by Lyn Horner
I’ve been reading The Gentle Tamers, Women of the Old Wild West by Dee Brown. It’s a marvelous testament to how women endured and flourished on the western frontier. Some of the accounts are grim, others inspiring, but one chapter is a bit lighter in tone. Titled “Pink Tights and Red Velvet Skirts,” it shines a spotlight on female entertainers who trod the boards in San Francisco, Virginia City, Denver and far flung mining camps.
The chapter opens with this quote from historian Hubert Howe Bancroft: “The mere appearance of a woman sufficed in early days to insure success.” Even if the performer was untrained, had a cracked voice and was far from beautiful, she could strut off the stage amid a shower of silver and gold.
During the decade between the first California gold strike and the Civil War, theaters flourished in San Francisco, but also in just about every mining town. They might be fancy playhouses or canvas tents. In a land where men far outnumbered women, it didn’t matter as long as a woman arrived to put on a show.
When an actress with real talent came along, she was idolized by her male audience. One such woman was Caroline Chapman. Born illegitimately into a famous theatrical family, Caroline performed with her father, William Chapman. After their first performance in San Francisco, the pair were showered with buckskin bags of gold dust. Dubbed “our Caroline” by her adoring audience, she drew mobs of followers. When she and her father arrived in Sonora to christen a new theater with She Stoops to Conquer, they were met and escorted by a thousand miners. The Chapmans would perform anywhere, even on the sawed off trunk of a huge tree in one case.
The most glamorous, seductive and scandalous western diva was Lola Montez. More akin to a burlesque queen than an actress, according to Dee Brown, she “. . . burst upon San Francisco like a bombshell, making excellent copy for the newspapers with stories of her many marriages and her claim that she was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron.” She dressed like Byron in black jackets with big rolling collars, and strolled the streets with two leashed greyhounds and a parrot on her shoulder. Lola’s sensational and shocking spider dance made her famous. She purposely spread stories of her sinfulness, tales that have perpetuated her legend in western lore down the years.
Petite, talented Lotta Crabtree took the stage as a shy little girl. A protégé of sorts of Lola Montez’s, she danced and sang her way through the mining camps with her mother and eventually landed on the San Francisco scene. She took the “West’s theatrical center” by storm. Headlines read: “Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite,” “La Petite Lotta, the Celebrated Danseuse and Vocalist,” and “Miss Lotta the Unapproachable.” Brown attributes her lasting success to her innocence. She remained above scandal and suspicion, the perennial princess for thirty-five years, amassing a fortune, which her mother carefully hoarded. When Lotta died in 1924, she was worth over four million dollars. All of it went to charity since she never married and had no children.
Dee Brown goes into much greater detail about performers and the history of theater in the West. And this is only one chapter in his amazing book.