‘Re-enactment entertainers’ to re-create Old West at Cowtown’s ‘Age of the Gunfighter’

Jack Smith thinks he should have been born 100 years earlier, during the days of the Old West.

How he would have spent his earlier life remains uncertain.

“I’d have probably been a lawman back then, but if the money was right, I’d have probably tried the bank robber route,” he said.

Smith will portray Marshal Cactus Jack on Saturday at Old Cowtown Museum as part of “Age of the Gunfighter.” The event will feature gunfights and re-enactments every hour from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the living history museum on the Arkansas River.

Other activities include carriage rides, old-time magic shows, children’s games, family photos, music and dancing.

Smith’s San Angelo, Texas-based group of “re-enactment entertainers” is one of five who will perform for event-goers, with others coming from Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas.

Formed in 2006, Smith and his group present what he called a fictional but fact-based picture of life back then. Smith is semi-retired and works part time as a security guard. The group coming to Wichita includes his wife, Karen, a retired teacher whose character is bordello owner Madame Sunshine; Richard Porter, a maintenance manager who acts as outlaw Will Killem; and Karen Miller, who works for the San Angelo Chamber of Commerce and who portrays saloon girl Miss Lilly Pearl.

“We do things that could have happened in the 1880s, probably did happen in the 1880s, and if they didn’t happen, they should have,” Smith said.

On Saturday, they’ll present a scenario – the gunfight – that did happen, though just how (and how frequently) remains a topic of debate among historians.

“You can’t go by Hollywood,” Smith said. “People didn’t go out in the street and say, ‘Count to three and draw.’ Most people that were killed in gunfights were either bystanders or whoever did the killing had their gun out way before. They didn’t say let’s draw. They just drew their gun and started shooting.”

That said, the gunfights portrayed by Smith’s group – they will present two different skits – owe more than a little to the classic Hollywood gunfight.

“It’s kind of in between the Old West and Hollywood,” he said. “We find that a lot of people, they like to watch a gunfight, but they like a little action in between.”

Although they interject some humor into the skits, the end result is “deadly serious,” he said. “Somebody gets shot.”

But Smith said the skits shouldn’t scare children. At the end of each performance, his group “deputizes” kids in the crowd. “We try to have fun with it.”

Smith’s group performs frequently in and around San Angelo and has traveled as far as Tombstone, Ariz., to take part in re-enactment competitions in which they’re judged on their costumes, script and other factors. In San Angelo, Karen Smith also conducts tours of a famous former bordello named Miss Hattie’s.

“All of us are sort of Western history buffs,” he said. “We like to tell people about their ancestry.”