Gunslingers Relive the Wild, Woolly West

Times Staff Writer

Two Mexican field hands shuffle into the Old West town, sombreros pulled low over their eyes, trail dust billowing from their ponchos. As they pass the saloon, a pair of drunken cowboys block their path.

Shots ring out. One cowboy drops to the dirt as the other leaps back through the saloon's swinging doors.

Within minutes, several more townsfolk enter the scene. They are shot, kicked, thrown from a balcony and otherwise dispatched.

As the last body settles into the dust, the onlookers applaud enthusiastically. The Mescalarows jump back to life, dust themselves off and take a bow.

Another weekend of Old West melodrama is off to a brawling start, bringing together more than a dozen mock gunslinger teams to compete for up to $1,000 and the chance to earn top ranking among their peers.

Recreating scenes from the gunfighter era, that brief period between 1870 and 1890 when guns were the law of the West, is becoming a popular weekend pastime for would-be cowboys and outlaws nationwide.

At least three groups of area residents, some of them white-collar professionals, spend their free time practicing sophisticated routines to perform in competitions against other teams throughout the state.

"I'm an 1884 cowboy in a 1984 world," said John (J.P.) Petrie, a bank communications technician who founded Glendale-based Sundance Guns for Hire. "I guess you could say I haven't grown up and I'm still out there playing cowboys and Indians."

Petrie, who has been playing gunslinger since 1979, when he joined the Mescalarows in Eagle Rock, is one of more than 500 members of the National Assn. of Old West Gunfighter Teams, which was formed two years ago with just 57 members.

National officials say the association has about 20 member teams in California. They believe there are as many non-member teams scattered throughout the state.

The organization was created, the gunslingers say, to set standards of authenticity and showmanship that might otherwise have been lost as mock gunfights became more popular. Association rules forbid use of Hollywood-style blood capsules, and competition points are deducted if team members use zippers, polyester, Velcro or other modern conveniences in their costumes.

Because of those standards, modern-day gunfighting requires more than just a quick draw and a trigger-happy finger. Team members must be part actor, part stunt man, part costume designer and part historian.

"To most people, you say 'gunfighter' and they think fast draw, and that's just not what it's all about," said Tom (Doc) Vail, a self-employed woodworker who heads the Mescalarows, the area's oldest gunfighting team. "We maintain the costuming period to keep out the people with Levi's and sneakers and BB guns . . . and we get ourselves into character and we put on a whole show for the people."

The object is to re-create events that actually happened during the gunslinger era, or that could have happened, Vail said. Team members write their own scripts for the 10-minute skits, which are given points by a panel of five judges for plot, dialogue, character portrayal, costume authenticity and overall effect.

Although prizes in the monthly competitions go as high as $1,000 for first place, competitors say teams rarely turn a profit.

"To get going, you're going to put out $300 or $400 for the gun alone, and then you've got to get together a costume that's going to pass off as authentic," said J.D. Silvester, who started up the Vulture Gulch Vigilantes last year at the Wildlife Waystation in Lake View Terrace. "Some of the outfits, they're all leather. Then you've got to pay for the trips to wherever the competitions are, and then you've got to pay your food and lodging, and then you've got to pay your entry fees ($50 per team or $10 per person, whichever is more). It's expensive."

But gunslingers say the satisfaction they get from their hobby makes up for the expense.

"There's something about that feeling of our heritage, the history, the sense of the men and women who made the history on down the line for the Old West and made their impression on America," Petrie said. "It's worth it to preserve that history . . . and it allows me to escape a lot of the pressures and stress of the working world."

"Why does an actor act? Big head," Silvester said.

Most teams, which have anywhere from four to 15 members, are created by people who have already gained experience with another group. Silvester said he was a member of a prize-winning team in Utah, where he worked part time as a stunt man, before he and Curtis Powers, a fellow gunslinger from Utah, moved to California and formed the Vigilantes.

