Christmas in the Pass
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Annie Oakley and Frank Butler and the Winter of 1884-85

Dr. Will Kooslbergen

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses to a Quaker family in Darke County, Ohio in 1860. In 1866 her father died of pneumonia, leaving the substance farming family destitute. Unable to support her seven children, Mrs. Moses sent Phoebe to live with family friends, Samuel and Nancy Edington in Greenville, Ohio. The family “friends” sent Phoebe to work for another family who were brutal to the young girl, forcing her into child labor. After 2 years with this family, she escaped, returning to the Edingtons, who this time, taught her to sew. Thus, begins the life of the woman who would become Annie Oakley.

In 1875 Annie participated in a shooting match with well-known marksman, Frank Butler, who was appearing at a theatre in Cincinnati. How did Phoebe/Annie become such a great markswoman? According to legend, Phoebe at age 8 stole her father’s rifle and went hunting, bringing back to her family a bounty of game. Annie never disputed this story. In the Butler/Oakley match, Annie bested Frank 25 birds to 24. That began their romance (most of this is dramatized in the first act of Annie Get Your Gun, which is in performance at the Pass Christian Theatre Project at the Randolph Center; Performances are July 12 – 14 and 20 – 22).

Is there a connection between Annie Oakley and famous Pass resident and theatre manager David Bidwell? We do know that Annie and Frank were in New Orleans during the winter of 1884-85. The sharp-shooting pair had booked themselves with the Sells Brothers Circus for a 40-week engagement. Their gig ended at the Cotton Exposition in New Orleans in 1884.

Both Annie and Frank were tired of the touring aspects of life in show business (they traveled 11,000 miles and played 187 towns in 13 states with the Sells Brothers) and they were looking for a more permanent gig in the entertainment industry. New Orleans at that time had at least 8 major theatres in the American sector of the city; many of them hosting variety and equestrian shows. In addition, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show was booked into several theatre over the winter months of ’84-85. Annie and Frank decided to rent a place in New Orleans for that winter and try to get into Cody’s show.

After repeated meetings with Cody and several auditions of their sharp-shooting act, Cody finally said no, mainly because he had already booked another shooter, Captain Bogardus, for that New Orleans stay. Still, Annie and Frank decided to stay in New Orleans and work on their act. In March 1885, Bogardus left Cody’s show (reportedly because he lost his shooting equipment in a steamship accident); Annie immediately petitioned Cody for another chance. By then, the Cody show had left New Orleans and moved on to Louisville, Kentucky. Frank and Annie journeyed to Kentucky, playing what venues they could along the way. In one of these, Cody’s business manager caught the act and immediately hired the duo on the spot. Annie and Frank toured with Cody and appeared in over 40 cities before 150,000 people. In June of 1885, Sitting Bull signed a contract to appear with the Cody show, beginning a lasting friendship between Annie and the Native American chief. In all, Annie stayed with Cody for 17 years, with Frank by her side.

So, where is the connection to David Bidwell? It is well established that Bidwell owned and managed at least 3 successful theatres in New Orleans during the 1884-85 season. At his primary property, the St. Charles Theatre, Bidwell decided to focus on productions of drama only that season. Bidwell hoped to add legitimacy to his flagship property, one of the largest and most technologically advanced theatres at the time. One of Bidwell’s other properties was the Varieties Theatre/Academy of Music (the theatre was going through one of many name changes at that time) was dedicated to variety performanc.

Variety at that time was everything from magic acts to opera to equestrian shows. Bidwell, who was known to the local theatre community at Uncle Dave, was quite a character himself. He was a benefactor to many performers who were stuck in New Orleans between gigs, often putting them in his variety shows as extras or specialty acts. Bidwell also owned the Phoenix, a bar-restaurant-gentlemen’s club next to his St. Charles Theatre.

The Phoenix had become a focal point for the entire theatre community in New Orleans, both permanent and itinerant. Women in theatre, escorted by men, were welcomed in parts of the Phoenix. We know Annie and Frank decided to spend the winter of ’84-85 in New Orleans after the Sells Circus closed and we know that their gig with Cody didn’t start until March of ’85. What did they do during the period December, ’84 to March, ’85? We also know that the Phoenix became a clearing house of acts needing work and companies looking for performers.

The announcement of Bogardus leaving Cody’s show would have been in the local New Orleans papers and would have been posted at the Phoenix. We also know, given his attraction to performers of all kinds, David Bidwell would have seen the Sells Circus and the Oakley-Butler act, and would have sought them out and invited them to the Phoenix.

The entertainment world in New Orleans was small and tight-knit; it is not unreasonable to suggest that Annie Oakley and Frank Butler met David Bidwell during that period. In addition, John Kendall in his book on THE GOLDEN AGE OF NEW ORLEANS THEATER, has one line that adds to the speculation. He noted that Bidwell hired several itinerant western acts for the Variety that winter.

It is important to remember that Bidwell and his wife, Louisa, spent their free time in Pass Christian in their house on Scenic Drive. Bidwell loved to bring entertainers to his home for weekend stays during this period. Though Mr. and Mrs. Bidwell kept no specific lists of who visited them in the Pass, it is certainly interesting to wonder if Annie Oakley and Frank Butler visited this beautiful city during their extended stay in New Orleans.

Theatre history is all about what we know, what we assume, and what we can prove. Annie and Frank and the Bidwells together in the Pass does make entertaining speculation.

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