Eight year-old Chris McDaniel longed to be a cowboy. “I tried to ride the family dog.” Growing up in a generation where Wild West heroes crowded television and movie screens, the aspiration was probably common. Unlike most little boys, however, McDaniel grew into, not out of his dream. His parents took him to rodeos and bought him a pony fostering a genuine love for horses. Attracted to the life, not its shoot’m-up depiction, he sang country western songs at The Grand Olde Opry and studied trick roping, garnering a world championship, playing the rodeo circuit. Equally as fine an actor, he toured in both The Will Rogers Follies and Annie Get Your Gun. McDaniel is emphatically not a one trick pony.
This is a terrific show—entertaining, informative, and unexpected. Looking fully like one’s best imagined image of Buffalo Bill Cody, an American soldier, hunter, army scout and showman, McDaniel exudes warmth and humor. His embodiment of cowboy traditions touches our hearts in simple, direct and oddly familiar fashion. We all grew up with cowboys. Kids less aware of the genre sense his sincerity. They’re delighted with close-up experience of rope and whip skills (he’s great with young volunteers), attentive to stories and songs.
Opening with a short film clip of himself riding through the woods on a horse, McDaniel begins by briefly describing the practical use of bull whips with cattle “you put a little sound in front of his nose…” Not what you thought, right? He then demonstrates their effect with first one, then two whips while singing “Rawhide:” Keep movin’, movin’, movin’/Though they’re disapprovin’/Keep them doggies movin’ Rawhide! The TV show for which this was written introduced Clint Eastwood. We flinch in time to the music as whips snap and recoil against walls and floor.
McDaniel then shows achievable accuracy snapping an inch at a time off long, spray painted noodles otherwise carried in a holster. Nice touch. He holds the pasta in front and then behind himself using a hand mirror—“I can’t see the target and whip at the same time, this is all experience and instinct”—in his mouth, and on top of his head, coming within a hair’s breath each occasion. (Annie Oakley performed this with a rifle in Wild Bill’s show). Sailing loops of rope around various limbs of a volunteer with the ease of a wink and smile (the “trick” is to make it look effortless), the artist whittles down a noodle held in bound hands. His whip never touches her.
There’s an imaginative and funny bit involving a deck of cards and Gabby Haye’s dentures. (George) Gabby Hayes was a film and television sidekick to Roy Rogers (among others). I’m not going to describe in hopes you’ll see the show, family movies illustrating the history to which I alluded earlier, and the recitation of Wallace McRae’s “Reincarnation,” a cowboy poem both appealing and wise. Where else will you hear a genuine cowboy poem? McDaniel sits on a barrel in front of “an ultra realistic campfire made by a New York prop designer” (ha), lights dim, sound effects add atmosphere. Accompanying himself on guitar, he sings several classic cowboy songs with the kind of lovely, evocative voice that might’ve helped frontierswomen bear the prairie and manages to conjure the illusion of nostalgia. We’re told singing calmed the cows, keeping them in check when corrals were unavailable.
Captivating monologue includes bits about the old west, Buffalo Bill’s show, cowboy history and customs, sidekicks, Roy Rogers, whip and rope craft particulars, and McDaniel’s own experiences.
An aspect of cowboy art form to which McDaniel has been particularly drawn and in which he excels is Floreo de Soga, Mexican trick roping. Four young volunteers are given the opportunity to learn the basics of hand/wrist movement with cut-to-size lassos. Most are fairly good at it. “Here’s your first show biz instruction: whatever you’re doin’ raise your other hand and smile and they’ll start clapping.” It works.
Singing “Give a Man Enough Rope” from The Will Roger’s Follies, McDaniel shows us his own adroit skills as the circling loop is maneuvered down over his head, up under his feet, and over his shoulder. A former World Champion of The Texas Skip, he displays the “trick” jumping in and out of a moving, vertical circle about 6’ in diameter. Though the performer appears relaxed, it must be exhausting. He then spins 40’ of rope around himself horizontally. “Is it hard to spin 40’ of rope? No, it’s hard to sing while you spin 40’ of rope.”
Something over an hour has passed in a blink. We close with the theme Dale Evans wrote for her husband Roy Rogers:
Happy trails to you, until we meet again.
Happy trails to you, keep smilin’ until then.
Who cares about the clouds when we’re together?
Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.
Happy trails to you, ’till we meet again.
Some of us sing along the last few lines when invited. Everyone exits grinning broadly.
Everything in black shirt: Mike Wartell
Red shirt and guitar: Jim Moore
Ropes, Whips and Songs About Cows
Created and performed by Chris McDaniel
Canal Park Playhouse
508 Canal Street between Greenwich & West Streets
Limited Engagement through July 29, 2012
For more about McDaniel and to purchase a CD of his songs go to his website