You could be forgiven for the confusion in 1932 when it was said that Bill Cody was coming to Chambersburg with his Wild West show. But Buffalo Bill Cody had died in 1917 so how could he be visiting Chambersburg 15 years after he died?
This Bill Cody was a B-movie actor with Universal Studios. His latest picture had been released a week earlier called “Mason of the Mounted” so his name was familiar among residents.
It had also helped him find work in Hollywood, though Cody had no relationship with Buffalo Bill other than their names. He had been born in St. Paul, Minn., in 1891, at a time when Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show were already legendary.
Bill Cody had his own Wild West show and he brought it with him in his $50,000 train (an impressive extravagance during the Great Depression) along with the cursed Walter L. Main Circus.
The Cody Ranch Show featured Cody’s movie horse named Chico, cowboys, cowgirls, Indians and, as The Public Opinion noted, “honest-to-good Hollywood actors.” For Cody’s part of the show, his group would re-enact several scenes from his movies and he would talk about how motion pictures were made. Performers in Cody’s Wild West show included Jack Hughes, a champion trick rider; Jack Case, the world champion bulldogger; Marlene Parsons, a champion trick rider; Harriet Ewing, billed as Annie Oakley’s successor, Capt. Joe Clark of the Canadian Mounted Police and a champion pistol shot and Ike Simpson, a champion chuck wagon racer.
The Public Opinion described Cody as “film-land’s most versatile performer, whose talents embrace acting, but whose heart and soul are set upon the legends of the historic West of which he is a direct descendant.”
The Walter L. Main Circus was a three-ring circus of the time. Among its stars were Bessie and Edith Castello “who astonish by making somersaults from the backs of one horse to another,” according to The Public Opinion. There were also acrobats, clowns and a menagerie. The animals included Goliath “the largest elephant on exhibition” and Essau, a dromedary camel “said to be as tall as a giraffe.”
While the Walter L. Main Circus had been around since 1887, it had had to endure a couple of major tragedies that would have bankrupted lesser shows. In 1891, the circus train crashed in Latrobe, killing 52 people and 90 horses. Then in 1906, a disgruntled employee set fire to the show that destroyed Main’s property and killed many of the animals, leaving only the train cars, elephants and draft horses. However, the show must go on and Main continued to rebuild and grow his show.
When the circus train arrived at the railroad station in Chambersburg, it was quite an event for residents to see all of the animals and the 700 people unload and trek to Wolf Park where the big top was erected. The circus played two performances in Chambersburg for delighted audiences. Tickets for adults were 50 cents and 25 cents for children.
One of the reasons Cody stopped in Chambersburg was because he was good friends with William V. Mong, a native of Chambersburg. Mong was a character actor in Hollywood and good friends with Cody. Mong also appeared in “Mason of the Mounted” with Cody.
Originally published in The Public Opinion on October 11, 2010.