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Mid-19th-century California was a land populated mostly by Mexicans and Indians, even after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo—signed on Feb. 2, 1848—ended the Mexican War and ceded nearly half of what had been Mexico to the United States. 

But that year ushered in the California Gold Rush, and as American gold seekers moved in, Mexico’s former northern frontier changed virtually overnight. During the first three years of the rush some 200,000 souls poured into California, which became the 31st state on Sept. 9, 1850. Most of the Americans came to dig, pan or sluice for gold or to make a fortune selling goods and services to the prospectors. 

But man cannot live by work—whether rewarding or not—alone. Soon came demand, from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada, for entertainment. At first the Forty-Niners were content with the crude entertainment provided by ragtag traveling bands and their own fiddle-playing neighbors. 

Then they flocked to bear-wrestling and prizefighting exhibitions. In this impetuous atmosphere, gambling dens, saloons, brothels and dance halls thrived. But before long the miners and merchants yearned for more polished amusements. Theaters, backstreet halls, palladiums, auditoriums and jewel-sized playhouses went up quickly and kept busy, their thin walls resounding with operas, arias, Shakespearean verse and minstrel tunes.


During the late war, between the summer of 1847 and spring of 1848, Col.l Jonathan D. Stevenson’s theater-minded 7th Regiment of New York Volunteers had provided the first recorded performances of English drama on the Pacific Coast. The troupe’s repertoire, presented at makeshift theaters from Santa Barbara to Sonoma, included a dance, a comic song, Benjamin Webster’s drama The Golden Farmer and Isaac Pocock’s farce The Omnibus.

Newly wealthy Californians’ appetites for regular, quality entertainment became insatiable in the years that followed—and nothing would do but stars of the first magnitude. “No city on the globe,” boasted the 1854 edition of The Californian, “contributed such a vast amount of money to the sustenance of entertainment in such a short period of time as San Francisco.” Architects designed such magnificent structures as the 1853 Metropolitan Theatre, on Montgomery Street, and talent flooded into the city from every part of the world. 


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Many performers basked in the footlights of the theaters that popped up throughout the West. Ten gifted women (two of whom were young girls when they started to perform) stand out in the frenetic field of frontier entertainment.

Most Argonauts, settlers and entrepreneurs considered British actress Laura Keene the greatest woman ever connected with the American stage. She made her California debut at San Francisco’s Metropolitan on April 6, 1854. Twenty days later the Sacramento Daily Union deemed her performance in the melodrama The Love Chase “superior and captivating.” 

Keene traveled throughout the West, not only acting but also managing playhouses and arranging for other popular actresses to perform—including Shakespearean player Charlotte Cushman.

Cushman had a remarkable vocal range and an uncanny ability to perfectly imitate the tones, movements and expressions of those around her. Several women had won fame with their impersonations of male characters in various dramas, but critics and fans alike regarded Cushman as the best of them all. Critics praised her acting as “forceful and compelling,” and by 1859 theater owners were billing her as the “greatest living tragic actress.” 

Audiences held her in high regard, and she demanded they pay undivided attention to her performances and not be unruly. During one Shakespearean drama, as Cushman played Romeo opposite a fellow actress as Juliet, a man in the audience sneezed conspicuously and derisively. Cushman stopped in mid-sentence, led her co-star offstage, then returned to the footlights and said in a loud tone, “Some man must put that person out, or I shall be obliged to do it myself.” 

The individual crept from the theater to the cheers of the audience. Only after theatergoers had returned their full attention to the stage did Cushman proceed with the play.


Everything from the Bard to the bawdy made the San Francisco scene. In addition to productions with elaborate costumes, theatergoers enjoyed the work of actresses who preferred to perform in as little clothing as possible. Perhaps no one was as well received for her seeming lack of costume than Adah Menken. 

The role that made her famous was Prince Ivan in the drama Mazeppa. The story line of the play derived from a Lord Byron poem in which the Tatar prince, caught in an adulterous affair, is stripped naked, lashed to an untamed steed and set loose, presumably to be battered to death. Menken, who insisting on performing as true to life as possible, was rumored to play the part in the nude. 

In fact, she wore a pale body stocking. Newspapers back East reported that audiences found the scantily clad thespian’s act “shocking, scandalous, horrifying and even delightful.” 

Charlotte Cushman was in her 40s when she played old gypsy Meg Merrilies in a stage adaptation
of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering. (Library of Congress.)

Among Menken’s most devoted fans was a young newspaper reporter named Sam Clemens, later known as Mark Twain. His review of an 1863 showing of Mazeppa is considered the best surviving account of the actress in action: “They said she was dressed from head to foot in flesh-colored “tights,” but I had no opera-glass, and couldn’t see it, to use the language of the inelegant rabble. 

“She appeared to me to have but one garment on—a thin, tight white linen one of unimportant dimensions.…With the exception of this superfluous rag, the Menken dresses like the Greek Slave; but some of her postures are not so modest as the suggestive attitude of the latter. She is a finely formed woman down to her knees.” 

