The yearly meetings at the Fairlawn Steak House in Greenville, Ohio are becoming something of an American tradition, where a nearly extinct breed of human being, who do things because it puts a smile on the faces of children without ever considering money as a primary concern, gather. The Fairlawn looms directly across from the Darke County Fairgrounds and every year during the last weekend of July the City of Greenville celebrates the life of Annie Oakley with a tribute to the western arts that made her an American treasure, and most of the western performers in the nation make the pilgrimage to Greenville each year to run their act, compete against each other, and gather at the Fairlawn at the end of the day for beer, steak, and tales of the years adventures. See a montage of the weekend’s events here:
The air conditioning in the Fairlawn works nicely in the little side room where this group of western arts performers gathers late into the steamy night. Outside the setting sun fills the big sky in this part of the country in a spectacular way. The orange neon lights that advertise the steak house to passers-by on Sweitzer St was a welcome sight to all of us who spent the day cracking whips, throwing knives, spinning guns, throwing ropes, singing, performing magic and answering questions to a curious crowd. As we stagger up the path to the restaurant and the cool air inside greets us, nostalgia is the overwhelming emotion. This year the bar’s television had on a Reds game, just like last year only this time as my wife and I ordered a beer, there was a news flash that came up over the bartender’s head to announce that congress and the senate is close to a debt ceiling deal.
“Thieves,” an old man uttered over his beer looking from the TV to my wife then to the sweat soaked Australian outback hat on my head that has seen the world and looks like it. “They’re all a bunch of crooks and thieves, every damn one of them.”
“You’re right,” I said to him. I noticed that old man was looking at my whip holster on my belt and he was curious. Then behind me came the rest of our clan, all western performers openly wearing knives, whips, and guns as they wearily went to their seats in the party room where our reservations placed us away from the rest of the crowd in the main dining room.
“Yeah,” I replied as my wife smiled a bit at the man. My wife likes older people because they no longer feel the need to engage in personal politics, and they have a life-time of wisdom to pass on to a generation who throws them away like trash. She likes older people for all the same reasons that I like my western art friends. There is truth in their eyes and wisdom in their hands. And I could see the wisdom in the hands of the old man as he nursed his beer and looked over the rim at an image of President Obama talking about how people need to work together to solve this national crises. “Damn thief,” he uttered again his eyes on the screen.
And he’s right. Many people have asked me how I can speak out on the tax topics the way I have, and go on TV speaking out so openly about how broken our political system is, my roots in those statements come from the type of friends I have, the people with me at the Fairlawn Steak House, who live life with honesty and perform an art form rooted in valor and goodness.
As the night wore on, there were stories from the old days, back when old Hollywood stunt men and Las Vegas performers were the guiding lights for all of us young guys, a torch that has been handed to us to preserve. But that was a different age. Divorces, financial hardships, and entertainment politics have put western arts on the downside of American priorities and what used to be many thousands of western art performers is down to a mere handful, many of them at Annie Oakley and eating steak at the Fairlawn. We talked about the many personalities who have come and gone over the years, some still working in western arts, some giving it up because of financial necessity, but many of us sitting there at the end of a day of performing have the feeling that we are the end of a breed. A kid whose mom drove him up from Alabama named Luke and was just 16 was a bright spot to the rest of us who are all 40 and older. Having young people wanting to get involved was refreshing.
The reason these western artists gather at The Annie Oakley Festival, and not Las Vegas or some other place like it has in the past is because of my good friend, Gery Deer who runs a bullwhip training facility in Jamestown,Ohio. It is because of Gery, who is a western arts supplier and occasionally provides material for the film industry, has worked with me for over a decade on independent features, he has a band who performs folk music all over the Midwest by tour bus, and he has the only indoor studio in America dedicated to the training of bullwhip artists. So as the western has declined in Hollywood, and the need for Vegas shows with a western theme declined as well, it is Gery’s studio in Jamestown that has kept that tradition alive in America, because he is the only guy around who has a studio designed to preserving that tradition, and that includes Hollywood.
Most of the top Western Performers in the country have passed through the Annie Oakley Western Showcase at some point in the last 9 years since the event was first implemented as a supplement to the big event out in Las Vegas. But over time, the Vegas event finally folded when the great stuntman Alex Green, who was a big part of organizing that event, passed away. That left only The Annie Oakley Western Showcase and Gery Deer to keep the torch lit.
Many of the most dependable participants travel the country in their motor homes and live like gypsies much of the time. Robert Dante, a long time bull whip performer and World Record holder fits this lifestyle. His van was parked outside of the performance area and in between acts he simply goes back to his van to catch up on sleep. Leading up to Annie Oakley he traveled from Minnesota to South Carolina performing shows then “stopping by” Ohio to spend time with us, as he usually does. When I asked him about his lifestyle, if he got tired of always being unsettled waking up in different cites all the time and living out of a van he said, “Variety is the spice of life.” He said it like a seasoned Shakespearian actor knowing full well that he was part of a dying breed and he wasn’t about to apologize for if.
