Starting at the turn of the 20th century, when the Wild West was losing its wildness, Buffalo Bill Cody entertained international audiences for nearly three decades.
Don Endsley, who grew up loving Western movies and TV shows, has only been at it since 1996, but his passion for Cody’s style of entertainment promises to endure.
“We’re kinda keeping this kind of entertainment alive. We’re the only thing that’s like this out there,” Endsley said. “There’s nothing like it, just little bitty Mickey Mouse things, but we’re the biggest.”
Endsley’s hour-and-a-half Great American Wild West Show takes inspiration from Buffalo Bill’s show, including a carriage robbery vignette, cattle roping and herding, and Native American performances.
“We kinda patterned some of the things he did in his time,” Endsley said. “So it’s sort of a throwback and modern-day version of what he did—some of the modern things, if he lived today, that he’d be doing in his show.”
Unlike Buffalo Bill, Endsley’s show only performs in the United States due to the difficult process of transporting animals and equipment across borders. However, they do perform year-round and coast-to-coast in the U.S., ranging from stock shows to state fairs.
“Sometimes the different places we’d like to go don’t believe that people would like the Western stuff. But they do,” Endsley said. “But they’ve been brainwashed to think they want some rap show or something. You saw the kids, how much they love getting autographs or something, and they like it.”
The constant travel and performing multiple shows a day at various locations causes a substantial amount of wear and tear on the various parts of the show.
“I’ve put 40,000 miles on my truck in three months,” said trick rider Haley Ganzel, still dressed in her vintage costume. “We do make money, but we also spend a lot on the lifestyle that we live.”
Wear and tear isn’t just restricted to vehicles and other mechanical bits, but also the performers, both human and equestrian.
“Our horses are such athletes. They have to be babied just as much as we do. They need to be stretched. They need to be iced,” Ganzel said. “Horses really aren’t made to do what we do. We really have to baby them. They get chiropracted on, and they get massages. I mean, really. They get the special treatment, but our lives are in their hands too.”
Ganzel, who has performed in two movies, began trick riding 16 years ago and started performing with the Great American Wild West Show at age 5.
“I’ve gotten to grow up with some of the best there ever was,” Ganzel said. “They’ve always brought the best acts, the best performers. The older [performers] that are all retired now, or not with us anymore, I got to actually perform in the same arena as them. It was just the coolest experience.”
Currently enrolled in college courses, Ganzel is working toward an education degree, but she said is getting to do what she loves for a living right now.
“We love the competition side of it, but for me, I love the adrenaline of what we do. I love the entertainment factor,” Ganzel said. “I love makin’ people smile. I love it. It’s just a whole different rush.”
Both Endsley and Ganzel said the performers become a close group during the tours. Some stay in hotel rooms while others stay in trailers at the venue. But even though they may not be together all the time, it’s still easy to pick up just as they left off.
“We are a family. Even though we don’t see each other like, ever, I broke down this morning in Tennessee,” Ganzel said. “I had four people trying to get to me to help me, and it was all performers we’ve all worked with in previous years.”
“I cry every time I leave because I just love everybody.”
Joe Grove is a writer for Ball State University Journalism at the Fair, a group of 30 students telling Indiana’s stories from a trailer somewhere between the cheese sculpture and the state’s biggest sow. This BSU immersive-learning project works for elephant ears.