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Fairy Star of the Gold Rush
The miners in the Sierra of Northern California were used to the loneliness, dirt and disappointments that came with the search for Gold, but Gold of another sort appeared in 1853 to ease this routine and her name was Lotta Crabtree. The tiny, red-haired, six-year-old jigged and danced to their clapping hands, while they showered her with nuggets and coins which her mother hastily collected in her apron. Born Charlotte Mignon Crabtree in 1847 in New York City to John Ashworth Crabtree, a bookseller and Mary Ann (Livesey) Crabtree, an upholsterer, both of English stock, Lotta was exposed early to the life of the theater and it's inhabitants in San Francisco when her father left New York in 1851, looking for gold. She and her mother followed him in 1852 only to find that he wasn't at the docks to meet them. They moved in with friends and soon Mary Ann involved them in a circle of actors which included the Chapmans, child actress Sue Robinson and many other popular actors of the 19th century. It was then that Lotta was first enrolled in dancing classes.
The following year, 1853, word arrived from John Crabtree to join him in Grass Valley, CA where he had it in his mind to run a boarding house for the miners (being that he hadn't struck it rich himself). Just two doors down from their boarding house, the infamous actress and Countess of Landsfeldt, Lola Montez herself had set up housekeeping. Mary Ann became acquainted with her and soon little Lotta, who adored Lola, became her protégé and was allowed to play in her costumes and dance to her German music box. Soon, though, the family packed and moved again to Rabbit Creek (La Porte) forty miles to the north and once again set up a boarding house. The story has been told that Lola Montez wanted to take Lotta on a tour of Australia with her, but of course Mary Ann wouldn't see it. This attention by a such a celebrated personality, however, only confirmed in Mary Ann's mind that her Lotta had talent and she soon sought more singing and dancing lessons for her. This was where she made her first professional appearance at a tavern owned by Matt Taylor.
Lotta began traveling to all of the mining camps performing ballads and dancing for the miners. In 1856, the family moved back to San Francisco where Lotta toured the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, added the banjo to her repertoire and became frequently in demand in the city's variety halls and amusement parks. By 1859 she had become "Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite". Lotta occasionally developed a case of "stage fright" but with a little coaxing from Mary Ann, once on stage became a professional. Mary Ann was not only the quintessential stage mother but also a shrewd business woman. She did not trust banks nor paper money and carried all of Lotta's earnings (nuggets and coins) in a great leather grip. When this became too heavy, it was transferred to a steamer trunk. Considering all of the valuables they carried around, it is amazing they were never robbed.
In 1864, they left for the East where Lotta toured and performed in New York, Chicago, Boston and the Midwest. She performed in Uncle Tom's Cabin and Jenny Leatherlungs. The following year she had her greatest success in Little Nell and the Marchioness which was written for her by John Brougham from Dicken's Old Curiosity Shop. She then went on to The Pet of the Petticoats, Family Jars and Firefly. In 1869, she opened in Philadelphia in Heart's Ease. She took to smoking small, thinly rolled black cigars, which although not a very lady-like thing in those days, was to become a trademark for Lotta.
For the next 20 years, Lotta was highly popular on the American stage. Starting in 1870, she then toured with her own company rather than using local stock companies, which was then customary. Mary Ann continued to manage Lotta's affairs, booking plays, locations and organizing troupes of actors. Among her later successes were Zip or Pointe Lynde Light, Musette, La Cigale and Mam'zelle Nitouche (1884). When Mary Ann's steamer trunk became to heavy on their tours, she would invest Lotta's earnings in local real estate, bonds and other endeavors. In 1875, Lotta commissioned the famous "Lotta's Fountain" at Market and Kearney Streets in San Francisco. She traveled abroad with Mary Ann and her brothers where she studied French, visited museums and took up the hobby of painting which she pursued until her death. Although she has been linked with many gentleman, Lotta never married. Her career left little time for a social life. Mary Ann was pretty good at staving off potential suitors. If Lotta were to marry, it would surely have put a damper on her career of playing children and young parts, which she played until the end of her career.
Lotta retired from the theater in 1892 at the age of 45. She and her mother retreated to a summer cottage on Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey which she named "Attol Tryst" (Lotta spelled backwards) where she drove horses, threw parties and pursued her painting. However, her trademark black cigars prevented her from becoming a member of the prominent ladies social group, Sorosis, much to the disappointment of her mother. When Mary Ann died in 1905, Lotta became more reclusive. She made one final public appearance in 1915 for "Lotta Crabtree Day" in San Francisco at the Panama-Pacific Exposition, where the city turned out to remember their beloved Lotta. She then purchased the Brewster Hotel in Boston, where she lived until her death in 1924 at the age of 77. She is buried next to her mother in Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City. She left the bulk of her estate, estimated at $4,000,000 to veterans, aging actors and animals. A long court battle ensued over rightful heirs but her will was finally settled and a large trust remains for humane and educational purposes of the young.
A special thanks to Joan Broneske for the writing, research, and scanning.