Kirk and Malodee Bass are also long time friends of my wife and I. Kirk started throwing knives the same weekend I did at an Annie Oakley event about 7 years ago. He stuck with it where I didn’t and he’s now one of the best in the country and has his own show called Bass Blades. They are old theater veterans from the great outdoor production called Blue Jacket which went out of business almost a decade ago after its critically acclaimed performances that featured live gunfire during the show couldn’t support itself financially. They are very dedicated parents who are home schooling their kids which impresses me greatly. They assembled the curriculum for their children’s education based on a friend of theirs who has a master’s degree in education. Their kids are lucky to have such interesting, and dedicated parents who happen to spend their spare time throwing knives at each other.
Richard and Donna Best were there as usual. Richard was hired by the Annie Oakley Committee to be the official Buffalo Bill for the week since he looks so much like Buffalo Bill. Richard and Donna are old timers in the Western Arts and have performed everywhere, particularly in Vegas. Their act is an archeologists dream for it is an authentic recreation to the type of entertainment that thrilled audiences in the 40’s and 50’s. They are wonderful people and occasionally their grandchildren have come to Annie Oakley with them and participate in rope tricks and whip work. You can’t help but look at those young children and think how lucky they are to have grandparents who travel the county, where grandpa makes a living cutting targets out of the mouth of grandma. Such figures in a child’s life are paramount to positive adult development.
In the outside world, away from the smiling faces, the cotton candy, the hot dogs, popcorn, corn dogs, snow cones and other carnival food, the world looks down its nose at this group of aging cowboys. For the world has become more progressive. The art of American tradition is something the political establishment has frowned down on.
After my trip to the Fairlawn last year it was Chris Camp who put the idea in my head about performing The Whip Trick to Save America (see that video by clicking here). Chris is such a fantastic whip artist that he travels the country full-time and stays booked, which is why he couldn’t make it this year, because he was simply too busy. The trick I did in that video is one that he performs in his live show, and he told me how to do it, and I put my own spin on it. It was conceived in the dining room of the Fairlawn using cups and salad plates. After I did that video and released it to the public it got the attention of The Cincinnati Enquirer and I used the metaphor from that video to explain why I was against higher taxes, because like the old man said to me at the bar, “they are all thieves.” Why would we give a thief more money? It’s easy for us to see who the thieves are at the Fairlawn in the late hours of the night as the sweat from a whole day are caked to our bodies in need of a shower, where the beer tastes good because we earned it, and even a simple salad before a steak dinner tastes like exquisite cuisine, because freedom is openly celebrated at Greenville, Ohio and everyone can feel it. And freedom is best celebrated in the art of freedom, and that is the western arts of my friends.
As society has moved away from freedom and those celebrations, progressives have looked down their noses at the western arts in an attempt to rewrite history with a focus on the civil rights movement of the 60’s where progressive policies really began gain acceptance. Celebrating the arts of westward expansion was not what progressive politics desired; they simply want to move beyond those memories to more recent times.
But I don’t. One of those life altering decisions happened for me shortly after The Enquirer did a feature on my Whip Trick to Save America where the organized elements of the unions and other progressive groups came after me calling me a “hick,” “hillbilly,” “kook” and other derogatory terms simply because I wore a cowboy hat and used bullwhips to help explain the need to cut taxes on an over-taxed society. (CLICK HERE TO READ ALL ABOUT IT) The personal attacks infuriated me to the level that convinced me to create this website, Overmanwarrior’s Wisdom. The personal attacks persuaded me that traditional arts and lifestyles needed a voice that I was in a unique position to provide, because of my background in western arts, so I started this site as a result.
The art of a culture reflects the culture itself. This is how anthropologist and archeologist come to understand ancient cultures. But using the same measurement with our present culture we can see easily the state of our country in our art. That is why the old men sit at a bar and utter “thieves” to the TV over their beer glass because their values were built by the type of arts my friends perform on a regular basis. But the young people who were watching the Reds game, noticeably turned away from the TV when the President came on, and were indifferent to what was being said. They were also the type who looked oddly when my friends arrived at the restaurant and eyed mysteriously at how they were dressed, because those young people have been taught to reject tradition, so traditional art is something to ridicule.
But in the grandstands all through the day, the crowd that gathered young and old enjoyed themselves thoroughly as the politics of the age dropped away at the gates, and visitors were able to forget themselves on a stroll back through a more innocent time, where cowboys weren’t afraid to be men, women were proud to be women and a young lady named Annie Oakley set the imaginations of American’s everywhere with the values of the greatest nation on Earth by her trick shooting in the Buffalo Bill Wild West show. A century later the same type of performers touched that same spirit in all who witnessed this unique event through smiles and bright eyes regardless of age, for the jaded judgment of the age was suspended as the crack of whips and the fire from guns ran out often across the Darke County Fairgrounds to a public hungry for substance in their art.
For my wife and I that substance came with our dinner and the friends we shared it with as the night encroached the evening and reality returned to those western artists who faced the loneliness of an art form which transcends the greed of money, or the power of politics but is simply about memories, friends, and 8X10’s.