Nashville Public Televisions Explores ‘Visions of the American West’
New documentary, coinciding with Cheekwood Exhibit, frames Western expansion around art and the life of Buffalo Bill Cody; Premieres Thursday, October 20 at 8:00 p.m.
NASHVILLE, Tennessee — October 6, 2011 — “The west of the old times, with its strong characters, its stern battles and its tremendous stretches of loneliness can never be blotted from my mind,” the man known the world over as Buffalo Bill Cody once said towards the end of his career. “Nor can it, I hope, be blotted from the memory of the American people, to whom it has now become a priceless possession.”
He was correct in his assertion. America has never gotten over its fascination with the West, or the “Wild West,” and the reason may be Cody himself. Consider it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nashville Public Television (NPT) will explore Cody’s legacy as part of a survey of iconic images and artifacts of the American West, in“Visions of the American West,” premiering Thursday, October 20 at 8:00 p.m. The half-hour documentary, written, directed and produced by Ed Jones (“Beautiful Tennessee: Parks & Preservation,” “Tennessee Civil War 150: Secession”) coincides with the opening of a new exhibit at the Cheekwood Museum and Botanical Gardens, “Visions of the American West: Masterworks from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.”
Incorporating interviews with the curators of the many museums that make up the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (BBCH) in Cody, Wyoming, and the perspectives of curators and historians in Tennessee, Jones uses a portrait of a man who embodied the spirit of the West in all its complexities, and who early on had unexpected ties to Tennessee, to tell the story of western expansion.
“There is this paradox,” says John C. Rumm, Ph.D. Curator, BBHC. “His evolution from a young boy who respected Indians; to an Indian fighter who won distinction for killing Indians; to an outspoken critic of American policy. So it’s a really fascinating evolution. So much of Cody’s life is like that.”
Warmly narrated by Ed Bruce, with an original music score by Joe DelMerico and Joey Hodge, the documentary leads viewers through the evolution of Cody, born William Frederick Cody. From the young sole provider for his family, who at the age of eleven loses his abolitionist father to the knife of a member of pro-slavery mob, to the world famous Buffalo Bill Cody, who brought his Wild West Show around the nation to adoring and fascinated fans. In between, he is many things.
As the Civil War raged back east, Cody was hired by the Union Army to travel to Tennessee to spy on Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. As the conflict drew to a close, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific by rail became a new national priority. For Cody, hungry rail men and plains plentiful with bison presented a lucrative new opportunity, and a new name. But it also led to conflict with the Native Americans. What the industrial Americans viewed as a meal, a hide or simply sport, the natives considered a way of life. The proud tribes of the plains knew all too well that if the bison disappeared, they would soon follow. Cody, ever the paradoxical figure, knew it too.
“They were the inheritors of the land we lived on,” he wrote, “and the white man took it away from them – it was natural that they should resist.”
“People tend to think of (The Plains) as wilderness, but to Native American people it was never really wilderness. It was home,” says Emma Hansen, Curator, Plains Indians Museum, BBHC, in the documentary.
The story follows Cody’s assignment as an army scout charged to investigate and quell Indian uprisings. So successful was he that an article was written about him. “Buffalo Bill: King of the Bordermen” was published in New York Weekly. Virtually overnight, America had a new frontier hero. In 1872, after being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, Cody appeared in an autobiographical stage production in Chicago. The play, while horrendous by most accounts, was a smash hit and led the famed Wild West show. Neither the stage nor the west would ever be the same.
“The theatre was too small to give any real impression of what western life was like,” said Cody, voiced by Henry O. Arnold in the documentary. “Only in the arena where horses could be ridden at full gallop, where lassos could be thrown, where pistols and guns could be fired without frightening the audience half to death, could such a thing be attempted.”
Everywhere Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show travelled, it was a hit.
“The Buffalo Bill Wild West show was like the big rock concert of its time,” says Carrol Van West, Ph. D, director of MTSU center for historic preservation. “It was exotic. It brought in Native Americans, it brought in those ‘cowboys,’ a term that people really didn’t like back then — it was slur — but they used it anyway, because these guys were different.
“These shows were always extremely popular, selling out whenever it came through Nashville. Nashville was the center of the southern railway network, so you always had a lot of people coming through, a lot of ideas, a lot bustle, a lot of energy in the city. Like every good rock promoter, Buffalo Bill knew a good thing, so he came to Nashville constantly during this time.”
Today, the historical center that bears Cody’s name tells his story, a story intrinsically tied to that of American West and the Native Americans whose lives were destroyed. The unique exhibit, mounted at Cheekwood, includes more than 100 masterworks of art, apparel, arms and antiques, including paintings by Frederic Remington, sculptures by Alexander Phimister Proctor and Cody’s revolver.
“It’s a sampling from all the museums of the BBHC, all of which are very iconic and really bring to life what that enduring spirit of the American west of all about,” says Jane Offenbach, president and CEO, Cheekwood.
“The west that Sitting Bull and Bill Cody had known was gone forever,” says Bruce in the narration. “But its spirit will live on forever as an essential part of our American identity.“
“Visions of the American West” is made possible in part by the generous support of Carlene Lebous and C. Harris Haston, and the members of Nashville Public Television.
About Nashville Public Television
Nashville Public Television is available free and over the air to nearly 2.2 million people throughout the Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky viewing area, and is watched by more than 600,000 households every week. The mission of NPT is to provide, through the power of traditional television and interactive telecommunications, high quality educational, cultural and civic experiences that address issues and concerns of the people of the Nashville region, and which thereby help improve the lives of those we serve.