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Will the real Annie Oakley and Frank Butler stand up?
by Don and Peg Doman
There’s always a question of how to portray a historical person on stage, even a fictionalized historical person. That was the conundrum faced by Shanna Palmer as she portrayed Annie Oakley and Micheal O’Hara as he portrayed Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun. They both said they reached into their own experience to make their portrayals real.
Shanna researched Annie online and read her diaries, and also learned to shoot for real so it would be authentic. She said Annie was always modestly dressed, a quiet woman. In Annie Get Your Gun, she’s portrayed as a country bumpkin who, as a googly-eyed innocent, falls in love with Frank Butler. She was portrayed as feisty, very competitive and even pugnacious. There isn’t much written about their early courtship but Annie was always circumspect.
Shanna is a dancer, choreographer and costume designer, having spent time in Renton Civic Light Opera, Tacoma Musical Playhouse and Leavenworth’s theater. She began acting at age five and is still enjoying it. She both captured the character as written and the person (her long curly hair matches well with the historic Annie Oakley).
It would have been interesting to see Shanna paired with Micheal in two of her earlier performances of Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Tacoma Musical Playhouse. They worked well together.
Michael is a veteran actor, singer and dancer, last at Tacoma Little Theater in Hello Dolly and most recently as the eccentric cavalier Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha at Lakewood Players. He’s currently the president of the board of directors for the Players.
Micheal said he depended on the script. He came directly from an exhausting run as Don Quixote, and didn’t have the time to do more. Luckily the part called for Frank to be stubborn and arrogant, two manly qualities easily assumed . . . for a man. Although written for a baritone, Michael added three notes to his range and did a great job.
Micheal is a partner in Glass Works in Gig Harbor (10421 Burnham Dr NW, Bldg 2, Gig Harbor 98332, 851-0781; fax: 851-0783). As part owner, he has a little more freedom than most to concentrate on his acting and artistic pursuits.
Annie Oakley was played by Barbara Stanwyck in a non-musical feature film in 1935 (just nine years after Annie Oakley died). Preston Foster played Frank Butler.
The story made it to Broadway in 1946 (about twenty years after Annie passed away) with Ethel Merman playing Annie. The book for the musical Annie Get Your Gun was written by Herbert and Dorothy Fields and the music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.
In the 1950 film classic (a personal favorite), Betty Hutton played Annie and Howard Keel, the wonderful baritone from many ‘50s musicals, played Frank.
There have been Broadway revivals ever since with Bernadette Peters, Marilu Henner, Susan Lucci and others playing Annie.
Annie Oakley had written memoirs published in contemporary newspapers. Frank Butler is known primarily through news articles and Annie’s memoirs. Born Phoebe Ann Mozee (or Moses or Mauzy), she took the name Oakley as a stage name.
According to which source you read, Annie was an orphaned only child (cowgirls.com), or she was the fifth of seven daughters of Quaker innkeepers, who moved to Ohio when their inn burned down in Pennsylvania (Dorchester County Library, Maryland) (Buffalo Bill Historical Center).
She was born August 13, 1860 in Patterson Township, Darke County, Ohio. Her father died of pneumonia in 1866 and she was sent to live with the superintendent of the county poor farm for a few years. She was “loaned” out to an area family and who abused her. She returned home at thirteen or fourteen to hunt game and help on the farm.
Her game was in demand at area hotels because she shot the beast in the head and spared the meat (just as shown in the play). She was so prolific and professional, she paid off the family’s mortgage by the time she was fifteen.
She became so well known as a sharp shooter that one of her customers, a Cincinnati hotel keeper, asked her to participate in a shooting contest with the renowned Frank Butler (1850-1926), who was on tour with other sharpshooters. She beat him by one shot and won his heart as well. They married August 23, 1876 and toured as sharpshooters with a circus and other shows. Frank was the star and Annie was the assistant.
In 1885, they joined the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and Annie became the star and Frank her manager. They toured for 17 years with Buffalo Bill Cody, saving money and improving their showmanship. Annie died November 3, 1926 in Greenleaf, Ohio, and Frank died November 21, both of natural causes.
Annie Get Your Gun is a great musical to watch, with some classic tunes you’ll recognize: “They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful”, “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better”, ”The Girl That I Marry”, and “There's No Business Like Show Business.”
Keep an eye out for other local productions. There was even a traveling production at the Pantages two years ago. Also, watch for more musicals with Shanna and Micheal at Tacoma Little Theatre, Lakewood Players, Tacoma Musical Playhouse and other Puget Sound venues.