By Justin Hayford
It’s a quarter to noon, and a few dozen actors huddle under a big plastic tent. They’re done up like cowboys, farmhands, and saloon gals, and they’re all staring at John Mills.
“A lot of kids are going to look up to you as heroes and heroines today,” he explains from behind his Ray-Ban sunglasses, “so I don’t want to see you running around with half your clothes off.” His laugh–a smoker’s hack–is infectious. “And no loser, sad, pathetic speeches like at a Renaissance fair, OK?”
Mills is a veteran producer of such hokum as Renaissance fairs, period parties, and vaudeville shows, with a solid track record of losing his shirt. His latest spectacle, Wild West Days, is minutes away from opening. He’s taken over Naper Settlement, a 19th-century museum village plunked in a field next to Naperville Central High School, and moved in about a hundred street performers, craft sellers, wandering minstrels, and stunt cowboys. For the next two weekends there will be sharpshooting, puppet shows, country music, circus acts, and a real live Wild West show. The performers under the tent have one job: to hang out among the historic buildings and convince the paying public–and perhaps themselves–that it’s 1885.
While a crew of harried workers untangle a few miles of heavy-duty extension cord, Mills warns the group to avoid contemporary slang as well as swear words.
“And you can’t leave with beer,” he says. “There’s security at each of the gates. And you can’t camp here. If someone has had too much to drink, just shout out ‘Hey rube’ and we’ll all descend on the scene.”
Mills introduces Patrick Bresnyan, the “street director” saddled with the task of cobbling together some sort of narrative from the day’s planned mayhem. He’s spent the last three days with many of the performers, helping them develop characters, sketching out scenes, making sure they know that Grover Cleveland is president. He explains to the uninitiated that today is election day, with a good sheriff and a bad sheriff vying for office. “The election is at 3:30 at the gazebo, so if you’re not supposed to be somewhere else, try to be there.” No one seems too interested.
“Avoid the backstage area,” Mills concludes. “There are a lot of obstacles, a lot of animals, and you might run over a juggler.” A look of confusion appears on his face. “Except I haven’t cast any jugglers, have I?”
A hearty cheer goes up: “No mimes! No jugglers!”
The group is about to disband when Mills asks for quiet. Two musicians rise, and everyone turns in hushed reverence. I’m guessing this must be the ritual moment of reflection before the show, and these singing cowboys are about to spread heartfelt inspiration among the troops. The duo break into a little ditty about “the psycho singing cowboy . . . while’s he’s harmonizin’, the body count keeps risin’.” The group is galvanized. Cowboys finish off their Pepsis and wave good-bye to the 20th century. A Civil War soldier mutters into a walkie-talkie, then sidles up to a grizzled old cowboy. “Can you go to the front gate and entertain about 80 people?” he asks. The cowboy grabs his cane and hobbles off directly. Duty calls.
The idea of mounting a Wild West show in Naperville may seem a little odd. And if you consider the historical precedent Mills is up against, it’s easy to think him a fool. The original Wild West shows, staged from 1883 to 1915 by William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, were sensational events that would make today’s biggest rock ‘n’ roll tour seem paltry. Described as “the perfect model of manly beauty” by the Hartford Courant, Cody played to a million people in the summer of 1885. Even P.T. Barnum saw the show–the only one he’d seen, apart from his own circus, in 40 years.
When Buffalo Bill opened his Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, he drew some 25,000 customers a day. To handle the crowds, a new elevated-train station was created a few feet from the show’s entrance, and the Illinois Central ran a special train to the show grounds. As one newspaper noted, “No other entertainment in the city can or does accommodate the half that daily visit the Wild West.”
The Chicago press had not always been kind to Cody. The first time he set foot on a stage was in Chicago’s Nixon Amphitheatre 21 years earlier, appearing as himself in Ned Buntline’s The Scouts of the Prairie; or, Red Deviltry as It Is. Buntline was the dime novelist who first popularized Cody’s exploits as a prairie scout, buffalo hunter, and Indian fighter. Later he turned his books into stage plays. The Chicago Times previewed The Scouts of the Prairie as “a sensational drama of the red-hot type,” but once the show opened, the review was unequivocal: “Such a combination of incongruous drama, execrable acting, renowned performers, mixed audiences, intolerable stench, scalping, blood and thunder is not likely to be vouchsafed to a city a second time, even Chicago.” Perhaps the reviewer didn’t like Cody’s signature shtick: leaning over the footlights and shouting to his wife in the third row, “Oh Mama! I’m a bad actor!”
