August 13, 1860 – Annie Oakley:
“I ain’t afraid to love a man. I ain’t afraid to shoot him neither.“
Annie Get Your Gun is a top-tier musical. After 73 years, it still remains a favorite of high schools, communities and summer theatres. It is a classic, with a score by Irving Berlin and a book by Dorothy Fields and her brother Herbert Fields. It tells the tale of Annie Oakley a sharpshooter who starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and her romance with another sharpshooter Frank Butler (1847–1926).
The original Broadway production in 1946 was a hit, and it had long runs in New York City, London and Mexico City, with so many revivals that I lost track trying to count. There is a 1950 film version and a 1957 television version.
I especially liked the 1999 Broadway revival with Bernadette Peters and yummy Tom Wopat which ran nearly as long as the original. Peters won a Tony Award and the production won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.
I especially appreciated that this production had a revised book by Peter Stone and new orchestrations. It was structured as a “show-within-a-show”, set in a Big Top (and who doesn’t like a big top), and the creative team wisely dropped several songs that come across in our own age as racist and misogynistic including I’m A Bad, Bad Man, which is kind of rapey, and I’m An Indian Too.
This production had an amazing run of actors playing Annie as a replacement for Peters (although there is no replacement for Bernadette Peters), really: Emmy Award favorite Susan Lucci made her Broadway debut as Annie, then there was Cheryl Ladd and superstar Reba McEntire, both making their Broadway debuts.
Songs from the show that became standards are: There’s No Business Like Show Business, Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly, You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun, They Say It’s Wonderful, and Anything You Can Do.
Dorothy Fields had the idea for a musical about Annie Oakley, to star her friend, Ethel Merman. Fields approached Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II who had just had a huge hit with Oklahoma! in 1943. They didn’t want to write the score, but they agreed to produce the musical and asked Jerome Kern to compose the music and Fields would write the lyrics. Kern, who had been composing for movie musicals in Hollywood, returned to NYC to begin work on the score to Annie Get Your Gun, but three days later he collapsed on the street from a cerebral hemorrhage and died.
They then then asked Berlin to write the musical’s score, and Fields agreed to step down as lyricist, knowing that Berlin preferred to write both music and lyrics to his songs.
The role of Annie Oakley was originally offered to Mary Martin, who turned it down. Her husband, Richard Halliday, attended opening night, and when he got home, he told her: “You’re going to kill yourself!” Merman was unwilling to do the national tour, and Martin took the opportunity to the road for two years and belting out those terrific songs.
Other famous Annie Oakleys include: Dolores Gray, Debbie Reynolds, Suzi Quatro, Marilu Henner, Andrea McArdle (who played another Annie in the original 1977 Broadway musical Annie), Jane Horrocks, and Patti LuPone.
Annie Get Your Gun does not stray too far from the real story. Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Mosey and she really was the world’s most famous sharpshooter. When she was 15 years old, she won a shooting match against traveling-show marksman Frank E. Butler (1847–1926), and they really did fall in love and get she married, and they stayed married for 50 years. The couple joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and she became an international star, performing before royalty and heads of state.
She was the sixth of nine children. Her father fought in the War of 1812, and he became an invalid after contracting hypothermia during a blizzard in late 1865 and died of pneumonia in early 1866.
Because of poverty following the death of her father, Oakley did not go to school as a child, and instead she was “bound out” to a family to help care for their infant son, on the false promise of 50 cents a week and an education. She spent two years in near slavery to them, enduring mental and physical abuse.
Oakley began shooting and hunting at eight years old to support her siblings and her widowed mother. She also sold the game to restaurants and hotels and her skill paid off the mortgage on her mother’s farm when Oakley was 11. She soon became well known for her shooting prowess.
The traveling Baughman & Butler act featured marksman and dog trainer Frank Butler, an Irish immigrant. Butler placed a $100 bet per side (equivalent to $3000 in 2019) with a hotel owner, that he could beat any local fancy shooter. The hotel guy arranged a shooting match between Butler and the 15-year-old Oakley, saying; “The last opponent Butler expected was a five-foot-tall 15-year-old girl named Annie.” This somehow translated to lust or love or something, because Butler and Oakley married soon after.
They joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1885. Oakley was given the nickname of “Watanya Cicilla” by fellow performer Sitting Bull, and she was billed as “Little Sure Shot” in the advertisements.
The first three-year tour cemented Oakley as America’s first really big female star. She earned more than any other performer in the show, except for “Buffalo Bill” Cody himself. She also performed in many shows on the side for extra income.
In Europe, she performed for Queen Victoria, King Umberto I of Italy, and other heads of state. Oakley shot the ashes off a cigarette held by the newly crowned German Kaiser Wilhelm II at his request.
Oakley promoted the service of women in combat operations for the United States armed forces. She wrote a letter to President William McKinley in 1898, saying:
“I am offering the government the services of a company of 50 ‘lady sharpshooters’ who would provide their own arms and ammunition should the U.S. go to war with Spain.”
Oakley’s offer was not accepted. Theodore Roosevelt, however, named his volunteer cavalry the “Rough Riders” after the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World” where Oakley was the major star. In 1901, McKinley was fatally shot by an assassin.
Also in 1901, Oakley was badly hurt in a train accident, and had to recover after temporary paralysis and five operations. She left the Buffalo Bill Show and in 1902 began an acting career, starring in a play written especially for her, The Western Girl, playing a woman who used a pistol and rope to outsmart a group of outlaws.
She continued to set shooting and box-office records into her 60s, and also fought for Women’s Rights. She hit 100 clay targets in a row from 16 yards at 62 years old in a 1922 shooting contest.
In late 1922, Oakley and Butler were in a car accident that forced her to wear a steel brace. She performed again a year later, and she set records in shooting records in 1924.
Oakley was taken by anemia at 66 years old in 1926. Butler so grieved over her death that he stopped eating and died 18 days later. Oakley’s ashes had been placed by Butler in one of her prized trophies and it was laid next to Butler’s body in his coffin.
After her death it was discovered that her entire fortune had been spent on her extended family.
A collection of Oakley’s personal possessions and memorabilia can be found at Garst Museum and the National Annie Oakley Center in Greenville, Ohio. She was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Barbara Stanwyck plays Oakley in Annie Oakley (1935), and she is played by Betty Hutton in the 1950 film version of that musical about her. Gail Davis played Oakley in the television series Annie Oakley (1954 -1956). Geraldine Chaplin plays Oakley in Robert Altman‘s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976). Jamie Lee Curtis portrays Oakley in Shelley Duvall‘s Tall Tales & Legends (1985) television series.
The lovely but tough, Alyssa Edwards played Oakley during the HERstory Of The World (2016) episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.
Oakley believed that women should learn to use a gun for the empowering image that it gave. She urged women to be independent and educated. She was a key influence in the creation of the image of the American cowgirl, and with this image, she proved that women are as capable as men when offered the opportunity to prove themselves.