The small town of Cody, Wyoming, situated on the banks of the Shoshone River at the Eastern extreme of Yellowstone National Park has long been a symbol of the old American West. Every Independence Day holiday since 1919, Cody has hosted one of America’s largest rodeos, the “Cody Stampede Rodeo.” The stampede has long been a Mecca for many of the world's top cowboys and rodeo fans. In 1991 Disney took a look too - after all the town is named for Buffalo Bill Cody.
One of the highlights of Euro Disney for many people was the headline dinner show in Festival Disney – “Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show,” featuring Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley and the Rough Riders.
“Over 100 years old, this once most popular attraction in the West, now comes East to Disney Village. Tuck into a hearty cowboy feast, as you cheer on the kings of the Colt, in a fast, furious tribute to the old West, complete with stunt riders, wagons and buffaloes.” (1)
“Cowboys needed for Wild West Show in Paris, France.”
Euro Disney brought together the best in the business to put the show together - professional cowboys, stuntmen, world famous horse trainers and Native Americans. Add to the roll call quarter horses, long horn steer and buffalo and you can see the size of the challenge. In this article I want to give you a little of the show’s history and a glimpse behind the scenes.
In the summer of 1991 a full page advert ran in ProRodeo Sports News. “Cowboys needed for Wild West Show in Paris, France.” Hundreds of cowboys and Native Americans showed up for the open auditions. Some of those auditioning dressed in full cowboy gear, complete with chaps and holsters or traditional tribal dress to impress the casting directors.
The hopefuls were put through practical tests to look at their roping and horse skills. By the end of the auditioning possess Disney had taken photos of the remaining candidates and went away to make their decisions. Many of the cowboys were veterans of film and show work, but as the final show still hadn’t been set in stone, all most of them knew was that they would be working in a rodeo stunt show. One thing they did find out was that Disney asked them to not shave or cut their hair. They needed the performers to develop that cowboy look.
Early in 1992 the lucky few cowboys and Native Americans selected were flown to Orlando, Florida to start their new lives as Disney Cast Members. At Walt Disney World, in addition to the usual traditions training, the new employees were given details of their new lives in a foreign country. Then, it was all aboard a jet to start a new life in France.
"Then, it was all aboard a jet to start a new life in France."
As was the case for many of the other Cast Members on-property, accommodation wasn’t ready for the opening. Many of the original Cast of the new Wild West Show was set up in housing in the town of Meaux.
If you Google 'Meaux', you’ll find references to “The old town of Meaux has been the see of a bishop since 375AD”, and the town’s “Gothic cathedral (12th-16th C.),” and its gastronomic heritage “Meaux is known for Brie de Meaux, a variety of Brie cheese and the local variety of mustard.” The culture shock for both sides was immediate; wide brimmed Stetson hats were not the norm on the streets of the medieval town.
There is, of course, the old idea that the French hate all things American. It is an idea that predates the post 9/11 cheese eating surrender monkey thing, and it is true that a part of the French ethos says “The French invented good food, great wine and French men are the world’s best lovers – so why should we care about you?” And especially around Paris it can be obvious, except that they love the romance of the West.
It is not unusual to see French guys wearing screen printed black tee shirts with wolves and Native American warriors on the front. Between xenophobic mutterings, he’ll be puffing on his Marlboro (which he lit with his Zippo) and dreaming of taking to the open roads on a Harley Davidson. So when the Wild West turned up on the door step, it was cautiously welcomed - though I did see first-hand incidents where the local guys would try to provoke a fight with the cowboys or Native Americans. It never ended well…
"Local guys would try to provoke a fight with the cowboys... It never ended well"
Disney, true to form, hired the best in the business to work on their new flagship dinner show. As well as importing the best cowboys, Native American performers and stuntmen to the team, they hired horse stunt arranger, Mario Luraschi whose own biography says “A wholehearted passion for the American Natives led him to the horse world.” Luraschi was the ideal man to help the Cowboys develop their show. For the last 30 years he's been the go to guy for producing horses for the movies, performing horse stunts, and has appeared in over 400 films in France and the United States. Mario's stables to the north of Paris became the show’s training ground for the team’s first month in France.
The Disney cowboys had been there a few weeks when the stuntmen arrived. One cowboy remembers, “Never forget their arrival, the California stunts were wearing denim jackets that were opened up showing only a half shirt underneath. At the time, I was wearing thermal underwear, jeans, and a set of insulated carhartt's. It was cold! ” (2)
Mario and the Wild West Show cast, as they were now beginning to think of themselves, trained from dawn till dust almost every day for two months. Some of the stunt performers needed to learn some basic skills before they could move on with show rehearsals. “The stunts spent a lot of time in the round pen getting taught how to ride by Leslie. She had them riding bareback at a trot with their arms extended to the side, they had quite a few spills.” (2)
In March 1992, Disney’s on-property housing came online - along with it came another complex around three miles from Disneyland Resort Paris at Bailly Romainvilliers. Les Plaiades was to become the new home of the Disney cowboys. The new show got its own custom built show arena at the same time.
I made some really good friends among the cast of the Wild West Show - and saw the show almost 100 times...