Fighting the Flames and Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show

Arguably the most impressive show at Wonderland was the Fighting the Flames show. The show was ultimately inspired by Fire Fighting shows put on at industry conventions in Germany and in London. A similar show was put together for the St. Louis 1904 exposition, and was so popular that it was copied everywhere. Within months both Luna Park and Dreamland had their own versions of the show running (you can still see Mutoscope recordings of both shows if you search online). For Wonderland, Floyd C. Thompson contacted James Armstrong and William C. Manning, the leading theatrical agents in New York, to assemble Wonderland’s own show.

They constructed a grandstand that could hold 3500 people for the shows. I haven’t been able to find a photograph or drawing of the front of the grandstand, but it looked like this in the Birds Eye View conceptual painting:

Inside, they constructed a city square with buildings that would be stuffed with flammable material and set on fire twice a day. They hired actors to put on a little “street scene” to give it verisimilitude. To fight the fire, they hired retired or moonlighting firemen to man actual, newly purchased state-of-the-art fire engines and rescue equipment. Acrobats performed jumps into nets and climbed down ladders, dressed as ordinary people. When you see images of firemen with nets in old movies and cartoons, this is what inspired those images.

Street scene with the actors posing out front. The three buildings on the left are the ones set on fire (compare with the postcards above and below)

Another view of the square, weith the actors “in character”

A “Salvation Army” parade of actors marches through the square before the fire

In the above image from the Souvenir Book, you can see part of the grandstand to the right

A different postcard to the Fighting the Flames scene. This one isn’t as dark, and you can make out the actions better. A lot of these postcards were printed up — possibly more than any other Wonderland scene. Some were decorated with glitter around the edges of the buildings.

The Fighting the Flames show only lasted two years (which is as long as it lasted at the two Coney Island parks). The second year featured an almost completely different cast and a different “script” for the street scenes. Even the firemen were replaced.

The Fighting the Flames show was replaced in 1908 by Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show (which was not connected with the William Kennedy Wild West Show and Indian Congress that ran in 1906 in the southwest corner of the Park. See the page on that for details)

“Pawnee Bill” may sound like a johnny-come-lately trying to cash in on the fame of Buffalo Bill, but he was the real deal — a former Indian agent from Oklahoma who put together his own show of Indians, cowboys, and such oddities as Australian boomerang-throwers and Cossack riders.

The above photo of Pawnee Bill shows him on the “set” at Wonderland. You can see the painted wooden backdrop and the real log cabin they constructed (they also put up teepees and other structures). The photos of the Wild West show were taken by Erwin E. Smith, a western photographer who wanted to document the vanishing life of the cowboy. He was studying at the Museum School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1908, and realized that Pawnee Bill’s show at Wonderland gave him an excellent opportunity to practice before he returned to the west. His glass negatives provide images of much higher quality than the newspaper photos and postcard images.

Stagecoach with cowboys and Indians on the Wild West Show “stage”. You can see the painted backdrop, the “Post Office” building, and a teepee off to the left.

In this shot you can see part of the grandstand to the right, and the “set”, with painted backdrop, to the left. That might be May Lillie on the right.

This image of passengers on the Thompson Scenic Railway from 1908 shows them in the station at the Home building. Behind the cars you can see what appears to be the back of the painted backdrop from the Wild West show. There was no need for this in previous years, since the city square buildings in the Fire and Flames show hid the railway from view of the spectators.

The roller coaster you see in the background isn’t part of Wonderland. It appears to be the Musical Railway along Revere Beach.

After the 1908 season, the grandstand appears to have been closed down. I can find no references to performances put on there. The musical extravaganzas put on were staged elsewhere.

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