Deadwood meets Hollywood and returns to life.
The quaint South Dakota outpost that thought its best days were past is enjoying a renaissance, thanks to the acclaimed HBO series of the same name that garnered 11 Emmy nominations. Think Goodfellas with trail dust. Bullets and foul language fly. And they're hitting the mark with tourists. Visiting Deadwood during its annual "Days of '76 Festival," I chatted with townsfolk and vendors who say business is booming. There's a new kind of gold rush in the Black Hills.
It didn't happen by accident. Before the show even aired, the Chamber of Commerce formed a Deadwood Committee to explore ways to capitalize on the ensuing publicity. The committee hired a Denver ad agency and a local PR firm to create a comprehensive campaign introducing the town to new markets. They struck gold, convincing HBO to add a link to the town's website, boosting hits from 8,000 in January, before the first episode, to an amazing 6.6 million in April.
Committee member Mary Kopco is head of Deadwood's Adams Museum, which offers invaluable research and historical materials to the show's producers. She says several cast members have come by to soak up the flavor of this Old West town - once an infamous den of sin and iniquity where Wild Bill Hickock met his fate and Calamity Jane drank and swore into lore.
"The [show] has become a billboard for us," Kopko says, "Many tourists arrive asking, 'Where's the set?' It's in California. Much of 19th century Deadwood was lost to fires and floods, but many historical landmarks remain. We have a restoration committee raising funds for their preservation."
A series of just-completed wooden facades adjacent to Main Street hint at what the town looked like in the 19th century, which was essentially a string of bars and brothels - the last of which wasn't closed by the Feds (not the locals) until the 1990s. The gaming industry has poured serious money back into the community, giving Deadwood both a shot in the arm and an authentic feel of being surrounded by gamblers just as annoyed at throwing snake eyes today as they were then.
The town's roll of the publicity dice, however, has proven to be all lucky sevens. Within days of my visit, the Discovery and History Channels arrived to do stories on Deadwood and HBO was en route to shoot historical vignettes to supplement next season's shows. Wild Bill would be tickled... to death.
Lawrence Mitchell Garrison is an LA-based freelance publicist and writer