"Wanna See My Fast Draw?" Camp Vaudeville Cowboys on Disneyland’s Frontier
"Are you trying to tell me John Wayne's a fag?"
- John Voight, Midnight Cowboy
When Frontierland first opened it's gates in 1955, the traditional Western was at it's peak, and the archetypal rugged cowboy, incarnate in Disney's own Davy Crockett, had never been more popular. As the conservatism of the 1950s gave away to the radical impulses of the following decade, however, artists beyond the gates of Walt's wonderland began to question and re-inventing the Western, and queer subcultures, in particular, camped and appropriated the figure of the rugged, heterosexual American cowboy in order to express their subversive sexual politics.
This destabilization of Western iconography spurs us to reconsider the ideological function of Frontierland's aesthetic. As the years wore on, was Frontierland's sentimental vision of Westward expansion losing its conservative force? Were its cowboys accumulating unintended associations that were proliferating beyond the gates?
One particularly interesting site for these competing versions of the cowboy is the final act of Disneyland's "Golden Horseshoe Revue." Hosted just across from Frontierland's Mule Pack attraction in the Golden Horseshoe Saloon, the Western-themed vaudeville variety show began in 1955 but continued through the upheaval of the sixties and seventies and was ultimately performed over 50,000 times before it's last show in 1986 ("Golden Horseshoe"). Recorded for Disney's television series "Wonderful World of Color" on the occasion of its 10,000th performance in 1962, the final cowboy act, written and often performed by Wally Boag, was the most famous and most enduring aspect of the show (Schneider). Here, Boag plays a failed comedic version of the legendary frontiersman Pecos Bill, first depicted by Disney in the 1948 Melody Time cartoon film.
Throughout and following the queer camping of the cowboy in the 1960s, Wally Boag's performance superficially works to shore up the traditional heterosexual masculinity of the classical Western and nostalgically sanitizes the vaudeville mode. By its very nature, however, vaudeville tends to resist the ideological resolution demanded by the classical Western. As a result, Boag’s act inadvertently highlights the performativity of gender and the artificial nature of the Western aesthetic. This act thus models a mode of engaging with the Western that rhymes in significant ways with the Camp sensibility, working to dilute the genre’s ideological force and opening up alternate ways for audience members to engage with the rest of Frontierland.
A brief elaboration of the historical context and trajectory of the Western mode will prepare us to delve into an analysis of Boag's performance.
The Gay Ol' West
The Western is not only one of the most popular genres of American entertainment, but also one of the most regressive. As film scholar Thomas Schatz notes, the golden age of the traditional Western spans the first six decades of the 20th century and coincided with the advent "America's urban-industrial age, a period when traditional values and established notions of family and community, of the social and political order, and of individual freedom and initiative were radically transformed" (26). Responding to these upheavals, the classic Western works to affirm conservative values as the foundation of American identity, promoting not only white supremacy and Manifest Destiny, but also traditional gender roles and heteronormative masculinity (Shohat and Stam 12). As Christopher Le Coney and Zoe Trodd assert, traditional Westerns portray an "exclusively heterosexual frontier," and the traditional image of the American cowboy often represents something "anti-gay" and "hyper-masculine (151-2). This focus on heteroseuxality became particularly pronounced during the decade that gave birth to Frontierland. As Jeffrey Dennis describes, the Cold War's "challenges to the primacy of Western capitalism . . . produced a 'crisis of masculinity' that defined capitalist and socialist political economic systems in terms of sexual identity, as masculine/heterosexual and feminine/homosexual respectively." John Wayne would become the poster boy for the hyper-masculine heterosexual 1950s cowboy (Le Coney and Trodd).
The aggressively heterosexual overtones of the 1950s Westerns, however, did nothing to protect the genre from the decade that followed. Filmmakers throughout the 1960s and 1970s were creating "acid Westerns" and turning the genre inside out (Schatz 32). In particular, queer men influenced by the burgeoning camp sensibility were challenging the exclusively heterosexual American frontier, appropriating cowboy iconography and dressing in Western garb as an expression of their sexual identity and subversive sexual politics (Le Coney and Trodd 155). This cultural queering of the cowboy figure was increasingly reflected and documented on the silver screen. Andy Warhol's campy Lonesome Cowboys, released in 1968, takes five of his queer male superstars out of their familiar New York City haunts and onto a ranch in Arizona where they appear in cowboy costumes and embark on various titillating sexual adventures. Released the following year, John Schleisinger's Midnight Cowboy further reveals the changing associations of the American cowboy. When the wholesome protagonist (John Voight) arrives in New York City decked out in Western attire, a new friend (Dustin Hoffman) informs him that his "cowboy crap" is "faggot stuff . . . strictly for fags. Unlike Lonesome Cowboys, Schleisinger's film had a wide release and won three academy awards, officially making the queer cowboy mainstream. Together, these films demonstrated the elasticity of the Western aesthetic, emptying the genre of its previously unified ideological implications.
