Saturday, April 2, 2011

Early Entertainers and Theaters of the West

Everyone likes to be entertained. The arrival of a theatrical troupe or a famous personality has always been exciting, and the early days of the West were no exception. Entertainers were always a welcome sight, especially in the mining towns and camps of the Mother Lode where the audience was mostly masculine. The miners wanted pleasing performers, and they were happy to reward them.

The early entertainers were a hardy group. They traveled long, uncomfortable miles over rugged mountains, dangerous trails, and arid deserts to see the glitter of gold and to achieve fame.

Once the actors and actresses reached their destination, they often had to perform under primitive conditions. There were no dressing rooms or sanitary facilities. Many times their stage would be the floor of a blacksmith’s shop with a wagon canvas for a curtain. They would appear in a tent, schoolroom, or a saloon. The orchestra was usually a flute, violin, and guitar played by musicians who had never read a note.

They offered medicine shows, drama, and variety. There were special rooms with cheap decorations, where the patrons could meet an actress for a price. Many times a miner would pay $100 for a seat and toss more gold on the floor when the show was over.

In Virginia City, the Queen of the Comstock, the first theater, opened in 1860. It was called the Howard Street Theater and ladies were not admitted. Business was good so Maguire’s Opera House opened its doors in 1863. It was an opulent establishment. The auditorium was carpeted, ornate crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, spectators were seated upon gilt chairs and there were velvet railings for the boxes. The enthusiastic audiences were wealthy, but not necessarily elite. They came for entertainment and had the money to pay for it. The shows ranged from Adah Isaacs Menken in the “Mezeppa” to minstrels and dog fights.

Born Charlotte Mignon Crabtree in New York City to British immigrants,

Lotta Crabtree would go on to become one of the wealthiest and most beloved American entertainers of the late 19th century. From her beginnings as a 6-year-old until her retirement at the age of 45, she entertained and was named "The Nation's Darling".


  1. Thanks for the info on the entertainers in the old west of the late 19th century. :-) Reminded me of the plays we used to put on as children in our old garage for the other neighborhood kids. We'd sweep the floor and put out chairs and that was about all we could do with the old garage. ;-)

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Jeanmarie. My daughter used to do the lighting and help with costume changes at a local old time theatre where the audience could boo and hiss at the villian. I imagine it must have been like that in the old west.

  3. Paisley, what an interesting and engaging post. Thanks for sharing. Lotta Crabtree's name rang a bell, but I wouldn't have placed it and appreciate the 'update' on her past. lol

    She and other entertainers must have paid dearly for the fame and wealth they sought.

    Thanks again,

  4. Thanks Sandra. I never realized how attractive Lotta was. She looks like she could have been quite a tease.

  5. Paisley, I enjoyed your blog. 45 seems like a young age to retire but without all the beauty products of today women spend way too much money on :-), I suppose the ladies of the stage really showed their age by 45.

  6. Paisley,
    The second romance book I wrote had an actress with a traveling troupe as the heroine. I used tales told by an older relative who traveled with a troupe in the 1920's to give my character believability.

    Fun post!

  7. Thanks for the great blog. Being onstage must have been a difficult life, especially then. Lotta Crabtree was beautiful. No wonder she was so popular. If you figure in that old photographs were very unflattering, she must have been stunning in person.

  8. I agree, Marin. The ladies had a hard life and poor ways to keep clean and fresh. I am supposing 45 would be a lot older then than now. Some of our 45 year old entertainers look like teens anymore.

  9. Your traveling actress sounds fun, Paty. My great, great grandmother was on the stage in San Francisco in the late 1800s. She sure wore some weird costumes and she definitely was a character in her older years. I wish I would have had a chance to get to know her, but she died before I was old enough to do so. The heroine in my story that has been finalling was loosely based on her. :)

  10. I agree, Caroline. She does seem a bit prettier than some of the other photos I've seen from that time period. She performed around this area and met up with Lola Montez. She might be another one to blog about.


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