'Calamity Jane' returns to Montana

Montana Profile: Dianne Gleason as Calamity Jane

Calamity James Re-emerges in Livingston 100 Years After Her Death

By Genevieve Schmitt

The beaded elk leather vest she wears has seen better days, and a faded white scarf hangs from her neck.

Her coffin-towed boots are dirty and worn and heeled with short shank working spurs, a holster around her waist conceals part of an 1877 Merwin and Holbert 4440 frontier model pistol, a 19th Century era turtle shell purse hangs from her neck, a beat-up old cowboy hat is pulled low on her forehead, and in her left hand she grips an authentic kangaroo hide bullwhip.

This woman called Calamity Jane saunters - she doesn't walk. Her voice is deep and raucous; her face strewn with wrinkles that have been earned. This is Calamity Jane-or shall we say, the woman who portrays Calamity Jane better than anyone else, Dianne Gleason - and she's returned to Livingston 100 years after her death.

"There are reasons why I'm the best at portraying Calamity Jane because I do this full-time," explains Gleason, a living-history actress who says you'll never see her out of costume, even when she's just walking down the street. "These are my regular clothes," this commanding woman deadpans when asked if she ever wears modern-day clothes. "This is what I do."

Gleason is bringing Calamity Jane back to Livingston this summer to commemorate the centennial of Calamity's death. The notorious western figure spent time in Livingston and the neighboring Paradise Valley on for 20 years in the late 1800s.

Her presence in Livingston is part of a plan to help the town tie its roots to Calamity Jane, explains Gleason. Gleason has been portraying this illustrious icon in an acclaimed one-woman show in Deadwood, South Dakota, one of Calamity's other hangouts, for the last four years. When she felt it was time to move on, just like the real Calamity, Gleason packed up her few possessions and left. She headed to Livingston. "Calamity came to Paradise Valley before Livingston ever became a town in the late 1870s," Gleason said.

Her story includes all of the Yellowstone Valley, a ghost town called Castle, and the towns of Horr and Cinnabar. She hung out with the miners, railroad men and she could ride the trains for free. Clad in her "regular clothes," Gleason has been meeting with Livingston city officials over the last 12 months putting together a plan to present her one-woman stage show as well as living-history street performances with authentic Western characters centered around the life and times of the famous, but often misunderstood, western female icon.

"I've written a first-person account of Calamity Jane's life and present historical stories no one has ever heard before. It's fresh and it's new," insists Gleason with a certain conviction in her voice that has you wondering if the spirit of Calamity is working through her to set the record straight on the controversial dead woman's life. 

There couldn't be a better person to portray Calamity and tell the truth about her life than Dianne Gleason. As a degreed anthropologist, Gleason has a passion for researching historical figures. She also has a love of western history and guns. The merging of these two women's souls happened six years ago when Gleason, an Arizona resident at the time, joined the Single Action Shooting Society.

To become a member, Gleason was required to take on the persona of an historical western figure. "As I did the research into Calamity Jane, I realized this was the character that was most like me," she said. Gleason and Calamity, whose real name was Martha Cannary, both have roots in Ohio, share the same birthday and are the same height, "5-feet-12" Gleason smirks. At 18, a restless, wide-eyed Gleason flew the coop and headed west to Tucson, where she lived on a ranch and got involved indirectly "on the front lines of the women's movement," Gleason says.

Calamity herself endured a lot of abuse in her day being jailed and slandered for what was considered immoral behavior for a woman of that day.

"She would be out driving a bull team with a freighting company making an honest day's pay out on the frontier two, three, four weeks at a time in terrible weather against hostile Indians and highway men having to fight and claw to get this valuable freight to the city, and then she gets to town with a large amount of money. They were paid well," recounts Gleason with such clarity you'd think she was an eyewitness to the story. "In town, there was a hardware store and 30 saloons, that's it. So she goes to the saloon, has a drink, has a cigar and now she is the most immoral damned woman that ever walked into the city."

Cracking a rare smile, Gleason said, "She broke all the rules and backed it up with a .45 pistol." Muck like her alter ego, Gleason is an expert shooter. She's won many shooting competitions over the years leaving her mark in towns all over the west. She proudly rattles off the list of weapons she owns, -including two .45 pistols, a lever action 1873 Winchester .45 rifle, a double barrel 12-gauge shotgun. Gleason says she's excited to bring her act to Livingston. "I'll just be the first Calamity Jane.

"Hopefully, over the next 100 years, there will be 10 or 12 Calamity Janes after me."

Gleason has a four-year contract to perform in Livingston. When asked where she plans to retire when she hangs up her bullwhip and cowboy hat, she remarks, stone-faced, "Haven't found that place yet. I'm a nomad... just like Calamity."


Calamity Jane's Stage Show will be performed Monday through Saturday May 29 through Oct. 31. There is a 12:30 p.m. performance, a 7 p.m. dinner package, or an 8 p.m. performance. Call 222.6320 for reservations. For details log onto www.clarkscrossingtravelodge.com, www.yellowstone-chamber.com, or www.calamityjane1only.com. Living history shows will be performed all summer long in the streets of downtown Livingston. Also, June 26 though July 4: Calamity Jane Centennial Celebration and Livingston Western Days, all leading up to the town's rodeo and fireworks on July 4.

— Genevieve Schmitt is a freelancer writer who lives in Paradise Valley.


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