Child star Lotta Crabtree was a redheaded moppet who was literally showered with gold. Crabtree was just 6 years old in 1853 when she first performed Irish song and dance routines for residents of the family boarding house in Grass Valley, Calif., at the height of the Gold Rush.

The miners loved her act and tossed gold nuggets at her feet, starting a fortune that would accrue to more than $4 million by the time of Crabtree’s death at age 76 in 1924. For nearly four decades her cherublike features and ageless beauty enabled her to portray children and young women, often in comic  roles until her retirement from the stage at age 45 in 1891.

Sacramento-born actress Mary Anderson incorporated live animals in her performances. She personally trained a hawk for use in the Sheridan Knowles comedy Love, in which Anderson played the leading role of the countess. On her signal the bird would hop from her shoulder to her outstretched hand while she recited the following lines:

“How nature fashioned him for his bold trade!

Gave him his stars of eyes to range abroad,

His wings of glorious spread to mow the air

And breast of might to use them!”

Then, at the brush of her hand, the hawk would flap away as she finished the verse:

“To fly my hawk. The hawk’s a glorious bird;

Obedient—yet a daring, dauntless bird!”


A critic raved that Anderson, who played Perdita in Shakespeare’s “The Winter Tale,” was the “loveliest creature ever seen onstage and one of the grandest actresses, with the figure and grace of a queen and an unsurpassed command of winged creatures.” Performing throughout the West during one six-month period in 1886, she earned more than a quarter-million dollars.

In 1877 Polish phenomenon Helena Modjeska appeared onstage at a small theater in Virginia City, Nev., in an English version of Ernest Legouvé’s tragedy Adrienne Lecouvreur. Born in Krakow, she spoke little English and worried about being able to convey the pathos and strength of her character to an audience in a town described as an outpost of hell. That she did so with startling success was chronicled in the Nevada press. 

“The acting of Madame Modjeska last night at National Guard Hall was not like anything ever seen before in Virginia City,” one local critic wrote breathlessly. “It was the perfect realization of something which we fancy is dreamed of by us all, but which we have waited and waited for through the years until deep down in our hearts we have concluded it was something too rare for an earthly one to give realization to.…But last night the dream was made real, and more than once did the audience rub their eyes and look up with that questioning gaze which men put on when startled suddenly from a broken sleep.”

The incomparable British actress Lillie Langtry delighted Western audiences from San Francisco to Texas. Regarded by theatergoers as the “most beautiful woman in the world,” Lillie was certainly stunning but also an exceptional actress. Like Menken, Langtry had her share of celebrated admirers, including Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and actor Maurice Barrymore, patriarch of the American acting family. 

Texas Judge Roy Bean, the infamous self-described “Law West of the Pecos,” fell in love with Langtry after seeing her idealized image on a playbill. The walls of Bean’s saloon/courthouse were covered with her pictures and press clippings—an obsession depicted to Oscar-winning perfection by Walter Brennan in the 1940 film The Westerner.

The buxom charms of Lillian Russell were chief attractions at theaters in the Old West, and whenever she strutted the stage, it was strictly standing room only. Gifted with an amazing soprano voice, she was among the first to popularize musical theater. She was gorgeous and used every attribute in her possession to attain power, social status and wealth, then parlayed her fame to become a champion of women’s suffrage.

Sarah Bernhardt was another grand, theatrical diva, one whose glorious career redefined the art of acting. Daughter of a Jewish Parisian courtesan from Amsterdam and an unknown father, the tempestuous beauty became a living legend as both an actress and producer-director of a theater she crafted in her own image. 

No one played tragedy with as much believable intensity as Bernhardt, and she threw herself into life with the same characteristic energy she put into her stage appearances. From fishing on the southern California coast to bear hunting in the woods outside Seattle, the French actress indulged in adventure while on her Western tour. Bernhardt was also among the first of the popular stage actresses to make silent films, debuting on-screen as Hamlet during the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

Utah-born actress Maude Adams began her four-decade career in 1872 at the tender age of 2 months, appearing onstage in her mother’s arms. She soon became one of the most successful child stars in the West, second only to Crabtree. Shrewd businessmen cashed in on her fame, slapping her name on every sort of product, from children’s toys to corsets to cigars.

Lotta Crabtree first took the stage at age 6 and blossomed into a beauty. (Library of Congress.)

Adams proved as popular as an adult actress. In 1905 she starred in Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, one of the most enduring and beloved children’s plays ever written. Barrie had adapted the part especially for Adams, conveying in a letter to the actress that she had inspired the character of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up.” Over the course of the next decade Adams performed the role more than 1,500 times. 


Adams proved not only a fine actress but also a gifted technician. After stepping down from the footlights, she worked with two major companies—General Electric to develop better stage lighting and with Eastman Kodak on color photography techniques for motion pictures.

The personal lives of the West’s top female performers all too often did not match their onstage success. With the exception of a fortunate few, our roster of 10 talented women suffered failed relationships, illnesses and/or devastating losses.

Having successfully battled breast cancer, Charlotte Cushman made her final tour before the footlights in 1875 as Lady Macbeth. East Coast audiences gave her standing ovations, and she wept while thanking her adoring public for the years they allowed her to “celebrate the craft of acting.” She died of pneumonia in Boston on Feb. 18, 1876, at age 59.