The reviewer’s prediction was dead wrong, of course, and by the time Buffalo Bill brought his new show to the Columbian Exposition, he was already an international superstar (Queen Victoria praised him as the best-looking man she’d ever seen). He shared the bill with stunt riders like Mustang Jack and Bronco Bill, cowboy artist French Pete, and the husband-and-wife team of Frank Butler and Annie Oakley. There was also the specter of former star Sitting Bull, who had been killed a few years earlier in the “Indian troubles.” Audiences couldn’t get enough of cowboys and Indians reenacting frontier battles, shooting glass balls out of the air, and attacking or defending the Deadwood Stagecoach.
Today, mounting a Wild West show is a tall order to fill. And with his burgeoning paunch and slightly stooped frame, Mills’s good looks are not likely to inspire fawning from a head of state any time soon. But like Buffalo Bill, he’s a showman–no stranger to big, messy outdoor extravaganzas. He’s produced Renaissance fairs in Gurnee and Boston for more than a decade, occasionally directing plays on the fairgrounds with titles like Romancing the Throne, The Pirate’s Revenge, and Nobody Leave This Realm! Perusing his resume, you might mistake him for a one-man Up With People. He’s directed children’s theater in Antioch, put on Sing America–A Musical Review and Mark Twain in Person at the Atheneum, and even staged a production of Oliver! in the Chicago Avenue Armory.
Mills organized his first Renaissance fair in 1974 during his senior year at Northwestern University. But it would be a while before he returned to that line of work. “After I left Northwestern a bunch of my friends and I went to Alvina Krause [the school’s revered acting teacher] and said, ‘We’re graduates and we don’t know a thing.’ So–” His call waiting beeps, as it will several times during our first 20-minute phone conversation. The show’s two days from opening, and he’s got vans breaking down in New Hampshire and South Dakota. I can’t help but think of the telegram Buffalo Bill sent to his business partner after the boat carrying their troupe sank on the Mississippi: “Outfit at bottom of the river, what do you advise?” Mills’s voice returns. “Some guy called, his truck broke down somewhere in Naperville, he wanted to know what to do. I told him to go to Starbucks, there are about 20 of ’em out there.”
After college Mills spent a year taking acting lessons in Krause’s basement before jetting off to Paris to study with noted mime coach Etienne Decroux. He later moved to Manhattan and toured with “silly dinner theater” for two years. But in Paris, Mills says, he found something he couldn’t recapture in America. “I’d go out for coffee on the Left Bank for 20 hours a day and meet an amazing community of artists,” he recalls. “Actors, dancers, painters, all interested in everyone else’s work. It was wonderful.” The world of dinner theater couldn’t measure up. So Mills set out to recreate that sense of community, bringing together magicians, storytellers, singers, actors, and various freaks under the banner of King Richard’s Faire. He was its artistic director until 1993, when he found fair sponsors more difficult to enlist.
Following his heart didn’t pay the bills. To make ends meet, Mills began producing special events and theme parties for corporations like American Airlines, Stouffer Hotels, McDonald’s, and Mitsubishi. He also did promotional work for the Woodfield Merchants Association, Filene’s, and Bozo’s Circus. The spirit of the Left Bank continued to recede.
A couple years ago Mills took another stab at creating an arts community. Capitalizing on his connections among variety-act performers, he produced the Chicago International Fringe Festival during the last two summers. Attracting magicians, clowns, and troubadours, Mills hoped to establish a fringe festival to rival those in towns like Edinburgh and Toronto. He rented out three theaters in the Organic and presented ten days of nonstop performances, including a few by a Shakespearean fool fond of taking audiences out to Clark Street, where he’d force them to put on a play. The next year Mills added another venue, the Annoyance Theater. Nonetheless, he lost money hand over fist. “I couldn’t pull a dime out of it,” he says. “I could barely pay my rent. It was awfully difficult to draw talent. An artist doesn’t want to come from Europe if there is no reputation for making money in Chicago. Half the shows were, well, dreadful.”
Mills plans to revive the fringe festival soon; like Buffalo Bill, he likes to keep as many balls in the air as he can possibly handle. Separated by a century, the two are unabashed impresarios, always cooking up another project. To his dying day, Buffalo Bill had something on both back burners; despite massive debts from his poorly run gypsum mine and Black America, a failed “negro humor and melody” road show, he spent his final years immortalizing himself in a movie version of his own life and trying to scrape together $100,000 to buy a new Wild West show.
