Lotta Crabtree and Lola Montez

Lola Montez' house in Grass Valley, CaliforniaOne of the more colourful characters of the 19th century was Lola Montez (c. 1818-1861), who claimed to be a Spanish dancer, although she was actually Irish. She was best known for her "Spider Dance", a sort of tarantella which involved shaking rubber tarantulas out of her clothing in such a way as to provide generous views of her person. Among other exploits, she became the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made her a countess; she was the virtual ruler of the country until she was ousted during the revolution of 1848.

During a rare quiet period in her life, Lola lived in the Gold Rush country of California. She gave dancing lessons to a miner's daughter, Lotta Crabtree (1847-1924), who later became one of the greatest stars of the American stage. Interestingly enough, Lotta was noted for her Irish dancing, at least some of which she seems to have learned from Lola. Lotta also sang Irish songs and played the banjo. However, this would not have been what we now know as Irish banjo. The banjo at this period was the five-string banjo played in minstrel style (which we now call "old-timey").

Lotta's career as a child performer began with tours of the mining camps. Irishmen made up a sizeable fraction of the miners, hence Irish entertainment was very popular.

I happened to find a biography of Lotta, written soon after her death. The author was able to collect much of her material from participants in the story.

Lola MontezThe other new arrival was Lola Montez, the Countess of Landsfeldt, the Limerick Countess, the Spanish dancer, born Eliza Gilbert in Ireland, who came with dash and drums and all the paraphernalia of romance, her slender figure carrying the semblance of great history.

Lola married a man named Patrick Hull and moved to Grass Valley, California.

Lola maintained a picturesque idyll and played with children. It was small Lotta Crabtree with her red hair, merry black eyes, and irrepressible laugh, of the number running in and out, who claimed her special interest. … Lola taught her to dance; and though that imperious spirit would never have admitted it, Lotta had a far truer sense of rhythm than Lola herself ever had. Lotta's tiny feet learned the intricacies of a few ballet steps. Liking innovation, Lola had picked up fandangoes and highland flings; these too she taught Lotta in sudden gusts of pleasure. From Lola the child learned to sing small ballads; with her she learned to ride horseback. Through the streets of the village, over a lovely hill of color into deep forests, Lola dashed with Lotta on the saddle in front or on a pony at her side. In a blacksmith's shop at Rough and Ready, Lola stood the child on an anvil, clapped her hands, had her dance before a little crowd, and declared that she must go to Paris.

In the midst of the roaring life at Rabbit Creek was a young Italian who went under the name of Mart Taylor, and was something of a musician, a dancer, a versifier, and a cobbler. … Taylor ran a saloon, where music was abundant, and a little log theater, where he sometimes joined with travelling players, and a dancing school for the few small children of the camp. He was accomplished in jigs and reels, and added to Lotta's repertoire of steps.

Lotta CrabtreeBut Mrs. Crabtree made a definite turning and took the more difficult road, obeying a passionate instinct to keep her child's career in her own hands. With flying fingers she made Lotta a tiny long-tailed green coat, knee breeches, a tall green hat. Taylor cobbled her a pair of brogans. She came on the stage with a minature shillelagh, pleased with her new costume; and since she knew every one in the audience she was not shy. Casting aside her shillelagh, the absurd midget danced an Irish jig and a reel. … The smoke-laden room was shaken with excitement. Money rained upon the stage: quarters, half dollers, huge Mexican dollars, a fifty dollar gold slug, and a scattering of nuggets.

… in the friendly household at Eureka she frolicked and sang—"I've a howl in my heart big enough to roll a cabbage round in"—and went through her acts as in a game for the other children.

The words come from the "stage Irish" song Barney Brallaghan, which is sung to the tune of the reel The Green Fields of America.

On the way up from Sacramento the company had stopped at Placerville, where Mart Taylor had found a negro breakdown dancer of considerable skill who was willing to teach Lotta a vigorous and complicated soft-shoe dancing. Along the trail the Taylor troupe had combined for a night or two with Backus's minstrels, long since entrenched in San Francisco and a highly favored company in the mountains.

California in the Gold Rush era appears to have been an exception to the theory that black entertainers did not take part in "minstrel" shows along with white performers. (Actually, not the only exception.)

Lotta CrabtreeJigs, flings, wild polkas, breakdowns, the whole range of soft-shoe dancing: in her five or six years of traveling in the mines or playing to small audiences in San Francisco she had picked up every bold and lively changing step which could provoke a sudden cheer, and danced them with a delicate sprightliness or a rough and romping humor. Her dancing was light as gossamer when she wished it to be, or boldly hoydenish. She danced as Topsy, as a wild Irish boy, as a Cockney with a Cockney song. She had a Scotch fling, and came out as an American sailor with hornpipe. … she soon adopted the favored instrument of minstrelsy and made it her own, the banjo.

Theatrical business was notoriously poor in New York at this season: but Wallace's was crowded for six weeks as Lotta played there. The Clipper declared that no other star or combination had achieved such a triumph. With an apparently simple beginning Lotta took off in a familiar play, the romping Pet of the Petticoats, in which she sang Irish songs, danced Irish jigs, played the banjo, and captured the good will of her audience. Then followed Little Nell and the Marchioness.

Lotta Crabtree (with cigar)With Lotta and her mother exploiting the newly available publicity machine of mass market newspapers, her career took off. She leaned toward melodramas, in which she interpolated lots of singing and dancing. She liked wearing male clothes and smoked cigars, on stage and off. (She claimed to have picked up the cigar habit from Lola.) Her female parts were often hoydenish; I believe that the films of Mary Pickford are greatly influenced by Lotta's performances—they both worked for the famous David Belasco. Many people nowadays think that a taste for this kind of entertainment, as documented in the early days of film, must indicate that the audiences were very naive in those days. On the contrary, accounts of Lotta's performances indicate that they were always played for laughs—the unbelievable plots were nothing but frameworks by which amusing scenes, songs and dances were combined into a whole evening's entertainment.

In The Little Detective, another new play, she impersonated six characters, and as one of them, Harry Racket, came out in a fawn-colored sporting costume like one which Menken had affected, struck the same poses, smoked in the same casual fashion: the difference was that Lotta, the innocent Lotta, looked far more rakish. In speech and appearance her Barney O'Brien in the same play was in another world from Harry Racket. It was not only that her repertoire of Irish jigs and reels made a diversion; apart from these she developed a composite character which she might have been studying since the days when she came out on the little stage at Rabbit Creek.

Note the reference to Adah Menken, another notorious cigar-smoking 19th century actress, who is remembered for her scantily clad demonstrations of skilled horsemanship in Mazeppa.

Lotta retired in 1891. The profits from her career, wisely invested in real estate all over the country during her tours, allowed her to lead a comfortable life. At her death in 1924 she left an estate of four million dollars (and remember that in a dollar was worth a lot more back then).

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