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Central City and BID shoot-out with the Wild Bunch

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Itchy Trigger Fingers at Council Work Session

By David Josselyn

The Central City Council met with Staff on April 3, 2018, for a work session prior to the regular council meeting. Topics of discussion were the Wild Bunch Gang and some other miscellaneous items. The “miscellaneous items” were never addressed due to public comment on the future of the Wild Bunch Gang.

City Manager Daniel Miera began the work session with an overview of what has occurred and the purpose of tonight’s session. The City held a joint session with the Business Improvement District on March 15. At that session, the BID informed the City that they had serious concerns about allowing a loud gunfight performance during events in which alcohol is involved. Miera expressed hopes that the work session will lead to clear direction from Council to Staff on how to handle permits for street performances this year especially regarding the Wild Bunch Gang and similar groups.

Alderman Aiken commented that the word “history” has been thrown around in public comment and during public comment at the March 20 regular meeting. Aiken said that in Colorado History, there was the Ludlow Massacre and regarding a Tombstone connection, Doc Holliday was arrested to be taken back to Tombstone for trial; also, Frank Orchard who tried to blow up some scabs during a strike in Cripple Creek. Aiken summarized saying “the history of Colorado is mainly mining and massacres. Our history does not really include gunfights.” He said, “there was never a gunfight on our street (Main Street, Central City) that I can remember.” Several people, including Council members, chuckled at the inference that Aiken was more than 130 years old. “I don’t think school shootings should be a factor” in our decision, he concluded.

Alderwoman Mary Bell, who owns and operates a store (Mountain Goat Gallery) on Main Street, said, “From a marketing standpoint; one thing we can give tourists is a great experience. Even though gun shows are not historical, they add to their experience. I’m for continuing the Wild Bunch; they are good for business.” She added that we would be hurting ourselves to take it away.

Alderwoman Judy Laratta next spoke and said, “I’m not sure how I feel about it.” Laratta stated that the businesses don’t’ seem to want it. Alderwoman Bell interrupted to say, “My side of the street does!” Bell then clarified that Jeff (Hentshcel, owner of Famous Bonanza) does not, but the other store operators and owners, Mountain Menagerie, Reliving the Past Studios, and the Golden Nugget, are in favor of the gun shows. Alderwoman Larrata responded, “That doesn’t change my mind because I haven’t made it up yet.”

Alderwoman Voorhies said, “This is tough for me because I wear two hats; my Council hat and my volunteer hat.” Voorhies is co-chair of Central City Events which sponsors Lou Bunch Day. “The Wild Bunch have been used a lot over the years and without our volunteers in this town we would be nowhere. Central City Events has no problem with the Wild Bunch.” Voorhies added that as a councilperson she understands the concerns of the businesses on Main Street. “There can be a compromise here; I think,” said Voorhies, “the City should continue to sign the permits. It doesn’t bother me about the gun fighting.”

Alderwoman Laratta responded suggesting, “Maybe they can incorporate the gunfights with showing off the face on the barroom floor.”

Alderwoman Bell stated that “As far as events, I think the event organizers should decide whether or not they want the Wild Bunch.” This comment was met with approval from Alderman Aiken and several in the audience.

Mayor Heider put in her two cents saying, “I think it was mentioned at the last meeting if the Wild Bunch could do some other skit that doesn’t involve gunfire. When I was young, we all played gunfighters and had loaded guns strapped to our sides.” Heider mentioned that she was the public information officer in Jefferson County during the Columbine shooting in 1999, “And since that time there have been many, many mass shootings. The world is different today, and for that reason I would challenge the Wild Bunch to quit using the guns.” The Mayor stated she has heard from many people and the issue is evenly divided. “I would beg you to be creative and find some other way to dress up in costumes and entertain the public.”

Alderwoman Bell countered “I disagree” to totally getting rid of the gunfights.

Alderman Aiken inserted, “My compromise would be that if someone is having an event and they do not want the gunfights, it should be their prerogative. Guns are our culture and its part of what people perceive what the Wild West was.”

Prior to opening the floor for public opinion, Mayor Heider read two letters sent to her on this issue.

The first letter is from Jeff Hentschel of GF Gaming which owns Famous Bonanza and Easy Street Casinos. Hentschel stated that they have the occasional customer that enters the casino expressing their appreciation for the Wild Bunch, but they have far more customers complaining about the street closures, the lack of notice, the loud gunfire, and the confusion. “This show is not beneficial to my business and I would like to see it discontinued,” finished Hentschel.

The second letter is from resident Mary Laffey, who operates the antique store on Eureka Street. “Gunshots startle our customers who cannot see what is happening down the street,” the letter stated. She suggested to use cap guns; fist fights, or use guns that have a flag pop out that says ‘Bang!’

Mayor Heider observed that the City has had many types of street entertainment that did not involve gunfights such as the pony express and square dancing.

Mayor Heider opened the Work Session to public comment, allowing each speaker about three minutes to allow as many as wanted to address Council on this issue. At least ten people addressed the Council and the commentary was cut short due to time constraints.