Frontierland naturally falls into the conservative tradition of classic Western, evincing a nostalgic vision of the settlement of the American West. Attractions like Conestoga Wagons, Mule Pack, Mine Train, Burning Settler's Cabin, and the hostile and friendly “Indians” were advertised as giving visitors authentic experience of the frontier. Frontierland was riding the wave of Disney’s own wildly popular Western, the Davy Crockett miniseries and feature film, invoked explicitly by the Mike Fink Boat Rides and the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes. Most of these Frontierland attractions were operated by Disneyland staff, or “cast members,” as the corporation calls them, in costume and character as cowboys.
The Golden Horseshoe Revue in many ways falls into this sentimental tradition, evincing nostalgia for both the mythologized West and the obsolete forms of entertainment that created it. As a Western-themed variety show, the Revue invokes the Wild West vaudeville shows that traveled around the United States and Europe between the 1880s and the 1910s. These rodeo-esque variety performances were deeply invested in the romantic image of the Frontier and were advertised as affording spectators the opportunity to witness and appreciate reproductions of the Frontier experience (Reddin xiv).
Boag’s performance, like the Wild West shows, seeks to affirm traditional images of masculinity, but it does so by negative example. The act derives much of its humor from Boag's portrayal of a failing, effeminate, and implicitly queer cowboy. Slue-Foot Sue introduces him as her boyfriend, Pecos Bill, "the roughest, toughest, cowboy in the Wild West," but Boag enters wearing his holster around his chest like a bra, does an affected, gyrating dance, and turns and wiggles his rear for the audience. His antics quickly chase his "girlfriend" off stage, and he often speaks in a squeaky, high-pitched voice. When Boag's holster slides down below his waist, he attempts to raise it, but tightens it painfully over his groin, emphasizing his emasculation. Other laughs come later when Boag gets his finger stuck in his holster, Sue accidentally socks him in the jaw, and the "straight man" cowboys that emerge from behind the curtain take turns punching him. The performance is reminiscent of the 1930s films by Butler Keaton and Charlie Chaplin like Go West and The Gold Rush, in which the comedians struggle to make it on the frontier, but in the 1950s Cold War context of heightened homophobia, Boag's effeminacy and implicitly queer identity is even more exaggerated. This performance ostensibly works as humorous foil to archetypal cowboys, affirming the classic Western's conservative vision of masculinity and expelling the specter of homosexuality with laughter.
Disney's nostalgic vision of vaudeville further attempts to sanitize the mode of entertainment. At it's height, from the 1880s to the 1930s, vaudeville came to straddle "the middle ground between 'legitimate theatre,' . . . and the dangerous 'low' arena of the stag and burlesque" (Wickberg 130). Its performers and audiences tended to be economically and racially diverse, and its content was often racy, provocative, and considered to be morally suspect (Wickberg 131). Disney's Golden Horseshoe Revue, in sharp contrast, eliminates any titillating, taboo content or unsavory audience members. The recording of the 10,000th performance includes reaction shots from an audience of exclusively white, middle class families and heterosexual couples, distorting vaudeville's historical associations to suit the wholesome Disney brand.
Vaudeville's very form, however, resists the tidy conservative resolution of gender identity and ideology that the traditional Western is so invested in. The traditional Western depends on the resolution of narrative conflicts to do its ideological work, and as a historically specific genre, requires a modicum of realism to be credible as such (Schatz 27). Vaudeville, however, has little interest in realism, narrative, or closure. As Henry Jenkins describes, if a narrative existed at all, it did so merely as a vehicle for the performer's tricks, closure was of little importance, and elaborate, realistic sets were avoided (4, 8). At work in this performance, these elements of Vaudeville work to undermine the potency of the Western's conservative ideology.
