Once upon a time, I received tickets to a community theater to see Annie Get Your Gun for my birthday. Purposely, I didn’t research the history about Annie Oakley because I wanted to thoroughly enjoy it and not sit there thinking “that’s not the way it really happened.” (The curse of being a researcher…)
But there is some historical truth that inspired the stage productions, so here are some details.
Warning… Spoilers ahead!
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show is setting up for another show when Annie Oakley and her younger sibling arrive in town to sell their hunting prizes. Annie meets Frank Butler – a handsome sharpshooter who stars in the show – and accidentally enters a shooting match against him. Though she’s trying to get Frank’s attention because she likes him, her pride and skill takes over and she beats him in the shooting match, leading Buffalo Bill to ask her to join the “show business.” As the touring weeks, Oakley and Butler argue, shoot against each other, and eventually fall in love. However, the day Frank Butler was preparing to propose to Annie, she performs a special stunt trick and Buffalo Bill makes her the star of the show; Frank storms away to join a competitive western show.
After a trip to Europe where Annie is feted, Buffalo Bill’s show is broke and he plans a business merger with the other western show where Frank performs. The divided lovers meet at a hotel reception, admit their in love, but quarrel again. They agree to a shooting match to determine once and for who is the best. However, Annie’s friend Chief Sitting Bull convinces her that she must lose the match to win love. In the end, Annie and Frank reconcile and the show ends happily.
After approaching Rodgers and Hammerstein with the idea and meeting rejection and finding a willing composer (who unfortunately landed in the hospital, unable to write), Dorothy Fields took her dream for a musical about Annie Oakley to Irvin Berlin. This famous song writer wrote the lyrics and score in just a few days. First produced on Broadway in 1946, the play ran 1,147 performances in its original opening.
Though the play was popular, as the decades past serious concerns were raised about the stage portrayals of Native Americans, bringing cultural and historical questions to the forefront. The musical has been revised several times and the newer adaptions tend to be more culturally sensitive.
Musical hits include:
- There’s No Business Like Snow Business
- You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun
- I’ve Got The Sun In The Morning
- Anything You Can Do
So…who was the real Annie Oakley? Phoebe Ann Mosey (b. 1860 – d. 1926) grew up in rural Ohio and was one of nine children. After her father’s death, the family faced poverty and Phoebe Ann was often on her own. She served in a type of apprenticeship or servitude and possibly suffered abuse. Starting about age seven, she started trapping and shooting to provide food for the family and extra money, eventually paying off the farm mortgage by the time she turned fifteen and gaining local fame for her small business and shooting skills.
In 1875 or 1881, a traveling sharpshooter showman named Frank Butler arrived and the local hotel manager arranged a shooting match, and much to Butler’s surprise, Phoebe Ann shot better than he did. A year after that shooting match Frank and Phoebe Ann got married and moved to Cincinnati.
When the couple started performing together in stunt shooting, Mrs. Butler took the stage name “Annie Oakley” and in 1885, they joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and became rivals with Lillian Smith, another female sharpshooter. The Butlers took a leave from Buffalo Bill’s show to tour Europe and perform at the Paris Exposition in 1889. While in Europe, “Annie Oakley” gained international fame as an American show star, supposedly portraying life and talents from The West and winning the admiration of rulers and royals in the Old World. In 1894, Frank and “Annie” performed and were filmed by Thomas Edison in his new moving picture invention.
Some of Annie’s shooting tricks included shooting targets over her shoulder by looking at a mirror, splitting playing cards, hitting dimes tossed in the air, and shooting a cigar from her husband’s mouth.
Though known for her role in show business, Mrs. Butler took other revolutionary steps for her era, suggesting to the president of the United States that women could fight as “lady sharpshooters” in the Spanish American War. During her life, she supposedly taught 15,000 women how to safely handle and shoot guns, believing it was a good form of exercise and important for women to defend themselves in the rough situations of that time.
The Butlers built a home in Maryland, but continued to travel and give shooting performances until Mrs. Butler’s death in 1926; Frank died less than three weeks after his wife and they were buried together.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West
In 1872, William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody started producing shows about the “Wild West.” An experienced frontiersman himself with the desire to share stories and scenes, he created an exhibition (he didn’t call it a show) to share culture, legends, and talent with guests. He toured all over the United States and visited Europe nine times.
Though his entertaining creation has not always been favorably viewed by historians or portrayed well in pop-culture, Cody tried to help his audiences understand and appreciate the American West and – for better or worse – popularized many of the legends known and believed about that region’s “early days.”
Inspired By History
With a historical figure as the inspiration for the starring role, there’s no doubt Annie Get Your Gun has roots in the past. Surprisingly, quite a few of the show’s details are factual, but the stage play and history studies about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West have raised questions about cultural appropriation and historical interpretation or celebration in pop-culture.
As entertainment, Annie Get Your Gun is one of the finest, but it’s worth digging into the historical background of the show to learn more about the realities of “show business” in the late 19th Century and how frontiersmen, chiefs, and sharpshooters created a version of western stories that may not always be perfectly accurate.