The Happy Canyon Night Show began as a Vaudeville-esque Wild West performance more than 100 years ago.
The production evolved since that first show on Main Street in 1914, a brainchild of Pendleton’s Roy Raley. The local lawyer and cattleman thought people needed evening entertainment after each day of rodeo action at the Pendleton Round-Up. He penned the original script.
The Wild West show soon melded with another act that, with tribal members’ help, chronicled early American Indian life and the clash of cultures when white men arrived on the scene. Over the years, directors tweaked the action, script and music and interjected moments of shock and awe.
Show director Becky Waggoner says this year’s production contains upgrades, additions and musical changes. Oregon’s official outdoor pageant, which starts its four-day annual run on Wednesday, will look fresher and more streamlined, with specialty performers inserted into the action. A host of other changes are smaller, such as the blue light illuminating the swimming hole. A paint horse named Dancer will assume the job of clomping up a steep wooden ramp to a spot where he will stand with his rider in tableau during the singing of the national anthem.
“The show will look and feel different from the beginning,” Waggoner said. “We are working hard to maintain tradition while making needed changes to keep the show fresh and entertaining.”
Waggoner, who serves on the Happy Canyon board of directors, sat in the stands Monday gazing down at the Happy Canyon arena and several workers who moved set pieces and ran power equipment. In this week running up to opening night, she will spend hours here, overseeing an endless list of details.
Waggoner eats, sleeps and breathes Happy Canyon. She started at age 3 popping out of a trunk unloaded from a stagecoach. She currently plays a nurse. Waggoner recently wrote a book on Happy Canyon’s colorful history called “Happy Canyon: A History of the World’s Most Unique Indian Pageant and Wild West Show.”
This season, Waggoner wrote trick roper Rider Kiesner into the script.
“Rider Kiesner is the top trick rider in the world right now,” Waggoner said. “He is fabulous. He does gun spinning, shoots up the bad guys, whips and ropes and does the old Monty Montana big loop over his horse. He’s so talented.”
Another guest performer is the Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard from Fort Riley, Kansas, whose sword fighting and horsemanship skills are woven into the show.
Such action spices the production. An outhouse explodes. A captured girl falls from the cliff into a pool of water. A fire breaks out.
Underpinning these dramatic and sometimes silly moments, Waggoner said, is a chronicling of history, from a tribal wedding dance and the clear words of Cayuse spoken by Chief Gary Burke, recreating the arrival of explorers Lewis and Clark.
About 750 volunteers contribute to the production of the Happy Canyon Night Show. For many of the actors, backstage helpers and other volunteers, participation is a family tradition.
“People do this as a labor of love,” she said. “I’m in awe of them as they run the cables, clean the pool, work with the oxen, sweep ….”
She stopped, knowing she could go on ad nauseum.
“It’s all about the volunteers,” she said, summing it up.
The Happy Canyon arena will go through three drastic changes in configuration during the five days from Friday through Tuesday. Thinking about the schedule likely makes Waggoner’s head hurt. After Thursday’s one-and-only dress rehearsal, the arena converts to a full stage for the Old Dominion concert on Saturday, then morphs again for two nights of Professional Bull Riding, which has its own configuration and set-up.
When the last bull rider hits the dirt Tuesday night, a crew transforms the bull riding arena back into an Indian village and western town and covers the dirt floor with sawdust.
It’s fast and furious and Waggoner loves it. She breathed in the scene from her spot in the seats on Monday, took a swig from her water bottle and said she couldn’t imagine not working on the show.
“It’s such a treasure,” she said. “My goal is for the show to last another 100 years.”
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.