Has anyone here been bitten by the acting bug? Maybe you sang in a high school musical or auditioned for a television commercial. Have you sung in a choir? How about Karaoke? Have you ever taken the microphone?
I’ll confess to one group Karaoke adventure. There were six of us, all women. We did a truly awful version of “Lollipop” at a community potluck. Thankfully this was before YouTube. Other than that one experience I’ve only been on the audience side of the entertainment world, yet somehow I’ve ended up with an actress as the heroine in my current manuscript. She’s given up her career to raise her two younger siblings, but she still has a heart for the stage.
What would her life have been like?
Interesting, to say the least! The traveling theater troupes in the Old West offered a variety of acts with a varying degrees of sophistication. Shakespeare recitations were popular, and so were trained monkey acts, jugglers and acrobats. Singers performed everything from Italian opera to popular songs like “Home Sweet Home.”
There was something for everyone in a theater show, and the audiences were diverse. Reserved sections had cushioned chairs and catered to people with money. The cheap upper balcony seats were available to folks with lesser means. The key here is that theaters brought large numbers of people together for the sake of being entertained.
This was a definite shift in how Americans enjoyed music, songs and storytelling. Instead of enjoying these pursuits in their homes with family and friends, people became part of a crowd. We’ve all heard it . . . the thunderous applause, the collective gasp at a moment of drama. Going to a theater performance, then or now, is very different from listening to Cousin Lizzie pound out “Beautiful Dreamer” on an out-of-tune piano. Folks would be–and still are–entranced by a certain actor or singer and a star would be born.
Among the most well known actresses in the west was Lotta Crabtree. Born in New York City in 1847, Lotta traveled west to Grass Valley, California with her parents as a child. She started performing at the age of six and gained the attention of famous actress Lola Montez. Lotta was in the right place at the right time. The California Gold Rush brought countless miners to the gold fields, and they were hungry for entertainment. A singer, dancer and banjo player known for her Irish tunes, she become known as “Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite.”
Just for fun, I want to mix in a little Hollywood. Do you remember Josie Marcus? She wasn’t well known for her stage roles, but she earned fame in Tombstone. She’s the actress who married Wyatt Earp. One of my favorite scenes in the movie Tombstone, (the one with Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp) is when he and Josie go riding. The movie does a nice job of depicting the audiences that took in theater shows as well as the variety of acts that entertained those rowdy crowds.
Life with an acting troupe didn’t include caviar and fancy dressing rooms. Expenses had to be covered by ticket sales, which could vary drastically. If sales were low, the owner of the show (often the lead actor) might cancel the show and move the troupe on. For a popular show, extra performances would be added. An opera company (“opera” here means light opera performed in English) would travel with a small orchestra and add local talent where it was available. There was no time for rehearsals, so that first show could be interesting for the audience and the musicians.
What about you? Have you had an interesting experience on a stage? Have you sung karaoke-style or been on television? Maybe you play a musical instrument. I’m in awe of musical and acting talent and would love to hear about your experiences.