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Monday, April 6, 2009

Trodding the Boards in the Old West

Theater has been the universal form of entertainment for eons. Across Europe and the civilized United States, troupes of actors and entertainers traveled from city to city putting on shows for the masses.

The Old West was no exception. In this sparse rugged land, people hungered for diversion.

During the decade between the Gold Rush and the start of the Civil War, the proliferation of theaters and performers in San Francisco rivaled the heyday experienced in London in the seventeen hundreds. Culture had reached the savage West, and virtually every town, settlement and mining camp rushed to erect theaters to attract performers.

Some of the grandest halls were in San Francisco and Denver. Those in small burgs and mining camps ranged from modest playhouses to tents. A few were little more than platforms.

In California, the massive trunk of a felled tree served as the stage, with the stars serving as lighting for the famous Chapman family who gained fame performing on Mississippi showboats.

Gold brought prospectors to California, and their wealth lured performers west. From that point on, troupes of professional actors routinely traveled throughout the West to give performances ranging from Shakespearian plays to Opera.

Female singers, dancers and actresses were granted a higher degree of success due to the fact that they were women in a country that was predominately male. Solo performances were the featured draw in countless small towns, with pleased miners showing their appreciation of the shows by throws gold nuggets and bags of gold dust onto the stage.

One celebrated actress was Caroline Chapman, the illegitimate daughter of a famed actor. She quickly became the darling of the Western stage, and after one riveting solo performance in San Francisco, a shortage of coins were reported in the city the next day, due to her audience raining coins onto the stage in applause of her performance.

Another actress to achieve great success with her outrageous performances was Lola Montez. Her flamboyant spider dance and darling lifestyle kept her in the limelight for years, but her inability to best rival Caroline Chapman finally drove her from the city and the stage.

Many women made their mark singing, dancing and acting, with many giving performances that leaned toward burlesque. Some reached celebrity status and a few gained great wealth.

Lotta Crabtree started acting when she was a child. With her mother keeping a close eye on her career and her money, she was likely one of the first actresses under the thumb of a stage mother. Where other performers relied on gimmicks, Lotta possessed true talent. Her variety shows in San Francisco earned her the titles of "La Petite Lotta, the Celebrated Danseuse and Vocalist," and "Miss Lotta the Unapproachable."

Even after living through several depressions during the late 1800s, Lotta amassed a fortune of four million dollars by the time she died in 1925. She'd never married, and the one claim of an illegitimate daughter was never proven.

So her entire fortune, much of it in gold, was given to charity.

In One Real Man, I touched on the darker side of female performances that were operated by saloons. Like my heroine, many woman were attracted to the lure of money and fame. Unlike my heroine, the outcome was tragic for far too many women.

What romances have you read that featured an actor or actress?


Paty Jager said...

I read a story about a traveling actress by Jude Deverueax a few years ago. I can't remember the title. But she was being escorte by a small cavalry...

The first historical romance I wrote (and is now locked away) had a traveling actress as the heroine I'm hoping to some day resurrect her because my CP and an editor and a contest loved her and the hero-but it was before I'd grasped GMC and several other craft issues. So I'd either have to overhaul the whole story or start from scratch.

Great post-

Janette Kenny said...

I remember that one, Paty. Mary Jo Putney wrote one where the hero ended up in a theater troupe in England. Can't recall the title though. :)

Anne Carrole said...

I really enjoyed this post, Janette. I remember reading about one of these ladies so nice to know more.

Barbara Scott said...

Thank you, Janette for this info. I'm so happy you will be speaking for our April chapter meeting.

Do you have any suggestions for researching entertainment on the "darker side" as you call it in the 1870's

Listen With Your Heart, my April release from Desert Breeze Publishing has an Irish tenor hero. I'm working on a sequel with a heroine trapped in an entertainment/prostitution scheme.

Barbara Scott