Wally Boag's vaudeville representation of the queer cowboy inadvertently highlights the performativity of gender and sexual identity, undermining its conservative overtones. Jenkins describes notes that the constant play with impersonation and masquerade that vaudeville allows, including fluctuating indications of sexuality, works to problematize the entire notion of fixed identity. Boag’s performance takes advantage of the fluidity allowed by vaudeville, with his effeminate Pecos Bill character is deeply inconsistent even throughout his short act. Boag's voice only becomes high and squeaky at particular moments for comedic effect, and while at the beginning of the act he enacts his effeminacy by gesticulating and gyrating, in other moments, like Pecos Bill's theme song, he seems self-contained and pulls off some fancy gun-twirling. Boag even shifts character at one point to poke fun at the hyper-masculinity of the classic cowboy. Near the beginning of the act, Boag stands completely still with his legs apart, his hands hovering by his side, and his eyes narrowed to slits in an exaggerated, comic version of a cowboy preparing for a stand off. After he asks the audience if they want to see the fastest draw in the West, a gunshot sound effect goes off, as if his draw is so fast it's invisible, implicitly mocking the impossible claims of cowboy's physical capabilities. Playing not only the failed, effeminate cowboy, but also, if momentarily, both a competent straight man cowboy and the exaggerated hyper-masculine cowboy, Boag highlights the performed nature of all three, gesturing towards the constructed nature of gender and sexual identity. Boag's performance thus works similarly to the gender impersonations of vaudeville's golden age. As Kathleen B. Casey describes, these vaudevillians' use of the flexibility of the mode often revealed the performed nature of gender identity, regardless of the intention of the performer (xxiv).
As well as highlighting the performativity of gender and sexual identity, Boag's performance reveals the artificial nature of the Western aesthetic, diluting the genre's claims to historical authenticity and its ideological potency. As Schatz describes, the Western is both historically and geographically specific, so that even the most "banal and predictable formulation requires a minimum of historical authenticity," and thus, some modicum of realism, to acquire the cultural currency of the Western as a foundational myth (27). Vaudeville, however, is entirely disinterested in realism. As Jenkins describes, sets and props were reduced to a minimum to keep the focus on the performer (7). For the first half of Boag's performance, there is no set at all, and then, halfway through the act, the curtain is drawn to reveal a detailed, realistic set of a saloon for a dance number and an elaborate cowboy brawl. The contrast between the sparse first half and the saloon scene highlights the fact that the more realistic set is invoked only to allow for physical performance, emphasizing the Western mode as merely a ready-to-use vehicle for spectacle. Similarly, by using cowboys and dancing girls purely for spectacle, Boag's act highlights the formulaic, stock nature of the Western's characters. The performers in the saloon have no lines or characterization and are entirely interchangeable in the dance and the bar brawl they create. The flat characterization of the cowboys becomes particularly evident in contrast to Boag's exaggerated, effeminate gestures and gesticulations that take center stage. While on one level, this contrast works to shore up the appropriate, masculine cowboy, on another, it makes plain the entirely artificial, stock nature of the cowboy type. Using the set and stock characters of the Western purely for the sake of highly choreographed physical performance, Boag's act highlights the Western mode as an artificial, formulaic aesthetic rather than a "true-to-life" representation of American history, diluting the genre's claims to authenticity as well as the genre's conservative ideological potency.
Boag's performance undermines the conservative ideological basis for the more sincere visions of the old West throughout the rest of Frontierland. By suggesting the purely aesthetic nature of the Western genre, and the performed nature of masculinity, the Pecos Bill act calls into question the romantic visions of Westward expansion in the attractions throughout Frontierland, and the inherent manliness of the cowboy "cast members" operating them.
The vaudevillian mode of spectatorship that this performance stimulates becomes particularly significant in the 1960s and 1970s, as it rhymes significantly with the Camp sensibility. Richard Henke describes the Vaudeville mode as a fruitful metaphor for Camp. Both, he notes, champion artifice over reality to suggest that all "life is theatre" and eschew realism and linear narrative, making them ideally suited to queer deconstructions of gender (39). As we have seen, Vaudeville focuses on performativity, highlights artifice, and refuses causal narrative. In her seminal essay on the sensibility in 1964, Susan Sontag describes Camp similarly, highlighting “the double sense in which things can be taken . . . the difference . . . between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice" (525). Boag's act not only inadvertently calls attention to the performativity of gender and sexuality, but, through vaudeville, does so in a way similar to the counter-culture movements that were queering the Western and the Cowboy, unwittingly reflecting the broader dilution of America’s foundational mythology and offering alternative modes for audience members to engage with the traditional iterations of the Western throughout the rest of Frontierland.
Camping Off Into the Sunset
Conceived of and initially performed at the height of both the traditional Western and Cold War homophobia, Frontierland’s “Golden Horseshoe Revue” seeks to affirm hetersexual masculinity. Enacting the Western through vaudeville, however, Boag’s Pecos Bill act unconsciously highlights the performativity of sexual identity, as well as the highly constructed nature of the Western aesthetic. As the performance ran through the radical 1960s and into the 1970s, this vaudeville iteration of the Western would have found particular resonance. Corresponding significantly significantly with the Camp sensibility that defined queer subcultures’ appropriation of the genre, Boag’s performance unwittingly offers audience members an alternative way to engage with the romantic visions of American heterosexual masculinity that ran through the rest of Frontierland.
|Previous page on path||Frontierland, page 2 of 2||Path end, return home|