The 2014 Annie Oakley Western Showcase: Bringing Lash LaRue off the silver screen into reality

As usual it was a marvelous weekend at our annual Annie Oakley event.  What started as a large group that originally met at Las Vegas each year is now just a handful of whip crackers, knife throwers, trick ropers and magicians intent to put a smile on the faces of young people and wow the adults who graced the grounds of the 2014 Annie Oakley Festival in Darke County.  The venue this year was moved from the usual fairgrounds in town to a more remote location just to the north.  It felt a long way out and even deeper into “God’s Country” but a very large crowd turned out and what they found there were shooting contests, fast draw contests from the Single Action Shooting Society, theater drama, and the 12th Annual Annie Oakley Western Arts Showcase accompanied by the many venders selling goods.  Most of the venders very unique with little booths set-up mingling among the trees of York Woods.  For over ten years now some of the best whip crackers in the country have gathered to meet with their own kind at the event and as usual it was a marvelous enterprise.

I said many times during the day which was absolutely perfect for July weather with mild temperatures and occasional rain bursts erupting just to the north and south painting a menacing sky at times across the vast plains of farmland extending out into Indiana—that my love of this event was yearly maintenance; it restored my faith in humanity.  The people who attend are some of the few people left in the entire world who do these kinds of things which used to be common place during Annie Oakley’s time.  A few are in long-term marriages which are inspiring, and most have spouses that they bring with them where they enjoy each other in a healthy way and it is just good to associate with people of that character.  I’ve said it before, but it is applicable, the people in our group are nearly identical to the characters shown in the Clint Eastwood film Bronco Billy—which is a favorite of mine.  They are a small group of people who are all that is keeping a way of life in America alive for the next generation.

There are many in the world who might say good riddance to classic American arts—particularly those residing around large metropolitan areas—which is why attending each year restores my faith in humanity.  It is so refreshing to spend time around genuine people who truly love something rooted in classic Americana.  But to lose these values, the whip cracking, the gun spinning, roping, and knife throwing—with vaudeville type shows conducted from corn fields in the middle of nowhere—U.S.A would be treacherous.  The heart of what it means to be an American is in those shows, I have now known the ring master of the Annie Oakley event—Gery Deer for over ten years and each year he finds new ways to change-up the show to always keep it interesting.  At first there were concerns over moving the Annie Oakley Festival to the outskirts of Greenville—but quickly those worries proved pointless.  Large crowds attended and the celebration was nothing short of inspiring.

It took me a while to get warmed up but by the time we got to the Speed Switch contest which allows bullwhip artists to strike at ten targets as fast as they could–first with one hand then with the other on the way back up the target row, I had hit my stride.  This year it was obvious that everyone was a bit smoother and had been practicing.  The times were faster generally for everyone which made for an exciting show for the people watching from the bleachers.  I had my fastest time ever on the Speed Switch—just a bit over 11 seconds which is fast for even the Speed and Accuracy contest so well-known to seasoned veterans.  I enjoyed the location, the vast open spaces all around the touring bus of the Brother’s and Company set up as a backdrop for the stage as a generator provided all the power needed for the show.  The crowd sat in the beginnings of the York Woods where shade gave them shelter from the sun which peaked out often around menacing storm clouds.  If anything pushed my speed a bit it was a combination of those elements.

Many of the same people who came last year came this time around again traveling from far away destinations to arrive.  Some couldn’t make it, but the beauty of the event is that each year there are opportunities to do it again and recharge their batteries from a punishing year.  It is punishing to stand behind these classic American art forms when the current trend is to run away.  Often the skeptics will stand on the outskirts of the roped off area and watch with curiosity as most of their thoughts were created by pop culture—but after a few moments, they can’t help but smile at the cheesy jokes and purity of the type of Western Showcase that Gery routinely puts on.  There is a playful innocence in it that is unmistakable and it doesn’t take long to reach into the inner child of the typical viewer to touch that part of themselves which has long ago been ignored—and suppressed.

I saw some of that at the end of the day when my wife and I went to the restaurant we normally gather at in Greenville to make reservations for the back half of the dining room.  The rest of our group was on the tour bus coming down from the York Woods location so we wanted to have everything set up for when they arrived.   As the manager arranged tables I saw some of that modern cynicism in the bar where my wife and I waited.  A corner contained a group of young twenty-somethings watching a baseball game and as I stood silhouetted in the doorway between the bar and dining room a young kid with his date looked my way and started texting his friends sitting next to him murmuring—it’s “Crocodile Dundee.”  I stared at the kid just to make him feel uncomfortable and to let him know that I could hear him, which he hadn’t expected.  He wanted anonymity from the security of his reality among his friends so I made a point to not give it to him.  This isn’t the first time this has happened and it won’t be the last.  On more than one occasion in that same bar we’ve encountered worse but quickly converted them over into fans.  One year Chris Camp took a skeptical woman outside and made her into a whip target stand in the parking lot in front of her husband cracking straws from her outstretched hands.  Moments before she had been similar to the kids in the corner, but after about five minutes was gushing all over herself at the coolness of having a weapon break the sound barrier right next to her face.  The only references modern people have toward such things outside of the type of events that Gery puts on, is music, movies, and television which has turned dramatically against the American Western, or any form of rugged individualism.

