Wild West Shows

Native Americans

Wild West Shows started as travelling variety shows in the United States. The first and best- known was Buffalo Bill's, which travelled through American and Europe between 1883 and 1913.

William F. Cody was born in 1846 in Iowa and became famous throughout the world as Buffalo Bill. Next to P.T. Barnum, William F. Cody was the greatest showman of the nineteenth century. He pioneered the Wild West Show as a form of popular entertainment on an international scale, laid the foundations for the birth of rodeo, and successfully marketed the myth of the American frontier.

Buffalo Bill Cody came on the first of his three visits to the United Kingdom in May 1887. According to Don Russell "the invasion of England by Buffalo Bill's Wild West in 1887, was, beyond much question, the most successful ever made by an American aggregation".

Cody presented a vision of the American West that the audiences believed was rooted in authenticity, emphasised by the presence of Native Americans, indigenous animals and large scale historical re-enactments. Buffalo Bill's Wild West was a living ethnographic extravaganza combing the educational and exotic with the spectacle of the circus and theatre.

Buffalo Bill

Buffalo Bill returned to the United Kingdom again in 1891-92 and then in 1902-04. During the thirty years that the Wild West exhibition travelled, ten of those years were spent in Europe. In the United Kingdom the exhibition visited Hull, Nottingham, Sheffield, Burton upon Trent, Lancaster, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and Glasgow. By 1892 the show included Cossack riders from Russia and Gaucho riders from Argentina. Such was the interest in the Cossacks that Queen Victoria commanded the show to appear in Windsor for a special performance in June. The second tour was as successful as the first. The six days spent in Cardiff resulted in over £10,000 in revenue and 200,000 people in attendance.

In 1902 Cody returned for his final and most extensive British tour. During its final year in the United Kingdom Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, travelled over 4,000 miles by train and appeared on more than 130 occasions. Never had such a tour on such a scale been attempted by any showman before or after.

The myths and legends of the Wild West imported by Cody remained popular in the United Kingdom long after his final tour in 1904. Wild West shows were incorporated into circus and menagerie shows and British performers perfected their sharpshooting western acts.

Famous British names travelling Wild West shows were the Testos and the Kayes with William Kayes becoming known as the English Buff Bill. Circus acts which appeared on the fairground included the Wolverhampton-based Johnny Swallow who presented Bronco Bill’s Circus and Wild West Show from 1912 onwards. Perhaps the most successful British-born “cowboy” was Ralph Norman, son of Tom Norman the Silver King, who appeared in films and rodeos in America as Hal Denver during the 1930s and 1940s.

Texas Bill Shufflebottom

Texas Bill and Rosina Shufflebottom

One particular Yorkshire family made a significant contribution to the Wild West show over three generations, the Shufflebottom family. Lead by William Shufflebottom, aka Texas Bill, they performed on fairgrounds throughout Yorkshire, presenting one of the most successful British interpretations of the American Frontier. In the 1880s, William Shufflebottom, a showman from Yorkshire, changed his name to Texas Bill. The exact origin of the show is unknown and in keeping with the Buffalo Bill legend, certain family members claim that William Shufflebottom had indeed performed in Buffalo Bill’s show.

Texas Bill and his wife raised ten children who continued the family tradition, making the various Shufflebottom’s Wild West shows a popular attraction on the travelling fairs from the 1880s to the 1960s. Their show included sharpshooting, knife-throwing and snake-charming acts in true Wild West style, performed by the entire family and travelling under such names as Colorado’s Troupe, the Texas Jacks and the Texans.

The Shufflebottom family stage names and acts were borrowed from American West folklore and literature. Florence took on the persona of either Annie Oakley or Calamity Jane depending on who was the most popular at the time. The highlight of the performance was the Indian Torture routine, a complicated act involving knives, battle-axes and tomahawks.

By the 1960s the Shufflebottom family had stopped performing the Wild West shows which by then had dramatically decreased in popularity.

Hal Denver

Hal Denver

Born Ralph Norman in 1909, son of Tom Norman, he became a star as a Wild West performer under the alias Hal Denver.

Hal was a very successful and versatile performer, who after starting in the fairground, moved into acting, circus and variety. He appeared in many films and rodeos in America and Europe next to big cowboy names such as Tex Ritter and William Boyd. He was a guest on The Johnny Carson Show and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show together with Elvis Presley and Gene Autry. He worked in variety with Dick Henderson, 'Hutch', Morecambe and Wise, Edith Piaf, Tony Martin, Dorothy Dandridge and Denise Darcel amongst others and worked in some of the most important circus rings of the time such as Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey in the United States and the Blackpool Tower and Billy Smart's Circus in England. Between stage tours in variety, Denver also formed his own travelling circus, using various names.

In their heyday, the Denvers appeared in leading theatres such as the Sahara Hotel in Vegas and the Palace Theatre on Broadway.

Later in life Hal returned to cabaret and theatre work, and later concentrated on film and television work, appearing in Emmerdale and Coronation Street.