Who’s Got Talent? Acting Up in the Old West

victoria_bylin_bannerHas 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?  1870s-opera-singer

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.

actress-lotta-crabtreeAmong 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.  opera-star-wt-carletonExpenses 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.


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17 thoughts on “Who’s Got Talent? Acting Up in the Old West”

  1. What a colorful post! I was in the drama club in high school and took part in musicals and drama festivals. I loved it. My favorite show was Anne of Green Gables. There’s so much humor in it. For one performance, I had to fill in for the girl who played Diana Barry’s mother – awkward because Diana, who was supposed to be ten, was six inches taller than me!

  2. Hi Jennie, I thought I’d be the first one up, but you beat me by 30 minutes! It must have been such fun to be in drama. I did journalism in high school (no surprise there!) but I had friends in Drama. My high school did a performance of “Hello Dolly!” I still get those songs running through my head.

  3. How funny that you mention Hello Dolly. My high school did that musical as well. I was an instrumentalist (flute) down in the orchestra pit.

    My favorite night was the night the power went off. For nearly 30 minutes we had no lights. The actors started improvising, cracking jokes while staying in character. No one left. The audience laughed and when the power was finally restored, we carried on to the end. For those of us in the pit, it was a blast. We knew all the rehearsed lines, but having the improvisation helped us all remember how much fun we were really having.

    I wonder if those old traveling troupes improvised as much as memorized.

  4. Hi Karen, Sounds like you had a fun evening during the black-out. I’d guess Old West traveling troupes did a lot of thinking on their feet, especially the shows with several acts.

    “Hello Dolly” made for a great high school show. I know my high school did others, but that’s the one I remember.

  5. Hi Vicki – I bet there is a whole lot of talent here at Petticoats, but that wouldn’t be me. I was never bitten by the acting or singing bug. I spent one year in chorus in junior high, but that’s the extent of it! I did some extensive research on Lotta Crabtree for a book. It’s a great story and I think her home is still standing. Great blog!!

  6. Hi Vicki,

    In high school I was in the play “Grease” It was alot of fun but that is all I have ever done in that line.

    I really love my writing

    Walk in peace and harmony,


  7. Hi Charlene! I was fascinated by Lotta’s story, especially her later years. She deserves a blog of her own. I wonder why she never married. The romance writer in me is already spinning tales.

    Howdy Melinda! “Grease” must have been a ton of fun. It’s such a lively show. I’m with you, though, on writing. I find it much easier to burrow in the my writing cave than walk out on stage!

  8. In high school there was no drama club. Each year the junior class had a class play and the senior class had a class play. In my junior year I played the Lingerie Lady (who mispronounced it as Lingery) in our production of The Egg and I.

  9. Hi Vicki, what a great post. I especially loved the pic of the Earp dudes and Doc. I loved that movie. I loved that Josie and Wyatt were married almost 50 years! Yowza.

    No…I have never had an itch to perform. In fact, I hate being looked at. Up the aisle as MOBster was bad enough, but book signings totally scare me LOL. oxoxoxoxo

  10. Hi Tanya, “Tombstone” will always be one of the my favorite movies. Having raised two boys, I love how the Earp brothers interact. And Josie and Wyatt . . . fifty years is something to celebrate.

    Howdy Mary, LOL! I love American Idol, but I’d rather eat dirt than walk across a stage! Can’t wait for next season : )

  11. Hi Vicki!

    Great post — very colorful — like the picts of the actresses from long ago. Makes you think. I remember doing research on them — and how they used to travel — by train, on foot — by stagecoach — interesting post, Vicki!

  12. Victoria,
    Thanks for the interesting post.
    Forget any acting ability. I’ve written little things for scout troops and school groups, worked props and directed (if you can call it that) these groups.
    All my siblings are into karaoke, three of them have their own setups and lots of cd/dvds to go with them. They have lots of parties and practice all the time. I’ve only done it once. I’m sure practice would help. I sing along with my CDc and my musical
    movies, even at work.
    Have been on TV several times. The first time was mortifying. I was in high school and dropped all my notes on the floor just as they aimed the camera at me and told me to start. I stared at the camera like a deer in headlights. Someone finally had enough sense to switch to one of the other students.
    Over the years, I’ve gotten used to public speaking and it doesn’t bother me anymore. However, the first time I had to get up and make a speech in front of a large crowd I was so nervous I raced through it. It is true, your knees can knock and your legs turn to rubber. I had a death grip on the podium or I would have fallen.

  13. Hi Patricia, Thanks for stopping by Wildflower Junction. I’m amazed by people who can easily take the stage, whether for acting or speaking. My knees would be knocking, too.

    I love music, but only if I can sing along with folks who drowned me out!

  14. I once was in a play in 4-H and Mom coached me and my cousin; we did an excellent job by the congrats and applause and standing ovation we got. I loved it but would be too nervous now to do any more acting.

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