then young Cody arrived with only one companion—”Texas Jack” Omohundro, an ex-scout from Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry—and no redskins. Jim Nixon raged. Chicagoans, he said, would demand to see real red men. Ned smiled confidently and displayed the scouts’ fringed shirts and beaded leggings. He said that twenty professional actors might be hired to take the Indians’ parts. The play would be better with them. Nixon grunted disconsolately, “Let’s see your script.”
Ned said that he had not written it. “Not written it,” Nixon snorted, ” and this is Thursday with the opening scheduled for Monday.” The theater manager was indignant. Ned loved to tell the sequeL It was typical of the way he pictured himself. Nixon, according to Ned, canceled the contract. “What rent will you ask for your the- ater for next week?” Ned queried.
“Six hundred dollars,” Nixon told him.
Ned Buntline, Buffalo Bill, and Texas Jack in costumes they wore in “Scouts of the Prairie.”
Ned counted out the greenbacks—from what source is not known—then hurried his scouts to a hotel and ordered pen and paper. Within four hours, Ned boasted forever after, he wrote “Scouts of the Prairie.” It was, of course, a play by Fred Meader, almost act for act, but with a new character added—Cale Durg. Ned set the bellhops to copying his script for each actor to memorize, while he hustled off to employ suitable men who might look like Indians if dressed in tan frocks and cambric pantalets. To take the sole feminine part, Dove Eye, Buntline hired Mile. Morlacchi, described later by The Chicago Tribune drama critic as “a beautiful Indian maiden with an Italian accent and a weakness for scouts.”
His troupe engaged, Ned hurried back to the hotel to the scouts in their parts. He himself was to act Cale Durg, a character he had impersonated in temperance lectures. Ned found the real scouts dismayed at the prospect of memorizing so much. “Bill,” Texas Jack asked his companion in misery, “how long will it take you to commit your part? ”
Cody grinned. “About seven years, if I have good luck.”
The opening curtain for “Scouts of the Prairie” rose on Dec. 16, 1872. before a large and enthusiastic audience. The box office had taken in $2,800—enough to pay the week s rent and leave a handsome profit. Before the footlights Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack, and Ned Buntline stood resplendent in fringed buckskin. None of them said a word. The opening line belonged to Cody, but stage fright numbed his mind.
Ned tossed him a cue: “Why, you ve been off buffalo-hunting with Milligan, haven’t you?” Cody knew that Milligan, whom he had guided recently, was in the audience. Consciousness returned partially to the hand. some scout. He repeated a few simple facts about the hunt. The audience knew this to be extemporaneous and no play-acting. Men and boys by hundreds felt that they were out on the plains listening to a real scout at the campfire. They rocked the house with wild applause.
Ned fed the stage-struck scout encouraging questions until the end of the act. Then he signaled the manager to turn loose the red men. “Supers” in cambric pantalets bounded upon the stage. Buntline shouted, “The Indians are upon us!” Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill understood this cue. Tongue-tied as they were, they flew at the painted and befeathered actors and “killed” them to the last man. The curtain came down accompanied by a thunderous ovation.
In the second act Buntline’s anemic plot began to unfold. The scouts did not know their lines, but they were active. The Chicago Tribune summed up the play as a triple warfare between the scouts, the Indians, amd a party of renegade whites, one of whom, named Cale Durg, “managed to keep drunk for several days without a drop of anything.” The Indians divided their time between—homicide and “bombastic speeches about the dew, the clouds, and the baseness of white men.”
The critic of another Chicago newspaper remembered: “They have a strong desire to capture somebody and, consequently, jump about and yell,” until Cale Durg, the trapper, rushes “unarmed, in the most inexcusable and uncalled—for manner, into the midst of twenty or more of his mortal enemies.” Immediately the Indians lashed the captive to a tree and kindled a torture fire.
At this point in the drama Ned prolonged the suspense before the torture fire by lecturing on temperance. His lengthy monolog resembled the speeches he had been giving for twenty years.
The sermon over, the redskins returned to the torture at hand, to be interrupted by Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, who ran in from the wings with smoking pistols. Amid shots and shrieks, the savages and the curtain dropped. The next act was similar except that the rescue was made with lassos instead of pistols. In the last act Cale Durg died in agony while the scouts rushed in for a belated revenge with bowie knives.
To weave heroines into such a drama would have taxed the ingenuity of any playwright but Buntline. He repeated the love scene from Meader’s play, this time with the real Buffalo Bill furnishing b o t h profile and arms. One critic concluded: “On the whole, it is not probable that Chicago will ever look upon the like again. Such a combination of incongruous drama. execrable acting, renowned performers, mixed audience, intolerable stench, scalping, blood and thunder, is not likely to be vouchsafed to a city for a second time.”
A matinee was advertised for Wednesday, Dec. 18. Ned added an innovation. Since his trouping days in the midlands he had always appealed to women. Now instead of offering them free seats he advertised that every “lady” at the matinee would be presented with a ” portrait” of Ned Buntline, Buffalo Bill, and Texas Jack.
The successful engagement closed and moved on to St. Louis, where Buntline was arrested for having skipped bail 20 years before. Buntline found a friend who bailed him out again, then he skipped once more and moved the show to Cincinnati, reorganizing the company to thwart a sherif s attachment.
In that city, one of the Indian actors in the play was killed- an unfortunate tragedy but good publicity for an unusually realistic performance! With all this notoriety, the show opened in New York, where it attracted large audiences in spite of continual criticism from the press. Of the three actors in the play, Buffalo Bill alone won consistent applause. For 10 years afterward he continued to delight theatergoers. Then he organized an outdoor performance with real Indians and horses. Thus began the Wild West Show which immortalized the name of Buffalo Bill.
NOTE: Jay Monayhan wrote this article from research materials gathered for his newest book, “The Great Rascal,” a biography of Ned Buntline, king of the novelists and “discoverer” of Buffalo Bill, which will be published tomorrow by Little, Brown and company. Mr. Monaghan, formerly librarian of the Illinois State Historical society, is the author of several books based on western history and is now at work on still another at the Huntington library in California.
JAMES M. NIXON (1820-September 16, 1899) worked his way from a mere groom with Aaron Turner’s around 1836 to performing with various troupes in the 1840s and 1850s as acrobat, ringmaster and equestrian director.
December 1871, Leased a lot in the unburned west side of Chicago, 1872, and erected Nixon’s Parisian Hippodrome and Chicago Amphitheatre, opening May 18; Buffalo Bill Cody and company premiered an artless drama, The Scouts of the Prairie there December 16.
In 1879, was said to be running a cheap theatre in Chicago; at this time he teamed with Oliver P. Myers in attempting to establish a zoological garden there which came to nothing; still in Chicago, 1882, when on June 22 he appeared at W. C. Coup’s circus during an engagement in that city; 1886, a Clipper item announced that Nixon had gone to England to make arrangements for Cody’s wild west show’s first trip abroad.
Mr. Nixon’s Obituary as reported in the New York Times:
“James M. Nixon, at one time the proprietor of James M. Nixon’s Circus, died on Saturday of Bright’s disease at the Putnam House, Twenty-seventh Street and Fourth Avenue. Mr. Nixon was eighty years old. His circus performed at the old Hippodrome, on the spot where the Fifth Avenue Hotel now stands. It also performed in different parts of the country and abroad. Mr. Nixon had for fifteen years past been living at the Putnam House, and was a well-known character in that locality. He leaves two daughters.”