Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Kate Claxton and the Tabor Opera House

Part two of a sporadic history of women actors who traveled the West, specifically Colorado.

Kate Claxton was an actor, theater company owner, and another of those the public loved to read about. She toured the West for the first time in the early 1880s. They also say the town of Claxton, Georgia was named for her.

Image result for kate claxton actress
Kate Claxton from Wikipedia
Kate was born August 24, 1848 in Summerville, New Jersey. Her grandfather, a  minister, had as a young man also made a living on the stage. Her maiden name was either Cone or Cohen. She was married twice. Her first marriage was to Isadore Lyon, which ended in 1878. Her second marriage was to fellow actor Charles A. Stevenson. That marriage also ended in divorce in 1911. There is some question as to how many children Kate had, but it is known her son, Harold Stevenson committed suicide in 1904.

Kate came to fame with her performance as a blind young woman in the play "Two Orphans", but gained her notoriety when the Brooklyn Theater, where she was performing in the above mentioned play, caught fire. One account recalls it this way:

"On the evening of Tuesday December 6th 1876 when The Two Orphans was in course of performance at the Brooklyn Theater and was rapidly nearing its close, the scenery took fire. The audience began to be alarmed and Miss Kate Claxton fearing the fatal effect of a panic stricken rush the door came down to the foot lights and cried, "Be quiet. We are between you and the fire the front door is open and the passages are clear." She said this while the stage was a burning mass and it was not until the spectators were seized with fear and it began to be from the building that Miss Claxton and the other actors with her on the stage at the time thought of flight themselves and then it was only by means of a private passage under the auditorium that they were able to escape."  

All totalled almost 300 people perished in the fire and numerous others were injured. All nine hundred seats of the theater had been sold. The fire was made worse because there were no fire escapes and only a small staircase from the balcony to the ground floor.

Kate continued to be plague with fire or fire related incidents during the early part of her career. It was so bad that Harper's Weekly even ran a cartoon. Many news reports were in poor taste, as evidenced by the following:

A hotel in St. Paul Minnesota, was burned on Monday morning. What is remarkable about this affair is that Kate Claxton and Troupe had engaged rooms in it for Tuesday. In ensuring hotels the insurance company should insert a proviso in the policies to the effect that Kate should not be allowed to lodge therein.
Colorado Weekly Chieftain May 10, 1877

Kate had started her own theater company in 1876. The news report of that event is well worth reading, if only for the language.

Feminine management.

Kate Claxton has leased the Lyceum Theatre in New York and will open it in September with the full company a first class artistes. No woman has undertaken the management of a theater in New York since the death of Laura Keene, although her success in her best days might have justified others in trying. With the exception of Mrs. John Drew, miss Claxton will now, since the death of Mrs. Conway, the only woman manager in the country. Miss Claxton is said to be a woman of business parts, and she certainly demonstrated her tact in the responses she made to the questions of the lawyers during the proceedings in her bankruptcy case before recorder Fitch on Monday. Even that venerable gentlemen and Willem Trohan was compelled to smile at her dexterous replies, and ejaculate now and then with a nod of the head — "good, very good."
Daily Denver Tribune, July 16, 1878

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Tabor Opera House, Leadville, CO 1881- Western History
During the first season of the Tabor Opera House in Leadville, Kate Claxton's shows were some of the only ones to have an enthusiastic response. Her 1881 performance of "Two Orphans" was a hit. Kate also played Colorado Springs, Pueblo and other Colorado towns. The following appeared in the Leadville Daily Herald at the time of her performance in 1881:

Kate Claxton.
Standing room only was announced at the early hour last evening, at the Tabor opera house, every seat in the house having been filled before the rise of the curtain — an unusual thing in Leadville. A lack of space precludes any extended notice of Miss Claxton's rendition of "froufrou," but suffice it to say that the lady demonstrated the fact that she is talented, and Louise in the "two orphans" is not the only character in which she excels. Her conception of "froufrou" is admirable and, last evening, elicited much favorable comment. She was ably supported come, Miss Dolly Pike and Miss Ewers are not and Gilbert were especially distinguishing themselves.

This evening "the snow flower" will be given for the first time in Leadville. The piece admits an excellent scenic effects, which effects are done by the mechanical portion of the company. Nearly the entire house is already sold, cause probably by the character of the peace and the first appearance of Mr. Stephenson. Leadville Daily Herald, April 21, 1881

Kate had bought the rights to "Two Orphans" and performed in it until the early 1900s. She sold the rights to D.W. Griffith,  who made the 1921 silent film "Orphans of the Storm" with the Gish sisters, based on the play. After the death of her son, she discontinued acting. 

Kate died on May 5, 1924 in New York City, New York. She had a long a prosperous career and delighted audiences throughout the West and the rest of the country. A woman worth remembering.

Doris Gardner-McCraw -
Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in
Colorado and Women's History
Member of National League of American Pen Women,
Women Writing the West,
Pikes Peak Posse of the Westerners

Angela Raines - author: Where Love & History Meet
For a list of Angela Raines Books: Here 
Photo and Poem: Click Here 
Angela Raines FaceBook: Click Here


  1. Thank you for sharing the biography of another famous woman. Although successful, it sounds as if her life was difficult and plagued by problems.

    1. I think the thing I like about Kate, she persevered and followed her dream. She took her fate into her own hands. Doris

  2. Doris, What a woman! You are right about her perseverance...a lesson for us all.I hadn't heard of Kate and thank you for the story.

    1. Arletta, I think, for me, the most enjoyable research is finding the stories of women that have been lost to time. I'm glad you enjoyed Kate's story. Doris

      PS, there is so much more, but no space to tell it. LOL

  3. Wonderful piece! I do love hearing about these remarkable ladies and their achievements Thank you for posting this.

    1. You are welcome. It seems to be one of my goals in life to share the stories of these women. So glad you enjoy reading about them. I have a feeling some may end up in or inspire an upcoming story. Doris

  4. I absolutely adore Thomas Nast's work. I especially appreciate that he 'defended' Kate in the cartoon you linked to. I love the swarm of little flying asses. What a hoot.

    1. For me, when researching, that cartoon and article were the icing on the cake. (That's why I put it last.) Doris


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