Wild Women of the West: Giuseppina Morlacchi

Giuseppina Morlacchi was the first woman to perform with Buffalo Bill Cody

April 16, 2019

The reflections staring back at ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi showed a tired, dark-haired woman with bloodshot eyes and a pale face.  She had been up most of the night memorizing lines for a melodrama she was to appear in entitled “The Scouts of the Prairie.”

The unique Western show would premiere at a massive amphitheater in downtown Chicago and entertain thousands of spectators.  It was December 1872, and all those who hadn’t answered the call to go west were to see a program depicting the wild beyond the Rockies.

Giuseppina stared out the window of her hotel room and watched a light snow gently drift down and blanket the street.  A frigid wind blew through the cracks around the windowsill and she pulled her paisley shawl tight around her arms and returned to her script.

Dime novelist and entrepreneur Ned Buntlin had handed Giuseppina a copy of the three-act Western a mere five hours ago.  It was now 3:30 A.M. and rehearsals were to begin promptly at 9:00 A.M.

The petite dancer was to play an Indian princess named Dove Eye.  Although she was billed as a featured attraction, the true stars of the show were the famous frontier scouts Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro.  Buntline had convinced the pair to join his theatrical company and play themselves on stage.

“There’s money in it,” he assured them.

Looking up from her lines Giuseppina heard a pair of voices emanating from down the hall.

“I’m never going to be able to learn all of this,” she heard Cody insist.

“You’ll be fine,” Buntline assured him.  “Just don’t memorize the cues- you don’t have to say those.”

“Cues be damned,” Cody answered back.  “I never heard of anything but a billiard cue.”

Giuseppina smiled to herself and returned to her lines, confident that she was up to the task even if her costars weren’t.  Giuseppina (Josephine) Morlacchi was born in Milan, Italy, in 1846. Her parents, Anthony and Mary, enrolled their only daughter in dance school when she was six years old.  After studying ballet for more than six years, the graceful, dark-eyed beauty toured Europe performing with premiere ballet companies.

In 1867 Giuseppina traveled to America to join the De Pol Parisian Ballet.  Her remarkable debut in the ballet “The Devil’s Auction” that same year made her an international star.  She was not only admired by patrons of the arts but by her peers.  Theater orchestras appeared under her hotel suite window and serenaded the charming premier danseuse with Strauss waltzes and operatic melodies.

Giuseppina’s manager quickly capitalized on his client’s fame and further heightened her popularity by insuring her talented legs foe $100,000.  Newspaper articles proclaimed that the “dancer Morlacchi was more valuable than Kentucky,” one of the first racehorses of the day. Within three months after arrival in New York, Giuseppina was the most sought-after dancer in the United States.

The Great Morlacchi whose power of thoughtful, fanciful dancing – music addressed to the eye – has never been equaled by any artist who has visited the country.  She has sparked an excitement among the most cultivated classes of our citizens and everyone wants to see her perform.

The New York Evening Transcript – 1867

On January 6, 1868, the introduction of a new dance further endeared Giuseppina to ballet patrons.  American audiences had never before witnessed the “grand gallop can-can.” The sheer enthusiasm of the dance and Giuseppina’s interpretation left them breathless.  The effects of the high-stepping ballet would be felt for centuries to come.

From the fall of 1867 to the winter of 1872, Giuseppina traveled the United States dancing in some of the finest venues.  The programs presented by the Morlacchi Ballet Troupe that Giuseppina had fromed were attended by politicians, dignitaries, and even the Grand Duke of Russia.  According to historical documents at the University of Massachusetts, fame never adversely affected the ballerina’s personality. She was well grounded and kind, never demanding or arrogant, and was a shrewd businesswoman.  Her onstage persona was vibrant and unreserved; off-stage she was quiet and shy. It was the dichotomy that made her public adore her.

Ned Buntline was among Giuseppina’s fans.  After he made the decision to launch the world-renowned Buffalo Bill Cody on a theatrical career, he set about to round up actors for a Wild West show.  Knowing Giuseppina was a popular attraction, he sought the ballerina out to try to persuade her to join his company. He knew her consent to star in the yet unwritten drama would guarantee an audience.  Giuseppina listened intention to Ned’s elaborate and ambitious plans for a western type of drama. The young ballerina could foresee the possibilities in such a show and agreed to appear in the opening performance.

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