Adah Menken’s life ended tragically short in 1868. While performing her famous “nude scene” from Mazeppa in London that May, she had collapsed in inexplicable pain. It marked her final stage appearance. Ten weeks later in Paris she collapsed from some combination of peritonitis, tuberculosis and/or cancer. Menken was just 33 when she died that Aug. 10.

Lotta Crabtree retired from the theater as “The Nation’s Darling” in her mid-40s, eager to enjoy the fortune she had made performing. Initially retreating to mother Mary Ann’s summer cottage on Lake Hopatcong, N.J., Lotta later moved to Boston, where she died on Sept. 25, 1924, at age 76. Never married, she left her estate, estimated at $4.2 million, to establish charitable trusts in support of veterans, animals, students of music and agriculture, and needy actors.

In 1889 30-year-old Mary Anderson also retired from the stage at the peak of her popularity. She explained the decision in her memoirs: “After so much kindness from the public it seems ungrateful to confess that the practice of my art (not the study of it) had grown, as time went on, more and more distasteful to me.” Married the next year, she moved to Worcestershire, England, with her husband, returning to the theater only in brief engagements to raise money for soldiers injured in World War I. She died in on May 29, 1940, at age 80.

With diligent study Helena Modjeska mastered the English language and continued to perform throughout the West to popular and critical acclaim. She earned more than $1 million over her three decades in the American theater, enduring through a stroke to ultimately retire in 1907. After a long struggle with Bright’s disease she died on April 8, 1909, at home in Newport Beach, Calif., at age 68. She was buried in her native Poland.


World famous Lillie Langtry announced her intention to retire in 1917, after more than three decades in the footlights. The strikingly beautiful actress had long wanted more than accolades from admirers, artists and photographers. She wanted to be respected as a fine actress. Having achieved her goal, Langtry gave up the theater, dabbled in high society and moved to Monaco, where she died on Feb. 12, 1929, at age 75. 

In 1915, after nearly 40 years onstage, Lillian Russell appeared with Lionel Barrymore in a film version of Wildfire, reprising one of her most celebrated theatrical roles. The alluring singer and actress never officially retired from the theater. In addition to acting she wrote columns on women’s issues for the Chicago Herald and Chicago Tribune, advocated for women’s suffrage, backed the U.S. war effort during World War I and supported immigration reform. 

After visiting Europe on a fact-finding mission on behalf of President Warren Harding, Russell suffered after a fall aboard the return ship and died at home in Pittsburgh of complications from her injuries on June 7, 1922. For her service to the country the 61-year-old was buried with full military honors.

Over the course of her life Sarah Bernhardt had four ambitions. At age 12 she wanted to be a nun. By age 14 she wanted to be a famous painter, then the greatest actress in the world and, finally, a mother. She realized the latter two ambitions. Bern-hardt adored the craft of acting and continually sought to improve her performance onstage. A highly eccentric woman for her time, she lived life with little regard for ordinary rules of propriety, engaging in multiple affairs and having a son out of wedlock. 

Sarah herself had been a sickly child and at age 15 had persuaded her mother to buy her a rosewood coffin, in which she promptly posed for a photographer. Upon her death on March 26, 1923, in the arms of her son, Maurice, she was reportedly buried in that very coffin. Contrary to her expectations, Bernhardt was in her 70s.

Maude Adams made her final appearance at a theater in Maine in 1934, playing Maria in Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night. Three years later she joined the staff of Stephens, a junior college for women in Columbia, Mo., where she headed up the drama department for six years. The grande dame of acting died at home in Tannersville, N.Y., on July 17, 1953, at age 81.


But whatever became of the British actress and theater manager who had upstaged them all?  Laura Keene considered her professional and personal life to have ended on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. That night she was starring in the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., when a shot rang out. She watched from the wings as President Abraham Lincoln slumped over in his box, then hurried to his box to find him lying on the floor, attended by a surgeon from the audience. 

Mary Todd Lincoln was in a state of shock and inconsolable, so as the surgeon tended to Lincoln, Laura rested the mortally wounded president’s head on her lap and wiped his brow with her handkerchief.

In the wake of the assassination Keene was held for questioning, and though she was cleared of any suspicion, the damage had been done. Leaving Washington, she tried to carry on with her career, but wherever she appeared, morbidly curious theatergoers would inevitably shout out questions about the assassination and her dress stained with the president’s blood. 

Keene reportedly donated fragments of the dress to various historical collections, and the bloodstained cuff of one sleeve resides in the permanent collection of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

In the fall of 1869 Keene accepted an offer to manage the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. She worked tirelessly, writing and starring in new plays, but could never distance herself entirely from Lincoln’s assassination. Keene succumbed to tuberculosis and exhaustion at the home of her daughter in Montclair, N.J., on Nov. 4, 1873. She was 47 years old. 

California author Chris Enss has written several articles for Wild West and numerous nonfiction books about the American West, including “Entertaining Women: Actresses, Dancers and Singers in the Old West (2015),” which is recommended for further reading.

This story originaly appeared in the April 2017 print edition of Wild West.

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