The Wild Bunch Gang founder, Mike Keeler, was the first to address the Council. He had more to say than he could fit in within time allowed and was very passionate as he spoke. Keeler reported that their gunfights “last about 40 seconds total for whole day, the rest of time we are historians; we impart actual historical stories.” Keeler added, “Let’s be honest here, your real problem is the guns. I think the world of all you guys on the panel (council); I want to thank you for giving us the time to talk today. We are ambassadors of Central City; we have people that write us that want us to perform at outside events like weddings and parties. I’ve put nine years into this and have spent time writing my own scripts. No, we are not going to do a cap gun; we are not going to do a gun with a flag that goes ‘bang,’ although we might add that for comedy. We’ve been doing this for nine years and just now we are getting complaints about being too loud? I think the music is too loud!” Keeler is referring to the live bands that play during special events in the summer months.

Tom Matthews, aka The Undertaker, was next to address the Council. “In the last ten years, we have had 96 mass shootings (in the United States). Folks that see our shows know we are not using real bullets. I am a historian myself and I try to impart some of that during our shows. I was born and raised in Washington D.C., and am wondering who documents who is responsible for the BID in Central City? There are no minutes documented at all for the BID meetings. I will be pulling their minutes from the record and paying for it with my money. I don’t think they have oversight (from any agency). We try to entertain with the history of the City and the County.”

Jonas Schrock, local resident and potential member of the Wild Bunch Gang for 2018, then spoke to Council. Schrock asked permission to approach and presented a black round for their inspection. “I looked up how many accidental shootings there have been during reenactments; there have been two in the U.S.” Schrock added that, “It is a rarity that something happens; it’s pretty safe out there.” He finished by quoting President Roosevelt saying, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Deb Wray, citizen of Central and representative for Gilpin History, next spoke to Council. Wray said that, “The gunshots last 10 seconds at most per show.” She added, “I’ve been inside the casinos during performances and you cannot hear the gunshots.” She stated that Central City has had Western Movies shot here and they had shootouts on Main Street. Regarding the Wild Bunch, “We are telling history during these performances. They are ambassadors to the City.”

Jack Hidahl, resident of Central and one-time City Manager of Lone Tree, Colorado, addressed Council saying, “This is déjà vu all over again. In October 1972, this same debate was happening; I know, because I was at the council meeting.” Hidahl outlined an incident in which a bystander was injured in the eye by a blank. “There is nothing historical about what they (the Wild Bunch) do.” Hidahl stated, “You can’t respect a toy that’s used in a fake fight in the street.” He said that there is neurological evidence that continued exposure to violence “inures you to violence. People don’t understand what happens when someone gets shot. It is screaming; it is blood spray; it is pissing; it is shitting; it is horrible!” Hidahl said he doesn’t believe anyone who has been through an actual gunshot would appreciate what the Wild Bunch does. “Central City has a near monopoly on gambling; if gambling alone doesn’t bring business to Central City, there is something wrong with the way they are doing business.”

Chris, a resident of Central, next spoke saying, “The Wild Bunch shows are based mostly on comedy; kids laugh and they are educated about guns.” Chris also said, “There is an alcohol problem and maybe we should put more restrictions on alcohol. There are more accidents on Highway 119 due to alcohol then there ever will be with guns.”

Michele Rouseau, resident and Gallery Manager for Gilpin Arts, then spoke to Council saying, “My great-grandmother was a sharp shooter and buckin’ bronco rider for Bill Hickock’s Wild West Show. It was an entertaining way to help teach and preserve history. I feel like it’s the same thing with the Wild Bunch. We are living in a time when we are eradicating history; do we outlaw ropes because people were hung? The fact of the matter is it happened. I respect the arts. Does it have to be accurate to depict what the Wild West was? They (the Wild Bunch) practice gun safety and do everything they can to keep people safe. I think if we can find a compromise, it is way to go. It would be a mistake to eradicate them completely.”

Gary Hoffman, resident and one-time member of the Wild Bunch Gang, then addressed the Council. He first thanked Mike Keeler, “for allowing me to be a part of the Wild Bunch.” Hoffman reported that he remembers the kids coming up to him wanting pictures. The Wild Bunch would allow them to hold a fake gun (he reemphasized they were fake) and the Wild Bunch talked to them about gun safety. “A lot of folks tell me they come up just for their (the Wild Bunch) shows. If you think getting rid of the Wild Bunch is a good idea, then you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.”

Bill Cavanaugh, who used to play the part of Marshall for the Wild Bunch next addressed Council. “We are safe – we practiced with blanks at distances to ensure no one is hit with debris. Before each show we ask each other if anyone fired with live ammo and double-check our guns. We observe where people are at and adjust our skits according to where they are. There is always a risk of injury, but we take all that into consideration. I’ve seen other shows in Leadville and Deadwood (South Dakota), and we are the safest show I’ve seen.”

Alderwoman Voorhies concluded the Work Session saying, “This Council is willing to sit down with you (the Wild Bunch) and figure something out. We don’t want to lose the Wild Bunch.”

At this point, Mayor Heider ended the Work Session as it was 7:00 pm and they had regular meeting to begin. During the regular meeting, it was decided that Central City Staff would meet with the Wild Buch Gang and include at least two representatives of Council to discuss compromises to the Wild Bunch performances. Staff will come back to Council at the next regular meeting with recommendations and then obtain Council direction regarding permits for performances which may include displays of public violence.

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