The clash of cultures is one where the values of two groups of people crash in places like that bar.  At the Annie Oakley Festival the context is already presented.  It is not unusual for members of the Western Arts Showcase to roam around the event in costume.  I typically wear my whips with me, and nobody bats an eye—they expect it because of the context of the show.  When our members used to attend the Fairlawn restaurant in years prior the strip of road separating it from the Darke County Fairgrounds was filled with people attending the festival.   This year there was no late night activity in town, because the Annie Oakley event had moved far to the north—so the Fairlawn was filled with regular people living their regular lives watching baseball games and trying to show how well they fit into the modern world of the big nearby cities like Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati to the south.  So for the kids in the bar they had no idea there was an Annie Oakley event in town as it had moved.  The boy who made the Crocodile Dundee comment likely hoped that his girl friend would be impressed by his remark and the laughs and giggles among his friends would earn him an honor of some kind, to prove that he was just as much of a douche bag as the next guy.  What kids like that don’t know, because it’s not part of their experience, is that the heroes of old, which the Ohio Western Arts group is dedicated to preserving are people like Lash LaRue, Douglas Fairbanks, and of course Annie Oakley—people they have no experience with.  If they did, they’d have a much more fulfilled life—their marriages would last longer, their lives would be richer, and they’d be generally happy people.  Some of the members of our group travel in trucks and vans that are twenty years old filled with stage props.  Often they sleep in a cramped back seat traveling from gig to gig in a hope that their sheer charisma might improve the lives of just one person with the kind of hopes and dreams born from the mind of America.  Most of the time they get paid decently, but are drained from the experience only to dust off the feeling and do it again weekend after weekend year after year.

I have never seen a young girl who didn’t melt away into butter when a confident whip handler removed a target from her lips.  If the kid wanted to impress his date—and I wanted to tell him this—the best thing he could do for himself is to learn the skills our group brought to the Annie Oakley Festival.  As our group arrived and filled the back of the room, the kid stood in the doorway wondering who all those people were sitting with that same guy in the Australian style outback hat.  His perplexed look was one of realizing that there was a group of people in the world functioning around him who were different from the patterns he had learned—that certain music was popular, certain modes of dress acceptable, and that there were people out there who considered non-conformity to be far superior to social conformity.  It is that trait that the Annual Annie Oakley Festival in Darke County, Ohio appeals to best, and the primary reason that so many make the yearly pilgrimage.

I certainly have a lot of experience with such things measuring public temperament.  Unlike the other attendees I have chosen a more controversial roll using my desire to preserve the Western Arts in a way that I think the real Lash LaRue would have done in his day—I have made it part of my political discourse.    I have fought higher taxes and known political corruption using the skills nurtured along over the years with the bullwhip to have the same effect the young guy in the bar experienced.  When it comes to traditional American art, I feel that the best ground to defend it is outside of the shows where viewers can watch comfortably from behind a roped off area.  I take great pleasure in bringing the show to the safety of the herd because it is there that they need to see it most.

At the end of the night there were jokes about how out-of-fashion we were as a group and pride was taken in being so out of style.  I remarked that all we needed to do was wait another 50 years and there will be hordes of people desiring deeply the traditional American arts displayed yearly at the Annie Oakley Festival—it will at that time become fashionable again.  But right now, especially with the failure of the Lone Ranger at the box office last year, nobody in movies or television is going to produce a film like Zorro or Lash LaRue in the jaded culture we have now.  But for those who still desire such things, the way we do who perform them, the yearly event of Annie Oakley is a real treat.  It recharges my batteries with meaning after a year of typical cynicism in a way nothing else does.  I typically wear my hat year round everywhere from Michigan to Florida and in every possible venue from wealthy to poor—so it is routine to get the kind of reaction I received from the kid in the bar.  But what is unique is that a horde of people dressed similarly who share my values don’t often come walking in behind me.  And while I might want to take Lash LaRue off the silver screen and plop him down into America in 2014 with my real life antics, it is the one and only time a year that I get more from everyone else than I typically give leaving me feeling uncharacteristically fulfilled.  In that regard, I hope that Gery gets the circus tent next year that he’s talking about—because that would be absolutely grand and a good next step to the new venue at York Woods marking of the start of a second decade in a long march toward eternity.

Rich Hoffman


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