Spectacles: Ten-Gallon Straw Hat

In an outdoor amphitheater at Williamsburg, Va., Thomas Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence downstage left. In Boone, N.C., Daniel Boone stalks around a stage slightly larger than an elbow of the great Catawba River. And with annual punctuality and a sound like muslin ripping, gunshots in New Mexico signal The Last Escape of Billy the Kid. Mixing fact, fiction, sentiment and gunpowder, the U.S.'s grandiose, often grandiloquent summer pageant plays provide a basic drive-in course in history for more than 5,000,000 people a year, some of whom are surprised to...

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