‘Our Lotta’ was darling of U.S.
She was known by many names – The Eternal Child, The Nation’s Darling, and The Fairy Star of the Gold Rush.
But to the residents of the Gold Country, she was “our Lotta” – Lotta Crabtree, one of 19th Century America’s most famous entertainers.
Charlotte Mignon Crabtree was born in New York City in 1847 to bookseller John Crabtree and his ambitious wife, Mary Ann. In 1851, seeking Gold Rush greatness, John Crabtree headed to the gold fields.
Mary Ann and redheaded Charlotte, now called Lotta, followed in 1852, although they were not sure exactly where John was.
In 1853, word reached Mary Ann that John was in Grass Valley, and the family ended up running a boarding house in town. Mary Ann and Lotta discovered that just two doors down Mill Street lived Lola Montez, the infamous countess of Landsfeldt and originator of the scandalous “spider dance.”
Mary Ann and Lotta introduced themselves to Lola. From all accounts, Lotta adored Lola.
Lola taught Lotta a handful of songs and dances, and Lotta was soon performing for Lola’s friends. Legend states that the countess took the 7-year-old Lotta to nearby Rough and Ready, and the youngster gave her first public performance to widespread approval. A career was born.
In 1854, the Crabtrees moved to a mining camp about 40 miles north of Grass Valley to establish another boarding house. Supposedly, Lola Montez begged Mary Ann Crabtree to let her take Lotta on a tour of Australia, but Lotta’s mother would have none of that.
However, this endorsement from a well-known performer convinced Mary Ann that her child was especially talented. Mary Ann Crabtree provided additional singing and dancing lessons for Lotta as a result.
Within a year, Lotta Crabtree made her first professional appearance at a tavern. She was taking her first small steps toward stardom.
In 1856, the family moved to San Francisco and used it as a base of operations for tours throughout California’s Central Valley and Gold Country. Lotta was a particular darling of San Francisco’s music and variety halls. By 1859, she was usually advertised as “Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite.”
Mary Ann Crabtree quickly developed a reputation as an overbearing stage mother, but also as a careful and clever businesswoman. She did not trust paper money, so Mary Ann insisted that Lotta be paid in coin or gold nuggets.
As she distrusted banks, Lotta’s mother carried the girl’s earnings in a big leather suitcase. If more space was necessary, the cache was transferred to a steamer trunk.
Once the steamer trunk was full, the money was invested. Amazingly, they were never robbed.
Lotta Crabtree toured the gold fields for years – often exhausting one-night stands – and developed an ardent following. In 1864, mother and daughter left for a tour of New York, Chicago, Boston and the Midwest.
Lotta’s performances invariably included standard comic business, whether the play required it or not, and her act remained remarkably consistent throughout the years. She sang up-tempo tunes and ballads, danced energetically and made slightly naughty asides.
A review from the New York Times comments on Lotta’s stage persona: “The face of a beautiful doll and the ways of a playful kitten … no one could wriggle more suggestively than Lotta.”
Lotta’s reputation grew. Now poems, songs, waltzes, nocturnes and polkas were dedicated to her. Play after play was written especially for her.
The money flowed in. Mary Ann Crabtree continued to manage Lotta’s financial affairs, book plays, hire actors and organize Lotta’s touring company.
Starting in 1870, Lotta toured with her own permanent acting troupe rather than using local stock companies, a highly unusual practice at the time.
Lotta was famous, and the family grew wealthy
In 1875, Lotta commissioned the elaborate “Lotta’s Fountain” in downtown San Francisco as a tribute to the city’s fans and as a remembrance of horse troughs that serviced the tired and thirsty animals she had seen in the gold fields as a child. The fountain still stands today.
Lotta Crabtree retired from the theater in 1892 at the age of 45. Mary Ann Crabtree died in 1905, and Lotta became increasingly reclusive. She resurfaced for one final public appearance in San Francisco.
The Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 scheduled a “Lotta Crabtree Day.” Residents turned out in droves to pay homage to the performer.
Lotta Crabtree died in 1924 at age 77. She left an estate estimated in excess of $4,000,000. The will left the bulk of the money to war veterans, aging actors, animal charities, and a trust for young people’s education.
Gary Noy, director of the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College’s Rocklin campus, appears monthly in The Union. Contact him at email@example.com.
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