Wyatt Earp: A behind-the-scenes tale
Ancestor, actor to share story on Sharlot Hall Museum stage
Wyatt Earp is far more than an infamous frontier lawman, more than a movie legend.
The man behind the 19th and early 20th century reputation that inspired newspaper headlines, books, movies, and plenty of mystery during his life and afterlife, is a complex fellow – neither all good nor all bad.
If alive today, the oft-taciturn, one-time marshal likely would object over some portrayals. Other portrayals might make his trademark mustache twitch when his lips curve into a slight smile.
Wyatt Earp killed some folks — he exacted some family revenge — but still did not consider himself a cold-blooded killer. He gambled, but again would not consider himself a gambler. He loved some women in his life, but was no lothario – he and his common-law wife Josephine “Sadie” lived together for 46 years. Earp was the aim of many a bullet, yet no bullet ever pierced his flesh.
Earp’s less-than-favorite memory, albeit the one that made him one of the most well-known Old West figures with mythical qualities, is connected to the 30 bullet, 30-second gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone.
Much to Earp’s chagrin, it’s the moment most like to revisit and dissect to this day.
Across more than a century, the public, mid-afternoon fatal shootout on Oct. 26, 1881, between three Earps and Doc Holliday and five outlaws, known as “cowboys,” three of them who died, has become an exaggerated legend with the facts far from matching up to the reality. The location has long been misidentified – the shooting occurred in a narrow lot on the side of C.S. Fly’s Photographic Studio on Fremont Street about six doors away from the rear of the corral.
Or so says his great-grandnephew of the same name as he portrays the elder lawman in a play scripted in 1996 by his wife, Terry Earp, titled “Wyatt Earp: Life on the Frontier.”
Descendant Wyatt Earp is a bio-dramatist who on Saturday, Sept. 7 entertained more than 50 guests gathered in the Sharlot Hall Museum to hear stories of one of Arizona’s most prominent pioneers — one whose life spanned “stagecoaches to airplanes.”
The stage was simple — a rocking chair and small table next to a coat rack sporting his trademark black banded Bolero and leather holster for his prized six-shooter. The dramatist Earp’s clothing resembles what the frontiersman likely wore in his elder years — khaki slacks, plain button-down shirt and suspenders — the telltale mustache, now white, below his receding hairline.
The tale unfolds as if Earp were begrudgingly giving an interview to yet another snooping, sensational, storytelling reporter, the unseen and unheard Mr. Noble. Earp is offering this reporter the chance to finally get his story right.
Earp died Jan. 13, 1929, just two months shy of his 80th birthday.
At the time of the play, Earp is in his final year, living in the couple’s Los Angeles apartment. He invites Noble to join him as he sets the record straight on his life. He exacts a promise.
“When I read this, I’ll know who it’s about,” he said.
The play ends with a final admonishment to Mr. Noble.
“I hope you got what you wanted. Just don’t tell any damn lies,” Earp declares.
The actor and relative to the infamous frontiersman speaks to the audience as if he is his ancestor. In his voice, one can detect the regret he has over a number of losses in his life – the death of his first wife Urilla Sutherland in childbirth just under a year after their marriage and the suicide of his prostitute, common-law wife Celia Ann “Mattie” Blaylock.
Earp’s adoration for his longest romantic companion, “Sadie,” a tough frontier woman/gambler/prostitute is equally obvious — he declares she is proof “even Hell has angels.”
The play winds through Earp’s rebellious youth, his ties to Arizona, and Prescott, and strives to correct what this script suggests are misconceptions about the “wild” he experienced in the West.
He closes the show with what he refers to as “the ghosts of Tombstone that won’t let me go.”
In this tale, Earp, his brothers, and Doc Holliday, are the clear good guys; they were legally vindicated.
Should they have been? That remains up for debate.
Audience guest Wendy Smith-Rogers of Prescott said she appreciated witnessing “history come to life … and his wit.”
After the show, Earp greets the audience. He assure them he strives to be authentic, and accurate.
“I become him. I get rid of me, totally,” Earp concluded.
Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.