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Lotta Crabtree: The Girl Who Won The West

Jane Primerano

Friday, December 14, 2012 • 1:02pm

NETCONG, NJ – Lake Hopatcong’s connection to the California Gold Rush was explored recently by Judith Holton, whose one-woman show on Lotta Crabtree brought the chanteuse to life at Netcong’s historic Palace Theatre.

The Palace, known to area Baby Boomers as the place their parents would not let them go to to see “dirty movies,” received new life from The Growing Stage, a non-profit theater company for children. The Lake Hopatcong Historical Society Museum has partnered with The Growing Stage in the past and continued the trend with the Lotta Crabtree Show.

Crabtree, who could have been a model for Minnie in the David Belasco play “The Girl of the Golden West,” did not find romance, but she did find success in the mining camps of California.

Born in New York City to parents of English stock, Charlotte Mignon Crabtree was brought to California by her mother, Mary Ann, following her father, John, who went to the West to strike it rich, as did so many men following Lambertville’s James Marshall’s accidental discovery of flecks of gold, while building a mill for John Sutter.

Before venturing west, Mary Ann and Lotta met a circle of actors, “the Chapmans” and child actress Sue Robinson near where they lived in New York City.

Some 300,000 people traveled west, about half of them overland and half by sea. Mary Ann and Lotta took a ship to the Isthmus of Panama in those pre-canal days and crossed by land before picking up a second ship for the journey to Northern California.

Once there, they found John operating a boarding house in Grass Valley. A neighbor was Lola Montez, the Countess Landsfeldt, who taught Lotta to sing and dance.

Montez, known as a “Spanish dancer,” actress, courtesan and mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, was actually Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, and was Irish. She ended up in Grass Valley while married briefly to local newspaperman Patrick Hull.

Lotta became Lola’s protégé and was allowed to play in her costumes and dance to her German music box.

She came up with the idea that Lotta should audition by tap dancing on an anvil because the sound was better than on the dirt streets. Holton did not bring an anvil, but she illustrated Montez’s concept fairly well.

A story, not proven stated Mary Ann moved 40 miles north to Rabbit Creek (LaPorta), because Montez wanted to take Lotta on tour with her to Australia.

Mary Ann in Control

To say that Lotta’s mother was a stage mother is like saying fireworks are large matches. Her first move was to volunteer Lotta to play a little Irish boy.  She soon graduated to touring mining camps.

Mary Ann Crabtree’s other skill was keeping money away from her husband.

During the early days, the miners were so enamored of  “Little Lotta,” they would toss their gold watches on the stage. Even when she was making serious money, Lotta kept the watches.

In 1856, they moved to San Francisco and at 12-years-old, she was known as “Miss Lotta, the San Francisco favorite.”

She was also called “Fairy Star of the Gold Rush” when she toured Nevada County’s mining camps.

Mary Ann’s investments centered around real estate, and Lotta started purchasing property when she was 22.

Before buying property, Mary Ann kept their money in a steamer trunk, either as cash or as the bonds she bought. Lotta’s Wikipedia entry claims she invested in race horses as well.

According to Charles D. Carter’s Real Estate Circular for September 1869, “Miss Lotta, before leaving California, purchased a lot 50x137 ½ , on the south side of Turk Street, 87 ½’ east of Hyde, paying therefore $7,000.”

The California Historical Society holds the abstract of title for a parcel purchased at Fair Oaks and 22nd in 1885. In 1875, Lotta commissioned “Lotta’s Fountain” at Market and Kearney Streets, and donated it to the people of San Francisco. She built other fountains in other locations, according to the Wikipedia entry, but no locations are specified.

Lotta’s San Francisco fountain survived the 1906 earthquake, and is the site of meetings every April 18 on the anniversary. 

In 1864, Lotta and Mary Ann moved back East where she performed in New York, Chicago and Boston as well as around the Midwest. She performed in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and as “Jenny Leatherlungs,” a parody of Jenny Lind. Her greatest success came with “Little Nell and the Marchioness,” written for her by John Brougham from Dicken’s "The Old Curiosity Shop."

In 1869, she opened in Philadelphia in “Heart’s Ease.”

After 1870, she toured with her own company, rather than using local stock companies.

Some of her successes were “Zip or Pointe Lynde Light,” “Musette,” “LaCigali and Mam’zelle Nitouche.”

Mary Ann, Lotta, and her two brothers traveled abroad where Lotta studied French, visited museums, and started painting.

Another thing Lotta started was smoking small, thinly rolled black cigars, a habit that inhibited an invitation from the prominent social women's self-improvement group, “Sorosis,” which disappointed Mary Ann far more than Lotta.

Another of Mary Ann’s talents was apparently fending off Lotta’s suitors. She was linked with many men over the years, but never married. Her work left her little time for a social life and, if she had married, it might have put a damper on her career, which was centered on playing children and youthful parts.

The Lake Hopatcong Connection

When Lotta and Mary Ann lived in New York City they were neighbors of Robert Dunlop, one of the founders of Breslin Park in Mt. Arlington. This led her to buy property on Lake Hopatcong, and have famed Philadelphia architect Frank Furness design a home, the Queen Anne-inspired Attol Tryst.

According to Anna Travers, writing in the July 1979 edition of the Lake Hopatcong Breeze: “The only thing Lotta had in common with the other residents of Breslin Park was her wealth. Attol Tryst was. . .Mary Ann’s fabrication. It was here that she could rub shoulders with millionaires. The cottage was a gift from mother to daughter, but built with Lotta’s money.”

Lotta took a fall in Wilmington, Del., in 1889 and recovered in Mt.Arlington. She made a comeback in 1891, but retired from the theater at age 45 in 1892. 

She and her mother lived at Lake Hopatcong until Mary Ann’s death in 1905, after which Lotta became more reclusive. She made only one public appearance, at Lotta Crabtree Day in San Francisco in 1915. She did travel, however, studying painting in Paris in 1912. She was also active in charity work.

She shared Attol Tryst with her mother and both of her younger brothers, one of whom was a boating afficianado.

After she sold the large house, she spent more time in Boston. For the last 15 years of her life, she lived in the Brewster Hotel in Boston, which she owned. She also owned acreage in the southern part of the Squantum section of Quincy, Mass., which she purchased for her brother, Ashworth (John Ashworth Crabtree Jr.) and for their horses.

According to the archives of the Quincy Historical Society, most of the land was sold for housing lots in the 1930's and 40's, but when children walk to school through the tract, they pass markers of local granite with the inscriptions, “Ruby Royal,” and Sonoma Girl,” two of the Crabtree’s horses. Local street names include Ashworth Road, Livesey Road, Sonoma Road, and the shoreline Crabtree Road. A large cylindrical stone silo once used for farm storage remains on the land.

When she died at 77 on Sept. 25, 1924, Lotta left an estate of $4 million, mostly to Boston charities, including veterans associations, the care of aging actors, and animal groups. She was also very interested in educational opportunities for women. Crabtree Hall, a dormitory at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is named for her and there is a “Lotta” window at St. Stephen's Church in Chicago.

Her New York Times obituary called her “the eternal child.”  She was described by critics of the day as, “mischievous, unpredictable, impulsive, rattlebrained, teasing, piquant, rollicking, cheerful and devilish.”

Holton’s show packed The Palace, mainly with locals familiar with Crabtree’s Mt. Arlington connection. “The Growing Stage and the historical society have partnered in productions before,” according to Marty Kane of the society.

 

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