"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Entertaining Miners Became A Rare Golden Opportunity

by Don Baumgart

Entertainment was more than a luxury in the gold fields, it was a necessity. A singer in a fancy dress, or a simple play could work magic to make a man forget his aching muscles and slim pouch of dust.

One of the best Gold Rush entertainers was born outside Nevada City in a small hydraulic mining camp called Alpha Diggins. Dr. William Wixom brought his young wife west from Michigan in a covered wagon and their daughter Emma was born in 1857.

When this daughter of the gold fields made her London singing debut, she took the name of her homeland and began a triumphant 25 year career as Emma Nevada. Becoming a favorite of Queen Victoria and her court, Emma Nevada returned home to sold-out performances from Boston to San Francisco.
Another Gold Rush entertainer came to the West from Europe.

Born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, the name she adopted is still a part of gold country folklore: Lola Montez.

Before she settled in Grass Valley with her pet bear, Major, she performed her Spanish Dance in the major cities of Europe, debuting in London in 1843.

Described as a "mysterious and dazzling personality" she lived in wicked Paris in 1844, where she developed a reputation for becoming involved with prominent men. Arriving in France with Franz Liszt, she soon switched her attentions to author Alexandre Dumas.

After a less than peaceful theater tour in the U.S. (Lola horsewhipped one theater manager when he criticized her performance) she set off by steamer from New Orleans, bound for California. Another passenger, San Francisco newspaper publisher and civic leader Sam Brannan, paid his romantic attentions to his glamorous shipmate. In May of 1853 Lola Montez arrived in San Francisco and was an immediately success.

"She was strikingly well adapted to the high-paced life of the Gold Rush days," Ishbel Ross writes in The Uncrowned Queen. "Her own romantic history, her looks and political views made an instant impression on the vigorous men who were building up their fortunes in California."

A packed opening night greeted her San Francisco stage debut; a house full of $65 ticket holders. Flowers thrown at her feet showed she had won the audience, the next day's papers told she had lost the critics. Between acts of her second play Lola introduced what was to become her trademark: the Spider Dance.

A subsequent performance in Sacramento resulted in Lola issuing a challenge to a duel to a local newspaper editor. Then she was off to tour the mines. The tour ended in Grass Valley where Lola paid off her troupe and settled down, investing some of her tour money in the Empire mine, and becoming part of the community. Lavish European-style parties followed the renovation of her new home.

Churches began to flower in Grass Valley and sermons denouncing the famous and scandalous Lola Montez were delivered from several pulpits after she performed her famous Spider Dance at one of her soirees.

A hard rock miner who worked the North Star Mine in Grass Valley recalled Lola's kindness to the men of the mines.

If an injured miner came by, she took him in, bound up his wounds, and had her coachman take him home. As medicine, she prescribed a slug of her French brandy, which seemed to be that era's health care plan.

In 1855, short of funds and longing for a wider world, she left Grass Valley and set sail with a new theatrical troupe for Australia.

Charlotte Crabtree was born in New York in 1847, destined to become a popular gold camp entertainer. In 1853 she and her mother travelled west to join her father in Grass Valley.

There she met Lola Montez, who became her idol and mentor. When her father failed as a provider, mother and daughter set out by wagon on a singing and dancing tour of the mines. Audiences of amusement hungry miners and gamblers were bowled over and showered the stages with money and gold. Lotta Crabtree was on her way. She went on to perform in New York, Boston, Chicago and St. Louis before beginning a tour of Europe.

So, the Gold Rush gave birth to a western appreciation of entertainment, from bawdy campfire songs to the shocking Spider Dance.

— end —
(Copyright 2002, Don Baumgart)

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