CELEBRITY NEWS FLASH!
Even in the Old West, people craved knowing all about those considered celebrities. Here's one of the "stars" who made the rounds in the California mining camps before "making it big" on the New York stage.
Charlotte "Lotta" Mignon Crabtree was born on November 7, 1847, in New York City. Her English father John Ashworth Crabtree was a bookseller who left his English wife and daughter in 1851 to "see the elephant" in California - in other words, seek his fortune in the California gold fields. Lotta and her mother, Mary Ann (née Livesey) Crabtree, traveled west in 1853 and joined John in Grass Valley and then Rabbit Creek where they ran a boarding house.
Lola Montez was their neighbor, and she "discovered" that Lotta had talent and enthusiasm for performing. Lola even wanted to take the red-haired vivacious child on tour to Australia, but Mary Ann refused. She was shrewd enough to enroll Lotta in dancing lessons, and soon the little girl became a touring favorite in California and Nevada, dancing, singing, and playing the banjo at mining camps. Workers would shower her with coins and gold nuggets. Mary Ann would sweep the stage in case she'd missed any speck of gold. They soon moved to San Francisco, and Lotta became a favorite there. Her mother kept their earnings in a leather bag until it was too heavy, and then used a a steamer trunk. Mary Ann also bought real estate.
When Lotta was sixteen, she gave a farewell performance in San Francisco. The Crabtrees left California for New York. Lotta acted in Uncle Tom's Cabin, and became very popular in the play Little Nell and the Marchioness, adapted from Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. Being petite and youthful, Lotta portrayed children well into her adult life. Famous by the age of 20, she began smoking thin cigars - which became her trademark, despite the habit keeping her out of fashionable social circles.
Lotta began touring as a member of her own theatrical company by 1875, bypassing the local stock company route. She was called "the eternal child" and "the Nation's darling" as well as "the Belle of Broadway during the 1880s. Lotta was also the highest paid actress! She could pull in $5,000 per week, which was astonishing for the era. She even traveled back to California, where she performed as Little Nell, and San Francisco loved her. And her mother Mary Ann still acted as her manager - for bookings, organizing the troupe, supporting charities, and investing. Lotta learned to speak French while abroad, enjoyed painting as a hobby, but never married. She had very little social time.
But all good things must come to an end, and Lotta suffered a bad fall in 1889. Due to her injuries, she had an extensive recovery - and a comeback in 1891 wasn't much of a success. Lotta retired from the stage in 1892 at the age of 45. She and Mary Ann retired to a summer "cottage" her mother had built on the shore of Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey, designed by the architect Frank Furness. "Attol Tryst" - Lotta spelled backwards, of course - had eighteen rooms, gorgeous fireplaces, verandas, a billiard room, a music room and a library. More of a mansion than a cottage!
And of course, Hollywood grabbed onto the Crabtree legend with their 1951 film, Golden Girl, with Mitzi Gaynor playing the title role. Mitzi is certainly young-looking, although the film is quite inaccurate -- they show Lotta beginning her career at 16, when she actually began at age six. Most of the film is set during the Civil War, while the song "Oh Dem Golden Slippers" wasn't written until 1879. While Lotta did wear quite short skirts, she NEVER would have appeared as Mitzi does in the above poster! Good grief! And Lotta did not have a romantic interest, or share the stage with a man.
Hoo boy. Hollywood. Still, I suppose it might be an entertaining film. Lotta's life sure was!
Mystery author Meg Mims earned a Spur Award from WWA and also a Laramie award for her western historical mystery series, Double Crossing and Double or Nothing. Meg is also one-half of the writing team of D.E. Ireland for St. Martin's Minotaur mystery series featuring Eliza Doolittle & Henry Higgins -- lives in Southeastern Michigan with her husband and a sweet Malti-poo. She loves writing novels, novellas and short stories, both contemporary and historical.