Billy the Kid impersonator throws grave into doubt

By Don McAlavy: Curry historian

Who is this impersonator that looks so much like Billy the Kid that there is talk of digging up the grave at Fort Sumner to be sure the boy that Pat Garrett shot is still there?

He was none other than Jim Vercelline, a young actor from Clovis and a member of the Gaslite Players of Clovis theatrical group. This was back in 1981.

Fort Sumner was gunning up to present its annual “Old Fort Days” in June of 1981 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the killing of Billy the Kid in Old Fort Sumner. The powers that be in Fort Sumner figured they needed a drama depicting the Kid’s last days. They called on the drama department of Eastern New Mexico University to write and produce such a play. The drama group at Eastern said we don’t do stuff like this; go get the Gaslite Players of Clovis … they’ll do it.

Bob Lockwood, head of the Gaslite Players turned to me (I was a member of the group) and said, “You write the play for Fort Sumner and we’ll produce it!”

And so it was.

Finding somebody to be Billy was easy, as there stood Jim Vercelline, a new member of the group, with a grin on his face. All we had to do was dressed him up in cowboy gear, put a gun on his hip and point him to the stage.

Jim, born in 1964, in International Falls, Minn., first saw New Mexico in 1973 when his parents moved to Tucumcari to get away from the cold and into the sunny Southwest. His father, Jim Vercelline Sr., continued to spend much of his time on the Great Lakes as a ship navigator for the Hanna Mining Co.

The family moved to Clovis in 1977, because of shopping convenience. Jim’s hobbies were acting and collecting bottle caps, but when he got to college he wanted to major in biology or organic chemistry. In 1981, Jim was just turning 17.

On June 12 and 13, our drama, “The Historical Reenactment of the Shooting of Billy the Kid,” was produced four times, at the Fort Sumner High School, on its stage in the auditorium.

Twelve of us Gaslite Players from Clovis were the actors. (One was Edward Boyle, an officer at Cannon Air Force Base who played Sheriff Pat Garrett.)

Everything was going just fine until the end of the next-to-last show. The scene was Billy sneaking into Pete Maxwell’s bedroom, not knowing that Pat Garrett was in the dark room. The scene itself was dimly lit, and when Garrett shot his pistol, some of the power blast from a blank bullet hit Vercelline in the eyes. (It wasn’t meant to be that way as we were trained to shoot to the left or right of an actor.) The curtain came down, and no one except us actors knew about this accident. We ran water over his eyes and thought about taking him to the hospital, but after a terrifying few minutes Jim said he could still see. The play was delayed for only about 20 minutes, and we all went on again for the next show.

Everyone liked the show and we were even paid for our efforts. This show became the basis of the “Billy the Kid” outdoor drama at the new Caprock Amphitheatre in 1987. But this time we had professional bullet blanks, horses, dancing, comedy and music. Jim Vercelline was one of our first actors, but in this first year he played “Morton” and later “Rynerson” and “Bell.” His brother Chris was our first technical director.

Jim graduated from ENMU with a degree in biology. He became a teacher and even went to Korea to teach. I received a letter from him in Korea. I lost track of him and didn’t know he had moved to Denver. To my sorrow, he died Feb. 16, 2005. He was only about 41 years old.

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at:
dmcalavy@telescopelab.com