By GAIL SCHONTZLER
Long before American pop culture invaded Europe in the form of blue jeans and jazz, movies and rock ‘n’ roll, Buffalo Bill Cody conquered the Old World with his Wild West show.
Cody remains an “enduring icon” in Europe today, say two professors of American studies from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Montana State University history professor Robert Rydell brought Rob Kroes and Jaap Verheul, “two of Europe’s leading authorities on American history and culture,” to Bozeman this week to meet with graduate students and give a public talk Wednesday on the topic of Buffalo Bill in Europe.
Today there are Wild West theme parks from Spain to Scandinavia, and one near Munich attracts a million visitors a year, Kroes and Rydell wrote in their 2005 book “Buffalo Bill in Bologna.”
Germans in particular enjoy vacations where they dress up and reenact life as American Indians, often idealized as people living closer to nature. Disneyland Paris features a modern version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show – which, as Caroline Running Wolf described at a recent Pecha Kucha lecture, creates an avenue for reverse colonization of Europe by Native Americans.
The original Wild West show, launched in 1883, was already a hit in America when Mark Twain suggested Cody take it to Europe. While most American exhibitions were dismissed as hand-me-downs of European culture, the Wild West show was, Twain wrote, “purely and distinctively American.”
Cody’s show toured Europe from 1887 to 1906, visiting Britain, Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Austria, Germany and the Vatican, where the pope gave his blessing. Millions of Europeans saw the show as a living depiction of the America they had only read about before.
Part of the attraction was that the show wasn’t put on by actors but by real cowboys, sharpshooters and Indians. Cody brought 97 Indians, 180 horses, 18 bison, 10 elk and a couple of deer to the first shows in London.
The Wild West show, Kroes said, “told the story of conquest of the American West, battles with Indians, and the heroism of it all.”
Cody reinforced stereotypes about Indians, Rydell said, but he also let them keep their own cultural traditions and gave them an alternative to life on reservations.
The Prince of Wales, the future king of England, came to see the show, as did his mother, Queen Victoria, in her first public appearance since her husband’s death a quarter century before. One day the prince and the kings of Denmark, Greece, Belgium and Saxony boarded the Deadwood Stage as Buffalo Bill drove it around the arena and Indians staged a mock attack.
Daily Wild West shows depicted “civilization” conquering the Indian “savages.” Yet equally popular with Europeans were the tipi encampments put up by the show’s Indians, where visitors could meet exotic Native Americans and heroic chiefs, Kroes said.
A poster from that era depicts Rosa Bonheur, the famous French artist, ignoring the chance to paint Napoleon in favor of Cody – the “new man of the West, looking virile and manly,” Rydell said. She loved horses and was rumored to have had an affair with Cody. After his horse died, Cody sent her its head as a gift.
Even in Cody’s day, some Europeans criticized Americans for the treatment of Indians and for building a civilization on the gun and the bullet. The violence both “disturbed and secretly attracted” Europeans, Verheul said.
Cody’s popularity increased after his death, reaching its peak in the 1950s, Verheul said. It was the era when TV Westerns like “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke” dominated American culture. Europeans watched the same TV shows, the professors said.
In the 1950s, Buffalo Bill appeared especially in children’s books as a hero to European children. Just like American kids, they grew up playing cowboys and Indians.
In his talk, Rydell planned to show a color lithograph from an Italian magazine of political satire that in 1906 depicted Cody riding a giant bullfrog – a play on Italian slang that aimed its critique at corrupt Italian politics.
The original bullfrog image today is in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West museum in Cody, Wyoming – having once resided with the Earl of Carnarvon, owner of Highclere Castel of “Downton Abbey” fame.
The visiting professors said they plan to visit the Cody museum.