Sunday, March 20, 2016

Divas in Pink Tights

Divas in Pink Tights

This article first appeared on in 2014. It has been modified slightly since then.
Have you read 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 declaration by 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.

California Theater, San Francisco ca. 1870
{PD-US} published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US.
During the decade between the first California gold strike and the Civil War, theaters flourished, especially 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.

Caroline Chapman, c. 1857
Photo from the Columbia Gazette; published in the US before 1923; public domain
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.
Lola Montez, ca. 1847
{PD-US} published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US
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 spider dance made her famous. She purposely spread stories of her sinfulness, and these tales have perpetuated her legend in western lore.

Lotta Crabtree, ca. 1847
{PD-US} published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US
Petite, talented Lotta Crabtree took the stage as a shy little girl. A protégé of sorts of Lola Montez, 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 Lotta’s lasting success to her innocence. She remained above scandal and suspicion, the perennial princess for thirty-five years and amassed 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.

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.
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  1. I've heard a lot about some of these women of the west. In the gold rush area where we lived, they were quite famous because they'd come and entertain the lonely miners. Great post.

    1. Thanks, Paisley. These gals were ahead of their time, independent, adventurous, even scandalous. They kind of remind me of some our modern day celebs.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post, Lyn.

  3. I always wonder what motivates these women to turn to such a life. Yes, pink tights and velvet skirts might seem appealing to some women, but I do think most if not all of them had other plans for their lives. What turned them around? I might think "a failed romantic relationship" or maybe just being kicked out of the house with no resources.
    Aren't you still amazed at how many interesting, intriguing characters are out there? And sooooo many of them women! Your information is new to me, and I thank you for taking time to do this research. And...I love the photos.

  4. Thank you, Celia. You're right, most of these women did come from a troubled background. They made the best of what they were given to deal with in a time when women had few choices of profession. Yes, there are still many fascinating characters for us to write about.

  5. Lotta was rather a sad tale. It must be difficult to always be above reproach and innocent--not to mention taking her mother everywhere. That all her money went to charity said to me she didn't even have a dear friend when she parted this world.
    Most of these women seemed to have been driven by making money and being the center of attention, no matter what kind of attention it was. It also seems that inventing a personal history was the common way to go.
    This was such an interesting blog. I love reading about flamboyant characters such as these women.
    All the best to you Lyn.

  6. Thank you, Sarah. Flamboyant is a great word for these gals. Lola Montez was once the mistress of a European monarch.


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