If you had been standing at the corner of Market and Kearny Streets on April 22, 1906, you would have been looking down Market Street at rubble and ashes. Even the grand buildings that survived the earthquake had succumbed to the four-day fire that followed it and were gutted shells. All around you, the northeast quarter of the city was in ruins, but next to you a cast-iron fountain, Lotta’s Fountain, remained intact, a symbol of the city’s rebirth to come.
At that time, it had become a meeting place where separated family members and friends, then housed in army tents in the parks, could find each other or locate those who were listed on posters as identified among the dead. The fountain remains a rendezvous site to this day.
A Child in the Mining Camps
Charlotte Mignon “Lotta” Crabtree was born in New York in 1847, the daughter of a successful bookseller. When she was four, her father went off to California to get rich quick in the Gold Rush. Lotta and her mother, Mary Ann Crabtree, sold the bookstore and went to join him the following year. Since he was not at the dock to meet them, mother and daughter moved in with friends in San Francisco, and little Lotta joined her first dancing class. A year later, John Crabtree came into town to claim his family. He had not had much luck panning for gold, but he had a grand idea.
They would move to Grass Valley and set up a boarding house for miners. Later, Mary Ann and her husband quarreled over financial matters; their dispute ended in court, and John returned to his native England with a generous pension.
As it happened, the Crabtree boarding house was just two doors from the home of the Countess of Landsfeldt, better known as the world-famous dancer, Lola Montez, whose list of lovers and patrons included Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas, and Ludwig I of Bavaria. Lotta was fascinated by this elegant neighbor, who walked around with her pet grizzly bear cub on a solid gold chain. And Lola was charmed by the cute little redheaded Lotta whom she permitted to play “danseuse” in Lola’s costumes and dance to her music boxes.
When Lola prepared to leave for a tour in Australia, she asked Mary Ann to let her take Lotta along. Mary Ann was not up for that but, seeing that a celebrity such as Lola Montez recognized the girl’s theatrical potential, she provided her daughter with more singing and dancing lessons. In Rabbit Creek, 40 miles from Grass Valley, a man named Mart Taylor ran a saloon. Taylor was a songwriter, musician, and dancer as well as a bartender. When Lotta was enrolled in his dance class for children, he perceived her remarkable talent and high spirits. He proposed a “concert” in his saloon, and Mary Ann made her an Irish costume. In the smoke-filled rough cabin, Lotta danced a jig and a reel and sang Irish songs. Miners began showering her with gold and coins.
Taylor decided to take the ingénue on the road, and in Placerville he found a black minstrel who taught the girl soft-shoe dancing. Lotta was expanding her repertoire from jigs and polkas. By the time she was appearing on stages in San Francisco, she had added a wild Irish boy’s role, a Cockney dance with a Cockney song, a Scottish fling, and, dressed as a sailor, a hornpipe.
Men in the Sierra mining camps were starved for entertainment, and when the pretty and diminutive child sang, danced, and played the banjo for them, they also tossed nuggets and coins to her, which her mother quickly swept up and packed in a large leather suitcase. At the age of 12, the young performer was being billed as “Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite.” Mary Ann did not trust banks, so when her suitcase became full, she obtained a trunk to hold Lotta’s earnings until she could invest the money in real estate and bonds.
In 1864, when Lotta was 17, Mary Ann booked a U.S. tour: Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, where Lotta performed child roles in plays such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Nell, and Pet of the Petticoats. For the next 20 years, Lotta was one of America’s most popular actresses. Dances such as “Lotta Polka” and “Lotta Gallup” were named for her. By 1875, she had formed her own theatrical company for her tours, and in that year she commissioned the fountain dedicated to the city of San Francisco—where people, horses, and dogs could get a refreshing drink of cool water. In the 1880s, she was the highest paid actress in the country, earning as much as $5,000 a week. Young men would unhitch the horses from Lotta’s carriage and pull her to the theater. The New York Times reviews said she had “the face of a beautiful doll and the ways of a playful kitten, no one can wriggle more suggestively than Lotta.” Now she was billed as “the nation’s darling.” In The Little Detective, she played six different roles, some male, some female, and she sang and danced as well. Critics described the actress, who sprinkled cayenne pepper in her hair before a performance, as “mischievous, unpredictable, impulsive, rattlebrained, teasing, piquant, rollicking, cheerful, and devilish.” That’s a lot of personality.
Lotta quit the stage in 1892 at the age of 45, one of the wealthiest women in the nation. Lake Hopatcong in the hills of northwestern New Jersey was being developed as an exclusive resort, and Mary Ann conspired with the developers to build a suitable home for her daughter. It was an 18-room “cottage” with a wine cellar, billiard room, music room, library, and large verandas. It was christened “Attol (Lotta spelled backwards) Tryst.” Lotta could now relax on her sailboat or on her motorboat on the lake.
When Mary Ann died in 1905, Lotta became reclusive, but she made a final public appearance for “Lotta Crabtree Day” at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco on November 6, 1915, the day before her 68th birthday.
After that, she purchased the Brewster Hotel in Boston where she lived until her death in 1924. Her estate was valued at $4,000,000 and was used to establish the Lotta Crabtree Foundation, which is a trust for veterans, aging actors, and animals. The trust is still in force and was in court as recently as May, 2007.
George Rathmell is a frequent contributor to the Nob Hill Gazette. Find out more about him at georgerathmell.com.