Last weekend we had a great celebration at Old Tucson when we presented our True Westerner Award to Al Harper in the Grand Hotel Saloon.

Not only has Al Harper saved multiple historic railroads with his American Heritage Railways company, he recently took on the role of saving Old Tucson which had not only fallen on hard times, but when the pandemic hit, sat vacant for two whole years, while the Sonoran Desert reclaimed more than a few of the buildings. Not only has Al’s crew stabilized the physical buildings in the town, they are hell bent on getting movies back to the location for film shoots. And at the award ceremony Al laid out his ambitious plans.

Al Harper receives the True Westerner Award for 2024

Afterwards, Al had his theatrical group do their original stage play on Billy the Kid. I wish I could say I was excited about this, but, I am probably the wrong guy to show any stage show about Billy the Kid. Especially if it involves singing! The problem is I have been studying the Kid so long it pains me to watch most Kid shows. I bailed on the recent Netflix Billy the Kid series after fifteen minutes. The Antrims are in a wagon traversing Kansas and in the background are snow-covered mountain vistas?! In Canada!! Spare me!

Anyway, I was front and center at the main table and I had to endure this show with some grace and empathy. So I steeled myself and as the lights dimmed, I saw this.

Billy the Kid (Daniel Gilmore)
Photo by Natalie Eleftheriadis

Holy Guacamole, this Kid is right on the money! The bibbed shirt, the sweater, the bashed in hat, the sneer! Okay, the tie down might not be totally accurate, but everything else is incredibly on the money. Most portrayals of Billy have actors that are too large for the role (Kristofferson, Kilmer, Newman) but Gilmore is compact and wiry with a great big voice. Perfect!

The show moved quickly and covered the entire Lincoln County War and the demise of the Kid in 30 minutes flat. Here I am at the head table reacting to this marvelous show.

Al Harper and I applaud a very fine show

So, thanks to Al, I tracked down the writer and director of the show and asked him how he managed to produce such a fine piece of work. Here is what he told me:

“Normally what’s expected of the content created for western experience at Old Tucson has been more in the vein of historically traditional melodrama and cancan, lighter family fare. But for my money I really felt we could do something a little different and, hopefully, more impactful.

“When I started reading about Billy, I was hooked. I found that the more I read, I came to not only genuinely care about him, but quickly developed a sense of rage at the way he was maligned by history. For whatever he did in life, at the end of the day, this was actually a whip smart, kind, sharp as they come person, on his own from way too young, just trying to survive. Can we really fault him for his transgressions when he was at such odds with the world from such a young age, with so little guidance? I’ve heard it expressed in first hand accounts many times that under different circumstances, Billy would have been a successful and upstanding member of any community. The vast majority of those who knew him, loved him. No one so well loved by so many is really a villain.

“He was a kid. And I don’t mean that in the way the word was perceived when it became his nickname. I mean he was actually a kid, barely an adult, when killed. A child who lost his Mother too young and came of age in circumstances no kid should have to face. If I was in his shoes, and I watched the only adult (Tunstall) who ever showed me a lick of guidance and favor gunned down in cold blood for bogus reasons, I would take the same path Billy took.

“I cannot fault him. So it’s the injustice of it all that inspired me, really. I felt morally compelled to tell his story.

“And my aim was never to paint him as a perfect hero, because he wasn’t. But he was a good person. He felt pain, empathy, regret…he did not want to kill most of the people he killed, but did so out of necessity. As I wrote at the end of the show, ‘History tends to cast memories in black and white, but Billy, he was a lot of gray area.’

“History puts him in a class of outlaws with whom he does not belong. He was not the greedy, cold blooded killer that contemporaries like Jesse James were. I looked at this as an opportunity to paint him more closely to the person I believe he actually was. (I did take a few small narrative liberties, but consider it retaliation against some of the lies history told.

“The pendulum of truth has swung too far in one direction for too long, so I thought it reasonable to let it swing just a little further past center to make up for the long imbalance.) I feel it’s important to tell the stories of people who can’t speak for themselves anymore, especially when much of their truth was silenced in life.

“Another thing worth mentioning about this project: Our parent company has a vested interest in the preservation of American Heritage. However small a piece, Billy is part of that heritage, and I feel that telling a story with the purpose of setting the record straight or shining a more truthful light on history is both a noble venture, and very much in step with our values as a company.

“The hardest part about this whole thing has been telling this story in 30 minutes. In my dream scenario, we expand this to a full length show and offer it to a larger audience in the future. I’d love the chance to tell the whole story.”

—Ken Korpi

At the end of the day, I think Bonney nailed the problem.

“There’s no money in it.”

—Billy the Kid

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