Historically Speaking: The Long Branch Variety Show

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
Starting in 1958, the Long Branch Variety Show at Boot Hill Museum became the longest running show of its type in the United States.

It started out as a one-time 4th of July performance and turned into the longest running show of its type in the United States.

The Long Branch Variety Show started shortly after the construction of the first part of the Front Street replica in 1958. This section includes the Long Branch Saloon.

Optometrist Dr. Lewis Mock and his wife, Rosemary, approached the Boot Hill Museum Board of Directors about offering some sort of entertainment in the Long Branch over the 4th of July weekend.

Rosemary played the part of Dora Hand, a real-life singer who was shot to death in her bed in 1878. And husband Lewis "Doc" played the piano. The show was such a hit it became a nightly show for the remaining summer months of 1958.

The TV show Gunsmoke, which featured early Dodge City, had begun airing in 1955. Cast members from Gunsmoke first visited Dodge City in the fall of 1958. The Mock's and Variety Show cast members, including can-can dancers, regaled the Hollywood stars.

The lead female character of Gunsmoke was Miss Kitty Russell, played by a young Amanda Blake. As a result of the TV show's fame, visitors to the Museum constantly asked "Where's Miss Kitty?" So, the next summer Rosemary debuted as "Dodge City Kitty."

Soon, Rosemary's character became "Miss Kitty," a role which she played nightly during the summer months until 1966. Rosemary Mock wrote the song "Down at the Long Branch Saloon," part of which is still performed in the Show. The Mock's four children, Melody, Amanda, Lewis and Tim, had parts in the Show, making it a family affair.

At the end of the 1966 season, Doc and Rosemary retired from the Show. Nellis Reinert took over as Miss Kitty and Bob Vierthaler became the new Doc. Later, Kent Ross took over the piano. Ross ended up playing the piano off and on for the show as late as 2015.

After nine years, Connie Hudnett (Pennick) took over as Kitty. She first appeared in a special show in May 1976. Connie held the part until 1986. During this time, Miss Kitty understudies begin filling in when needed.

In 1983, Don Steele took over as director of the Show. Soon, shows were offered to the public during the off-season and the troupe evolved into the Boot Hill Museum Repertory Company.

Connie was followed by Roberta Scott, who was followed by Mischel Miller as official Kitty's.

In the 2010s Miller came back as Miss Kitty for a few years.

Starting in 1994, the Company decided the role of Miss Kitty was too big for one woman and an understudy to fill. Since then, the role has been played by three or more Kitty's each summer.

Also in 1994, the Variety Show and the Repertory Company began to part ways. The Repertory Company eventually moved to the refurbished Santa Fe Depot and became the Depot Theater Company. The two groups have worked together putting on the musical "Tales of Fannie Keenan Better Known as Dora Hand" in 2010.

Various directors, piano players and Kitty's have joined can-can dancers, bartenders, specialty acts and drummers over the last few decades.

Currently, Doug Austen directs the show with Alicia Ocker-Thompson, Christina Haselhorst and Dee Dee Royale as Miss Kitty.

Last summer COVID-19 put a wrinkle in the Long Branch Variety show. But the, "Show must go on."

To provide social distancing the cast, minus the bartenders, Mrs. Beeson and Temperance moved outside. This summer they will all be back together in the new Mariah Gallery. Hopefully, next year they will all be back in their "home" - the Long Branch Saloon.