San Francisco's Divas of the Past
by Thomas Sponsler
Today's headlines-making pop stars have nothing on their predecessors. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, colorful entertainers graced the stages of San Francisco:
Lola Montez, who could have served as the inspiration for the song from Damn Yankees, "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets," was famous for performing her Spider Dance, a provocative performance based on the notion that spiders were crawling on her body under her clothing. As she twirled and writhed around the stage, rubber spiders came flying out.
Born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland, Lola married and separated at a young age and became a noted courtesan, mistress to Franz Liszt and Ludwig I of Bavaria. Eventually she entered show business, performed in San Francisco, and lived for awhile in Grass Valley, California. Strong spirited, she once chased a hostile critic around with a whip.
Lilly Langtry, famous as the love object of Judge Roy Bean, "the law west of the Pecos" – although the two never met – also started out as a courtesan, the mistress of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. After breaking up with the Prince, Lilly took to the stage. She performed in San Francisco to large crowds who were less impressed by her theatrical skills than her scandalous past. She bought land in Lake County and for several years produced red wine and raised horses.
Isadora Duncan, a local girl, started out giving dancing lessons and became world famous as the mother of modern dance. An atheist, communist, and bisexual, she typified the bohemianism of her time. She died tragically while riding in an open car when her long trailing scarf became entangled in the rear wheel, breaking her neck. This prompted Gertrude Stein to observe, "Affectations can be dangerous."
Less scandalous stars shone here as well. "The Divine Sarah" Bernhardt performed in San Francisco and loved the city. At the time of the 1906 earthquake, she was performing in Chicago and raised money there to help the survivors. Two weeks after the earthquake she came to San Francisco and gave a free performance at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.
Luisa Tetrazzini, thought to be the subject of the saying, "It's not over until the fat lady sings," was a gifted and internationally popular opera star who performed in San Francisco. Her most famous performance here was a free concert on Christmas Eve Day, 1910, at Lotta's Fountain on Market Street at Kearny.
Locked in a contract dispute and threatened with an injunction against singing in any theater, she sang for free on the street to a crowd of two to three hundred thousand. A local chef named a
dish (turkey, chicken, or seafood Tetrazzini) after her.
Finally, the beloved Lotta Crabtree: As a child she performed to the homesick gold prospectors at the mining camps, sometimes making up to $400 a night in gold nuggets. The Shirley Temple of her time, she went on to great success in the East and became one of America's most beloved stage performers. She donated the money for Lotta's Fountain, built in 1875, which served as a meeting place for survivors of the 1906 earthquake at the time and at every anniversary since. Coincidentally, Lotta first learned to sing and dance when she was given lessons by her neighbor, Lola Montez, in her hometown of Grass Valley.
Read our archived past stories on both Isadora Duncan and Luisa Tetrazzini.
Photos in this issue courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
Relief portrait of Luisa Tetrazzini on Lotta's Fountain, added in memory of Tetrazzini’s open air performance beside the fountain on Christmas Eve, 1910.
Lotta Crabtree in her older years.
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