Mills wants to add a rodeo to his Wild West Days sometime soon, and he hopes to eventually draw some big-name country music stars. This time out he’s just aiming to recoup some of his fringe festival losses. Though this project is hardly a sure thing, Mills and his cohorts have long dreamed about it. “For 100 years we’ve been talking about creating a city like we do in a Renaissance fair, but in a different time period,” he says, “because everyone got sick of wearing tights.”
So Mills put out the word, and performers came by the dozen. He hired the Hanlon-Lees Action Theater, a Chicago-based troupe of actors and horses that puts on period theme shows around the nation. “And I’ve got the Flying Wallendas for no apparent reason whatsoever,” he adds. His biggest challenge was finding someone who would agree to play Sitting Bull. “Let’s face it, the original Wild West shows were pretty horrific to Indians. You know, that old scalping thing. We’re not doing a PC version or anything, but Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull are going to fight the bad guys together. It’s not a lovefest, but we’re trying.”
Perhaps more than anything, Mills is happy to spend the summer away from his corporate clients. “This is about people, not about dancing french fries–” His call waiting beeps again. He’s back in a minute. “This lion tamer is coming up from Florida to show us how to put up a tent. I gotta get out there.”
The 80 people waiting to be entertained at the front gate turn out to be about two dozen antsy special-education campers and their long-suffering counselors. One ten-year-old is stubbornly up a tree; a humorless adult barks at him, “Get down or you lose two points.”
I wander down a gravel path toward Fort Payne, where I’ve heard Buffalo Bill is holed up. A cowboy meanders by with a six-shooter in his holster and an electric drill in his hand. Two middle-aged women in sweat suits and cowboy hats point their identical Sony camcorders at him.
I make a quick stop at Diamond Lill’s Saloon. It’s actually the tent where everyone gathered to listen to Mills’s pep talk this morning, but a new sign has gone up–“Welcome Buckaroos” is stenciled next to the Miller Lite logo. On a makeshift stage, leaning against an ancient upright piano played by a guy who looks like a psycho at a costume party, Diamond Lill is belting out “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” without any amplification, a flask clasped in one hand and a pistol tucked in her cleavage. She has an audience of one: a gray-haired gentleman gnawing absentmindedly on a chicken sandwich. He’ll show up again in the Wild West show as the ersatz mayor of this ersatz frontier town. The cowboys in the chow line slap on authentic 1885 latex gloves and scrutinize the vittles.
Across a field stands Fort Payne. It resembles a Lincoln Log construction and could easily accommodate a cavalry of ten if they don’t inhale. Backstage a half dozen actors mill about in cowboy attire. Out walks Buffalo Bill himself. He’s portrayed by Kent Shelton, streamlined and imposing, in signature Vandyke and flowing locks. His historical namesake may have “moved as leisurely as if he had nothing to do all his life but exist beautifully,” as British entertainer Marshall P. Wilder described him, but Shelton is a ball of nerves as he hustles me out of the fort. He’s got a show in five minutes, he apologizes. Behind him his stunt team runs through a fight routine in slow motion, looking like an underwater ballet troupe.
Out on the lawn the grizzled cowboy summons several dozen children. The sun is relentless; the closest shade tree is a good 100 yards away. I plop myself into a crush of wiggly six-year-olds. Bresnyan appears before the crowd, identifying himself as Ned Buntline, and out of the fort saunter people who will eventually be identified as Annie Oakley, Frank Butler, outlaw Frank James, Sitting Bull, and Buffalo Bill. Buntline drones on about Buffalo Bill’s exploits as a prairie scout until several outlaws draw their guns behind him and take aim at his head. “Kill him! Kill him!” the children scream.
The cowboys start fighting. Annie Oakley shoots the hat off an Indian. Buntline ends up in a noose. A few of the special-education kids are so traumatized by the gunfire they can’t be quieted. In a sublime bit of shamelessness, the show ends when a lit stick of dynamite gets tossed from the fort, sending everyone into a panic until Buffalo Bill claps the explosive in his teeth, rescues Buntline from the noose, and tosses the dynamite away just as it blows up and sends two cowboys back-flipping into some fortuitously placed bales of hay. I hate to admit it, but I’m loving this. Who could resist something so unapologetically cheesy?
