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Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree in San Francisco

by Susan Saperstein

Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert (1821-1861) was notorious. The dancer and actress was well-known for her lovers, including King Ludwig I of Bavaria and Franz Liszt. As one biographer said, she was an incorrigible liar, and many of the fantastic stories about her life were probably started by her.

The biggest fantasy was her name. She was born in Ireland and traveled to Spain while being sued for adultery and divorce in England. She returned to England the next year pretending to be Spanish royalty with the name Maria Dolores de Porris y Montez—familiarly called Lola. But what is fact is that she came to San Francisco in May 1853, quickly married a man she met on the ship, moved to Grass Valley (California), and left a few years later.

Lola Montez arrived in San Francisco with her dog and manager, and discarded the manager. She immediately got a booking at the American Theater, located on Sansome Street and newly renovated to hold 3000 people. Some of her notoriety came from her “Spider Dance” in which she pretended to get spiders off her skirt by raising it high so the audience could see her legs. One newspaper reported that respectable women would not want to see this performance – but another newspaper jadedly stated that her skirts were longer than those of other dancers seen on Gold Rush San Francisco stages.

Lola married newspaper editor Patrick Hull at Mission Dolores in July, soon after she arrived. She married five times; this husband was to last for two months.

She arrived in Grass Valley that summer after traveling and performing around the Gold Country. Her act included the dances and a play titled Lola Montez in Bavaria in which she impersonated herself. One theory to explain why the notorious Lola Montez would settle in such a small town is that her performances were sometimes met with catcalls and vegetable pelting—a response to both her dance skills and her habit of insulting heckling audiences. Grass Valley might have been a retirement option. She settled in a cottage and collected animals, including a bear cub tethered in the yard. At Christmas, Lola held a party for the little neighborhood girls. One of these girls was six-year-old Lotta Crabtree, whose mother, Mary Ann, ran a nearby boarding house.

Lola stayed in Grass Valley for two years and then went on to Australia to find her fortune in its Gold Rush and spread her “Spider Dance” notoriety.

Charlotte Mignon Crabtree (1847-1924) was known as “Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite" and “The Nation’s Darling.” By the age of 27, she was one of the most highly paid actresses in American, but today she is known primarily as the donor of Lotta’s Fountain. Located at the intersection of Market and Kearny, it was built in 1875 for both people and horses. Lotta, like Lola, was fond of animals. She was at one time the vice president of the Massachusetts SPCA, and left $300,000 in her will to her charity, the Lotta Dumb Animal Fund.

Just like Lola, Lotta and her mother, Mary Ann, arrived in San Francisco in 1853. Lotta’s father, John, had come to California to seek gold. After waiting in vain for him to return to New York City, Mary Ann, with Lotta in tow, came west via the Panama route to seek him out.

John Crabtree was somewhere in the gold fields when they arrived. They stayed with friends before renting a place on Telegraph Hill, where their neighbors included actor David Robinson, his wife, and a child named Sue. Although Sue was not actually their daughter, the Robinsons began traveling with her around mining towns because a child was such a rare site that people would pay to see her sing and dance.

At some point, the Robinsons, Lotta, and Mary Ann and John Crabtree all landed in Grass Valley. Lotta was enrolled in a children’s dance class held in a tavern. Although legend has it that Lotta learned to dance from Lola Montez in Grass Valley, the more probable story is that Lotta made the claim after realizing the publicity value of linking her name to the notorious Lola.

Lola Montez’s notoriety spawned careers for actresses doing parodies of her act. These included Sue Robinson, who did her own burlesque “Spider Dance” as a child in the mining camps, and Lotta, who also performed a satire of the dance.

At 8, Lotta began touring the Gold Country as a dancer, singer, and banjo player. A few years later the family moved back to San Francisco, where she got her first big booking in the American Theater where Lola had previously had her San Francisco opening. In 1864, having made her name in California, Lotta and the family left to tour the east coast, where she began acting in plays. The height of her career was in the 1870s and 1880s.

Lotta never married, although she was escorted by a number of men. It was assumed that Mary Ann, her constant companion, stood in the way of her romances. Mary Ann, however, told people that Lotta collected men like others collected teapots. In any case, she was still playing children’s parts until the end of her career at age 45, and marrying might have cut into her act as the ingénue.

She returned to San Francisco for the last time in 1915, when she was feted at Lotta Crabtree Day at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, and also at Lotta’s Fountain.

Credits: Bruce Seymour: Lola Montez, A Life David Dempsey with Raymond P. Baldwin: The Triumphs and Trials of Lotta Crabtree

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This photo is assumed to be Lola Montez (Elizabeth Gilbert).

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Lotta at the height of her career. She was said to sprinkle her red hair with cayenne pepper to make it sparkle in the theater lights.

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