"We started it just to have a little fun, and then we found out the competitions can get downright serious here," said Jack Sieker, who plays the sheriff in Vigilante skits. Unlike the Mescalarows and Sundance, which are ranked among the top five teams in the nation, the Vigilantes rarely score higher than fourth place in competition.

"We're going to try to bring in some actors next year who can spend more time practicing," Silvester said. He said most of the current members of the Vigilantes team work at the Wildlife Waystation, which houses more than 600 abandoned wild animals, leaving them little time for rehearsals.

While battling other teams for championship points, most of the teams must also contend with high turnover rates among new members.

"Our very first year was a rough one, because we were up against a lot of really good teams, and we were working on a shoestring," Petrie said. "We started out with 11 members and trained them all, and then we ended up with six."

Vail said the lack of staying power among greenhorn gunslingers has forced the Mescalarows to be very selective about prospective members.

"We spend time training people; they do one show, and then they leave. It can be a real drain on what we're able to do," Vail said. "(Now) we screen people. If even one team member says 'no,' then that's it. We won't take the time with them."

Besides limiting the sophistication of the group's show, high turnover or discord between team members also can be dangerous, he said.

"The stuff we do, it's too easy to get hurt," Vail said. "You need people who know what they're doing, and you need a good atmosphere."

Vail said he has been trying to persuade national association officials to pass safety regulations since the organization was founded, but to no avail. When officials continued to ignore his pleas after an inexperienced member of another team was badly burned while setting a "flash pan" explosion, Vail said the Mescalarows took it upon themselves to force adoption of safety guidelines.

They have since earned a reputation as the "outlaw" team of the league for writing particularly violent scripts and using controlled explosives and other special effects. When they used a "blow-out" pack on a team member's back to simulate the effects of a shotgun blast passing through a body, they became the first team ever disqualified from a sanctioned competition.

"I told them, until they had some rules, they could expect something controversial out of us at every competition," Vail said. "We've got some great things coming up."

The Mescalarows also have been noted for being the first group to use a woman actor in a stunt high fall. Although most team members are men, women also perform the roles in the skits that women of the Old West did--townspeople, saloon girls and, occasionally, "mountain women."

Mapping out a new show takes anywhere from 6 to 10 hours of practice each week. Some groups tape-record their practice sessions so they can remember their better improvised lines and write them into their final script. Rehearsals also help "authenticate" new costumes before they are used in a performance.

"We once lost points because the sheriff's hat looked too new," said Vigilante Powers. "Once you get ahold of what you're going to use, you have to dye it and roll around in the dirt in it and sweat all over it and make sure it's looking nice and authentic."

Powers said the ripped, faded, filthy wool long johns he wears under suspenders and tie-front leather pants during performances "are just getting good." The stretched-out sleeves now fit easily over the elbow pads he wears to fall down stairs and off roofs.

Powers and the rest of the Vigilantes practice their skits at a miniature Western town constructed at the Waystation to host a chili cook-off and gunfighter competition last September.

Falls From Balcony

He and Silvester, who plays a weathered mountain man, warm up by pacing through their act in slow motion before knocking one another off a balcony about eight feet above a well-packed dirt road. They land with convincing thuds and groans before climbing back up for another try. Powers also takes a few tentative rolls down a wood staircase as other team members toss out ideas for the next show.

"I haven't shot you for a long time, J.D.," complains Sheriff Sieker. "We going to kill you this time?"

"Maybe hang me," Silvester says, climbing onto the town's gallows and dropping the noose over his neck before clasping his hands behind his back. Sieker pulls the handle, the floor of the gallows drops, and Silvester hangs motionless from the contraption, eyes closed. After swaying in the breeze for a few moments, Silvester opens his eyes.

"OK. Bring me up," he orders. Other team members push the platform back up under him and Silvester reaches back to unhook the noose from the professional safety harness he wears concealed under his fur-and-leather costume. The noose has never tightened around his neck.

"We play out that fantasy everyone has of the way the Old West really was," Sieker says. "We all sort of feel like misfits from the 1870s. We should have all been born then and lived then."

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