It’s nearly time for the Wild West show, so I head toward the arena on the far end of the grounds. On the way I pass a guy hawking pickles from a wooden barrel, shouting at the top of his lungs, “A pickle in time saves nine,” “You can lead a pickle to water but you can’t make it float,” or in more desperate moments, “Picklepicklepicklepicklepickle!” On the country stage Alphonse Pontecelli and his trio play an amalgam of swing and bluegrass on guitar, mandolin, and upright bass. They’re terrific, though the audience of seven seem too intimidated by their own meager number to clap.
By a quarter to two, the stands lining the Wild West arena are packed, despite the complete lack of shade. A sinewy cowboy in sheepskin chaps warms up the crowd, cracking jokes, juggling knives, and shaking his ass at a woman in the crowd who asks him to turn around. In rides the cavalry–actually, one guy on horseback with an American flag. Buffalo Bill had a cast of more than 500; Mills has about a dozen. The cavalry officer sweeps around the arena, while two mounted military types in bloodred uniforms trot through the gate. They’re closely followed by Frank Butler and Annie Oakley. The horses thunder past, only a few feet away. A couple of stagehands dash out with a large metal hoop; a paper banner reading “Wild West” is strung across its diameter. Under the August sun it’s hard to ignore the copious amounts of masking tape keeping the banner in place. But when Buffalo Bill crashes his steed through the banner as a brass band blares from the porch of a mansion overlooking the arena, the effect is electrifying. Immediately I feel myself being suckered in.
Things quiet down briefly as a woman takes center stage and begins to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” She changes keys after the twilight’s last gleaming so as not to blow the high notes in the rockets’ red glare. “It’s not the hockey game,” the woman to my right says, “but there it is.”
The master of ceremonies is one of the make-believe candidates for sheriff, namely Sheriff Doody. A chorus of “Howdy, Doody!” greets him as he introduces a series of acts. First, a duo called the Bangle Lancers ride in–the guys in the bloodred uniforms. They carry long poles with red banners flapping. They race around the tiny arena and toss the poles back and forth to each other. Later they use the poles to pluck flying metal rings from the air. Frank Butler and five other cowboys amble into the arena, cracking enormous bullwhips over their heads. By now a crowd of onlookers has gathered outside the metal fence along Aurora Avenue. Butler whips a yellow stick out of Annie Oakley’s mouth. He even hits the trigger on a shotgun from ten paces, unleashing a monstrous boom and blowing the hat off the guy holding the weapon. I cheer louder than the kids in front of me.
Someone named Yuri the Magnificent does some trick riding. Frank Butler returns on horseback with six-shooter drawn and blows the hell out of some balloons mounted on the end of pikes. Another rider slices watermelons with a saber. Sheriff Doody keeps introducing tricks ahead of schedule, forcing the performers to say, “Yes, Sheriff Doody, but first…” The grizzled cowboy stands ringside and shouts the name of every act two or three times, soliciting applause with all the subtlety of a stampede. Through it all the brass band plays furiously.
The show is almost over. Sitting Bull emerges from a tepee. He’s got the bearing of an insurance claims adjuster, but never mind. In the day’s most incomprehensible moment, the band strikes up the toreador song from Bizet’s Carmen as Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill share a peace pipe. Then the Deadwood Stagecoach clatters in with the mayor waving from inside. The coach seems huge, ready to topple over onto the crowd as it turns in front of the stands. Then a wild throng of bandits bursts into the arena and attacks the coach. All hell breaks loose, with cowboys shooting guns and falling off horses. In the excitement, I may have crushed the cowboy hat of the kid in front of me. Buffalo Bill charges over to the coach, leaping from his horse onto the side rail. Once again, he’s saved the day.
The crowd begins to disperse as a Flying Wallenda starts swinging from a rope 20 feet above the ground. I head for the parking lot, passing a cluster of children at the feet of a puppeteer ensconced in a little two-sided chalet. The kids squeal as the eyeball of a dragon flies out of its socket.
John Mills is kicking back on the front porch of a frame house. His Ray-Bans are still in place; a nearly empty pack of cigarettes sits on the rail beside him. One might think he was on vacation. “Did you see the Wild West show?” he asks. “It wasn’t too screwed up for the first time, was it?” Attendance today isn’t as good as expected, but by Sunday, he’s sure, “it’ll be going gangbusters.” Mills laughs and gazes at the towering white clouds drifting through a crystalline blue sky. The dancing french fries will have to wait. Today he moves as leisurely as if he had nothing to do all his life but exist beautifully.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Randy Tunnell.