Lotta Crabtree

At eight years old, talented Lotta Crabtree was a potent box office attraction all over northern California—a red-haired, merry-eyed child blessed with an irrepressible laugh. She charmed toughened gold miners, and everyone else, with her singing, dancing, and comedy.  Some of her Irish songs and dance steps were learned from her Grass Valley neighbor, the infamous dancer Lola Montez. At a blacksmith’s shop in gold rush Rough and Ready, Lola stood the child on an anvil and had her dance before a small crowd. A star was born that day, although Lotta’s first professional appearance was in Mart Taylor’s tavern in Rabbit Creek, 40 miles north of Grass Valley. Taylor, who also ran a little log theater and dancing school, added jigs and reels to Lotta’s dancing repertoire. She mastered the banjo, making it her instrument as she toured throughout the state. By age 12, she was a favorite performer in San Francisco. Having made a name in California, she played to standing-room-only crowds in New York at age 16, where her stage career bloomed. Lotta preferred melodramas with often ridiculous, simplistic plots which afforded wide opportunity for her song and dance routines. In the late 1860s, the “Lotta Polka” and the “Lotta Gallup” was the rage across America. She smoked cigars onstage and off, claiming that she’d learned the habit from her mentor, Lola Montez. During the 1880s she was the highest paid actress in America. Her mother invested Lotta’s earnings prudently, although some of her money went to charities, and to build commemorative fountains. Lotta’s Fountain, the most famous of these, still stands in San Francisco. Lotta elected permanent retirement from the stage in 1891, when she was 45. The book seller’s daughter who was born in New York as Lotta Mignon Crabtree in 1847, to English immigrants, died September 25, 1924, leaving a golden thespian legacy and an estate worth four million dollars. March is National Women’s History Month.

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