Miss Lotta Crabtree was many things in her day. She was a prominent animal rights activist. She was a skilled dancer in variety. She was a child star. She performed in drag. She was a dramatic and comic actress. She played the banjo. And she sang. By the time she retired from the stage in 1891 at age 43 (she was rich enough to do that), she had been away from the variety stage for some time, making her – technically – not a vaudevillian. But she was as big in variety as Harrigan and Hart or Eddie Foy, and thus merits a treatment in this chronology.
She was born Charlotte Mignon Crabtree in New York in 1847. In ’51, her father, a bit of a drifter and a dreamer, split for San Francisco, to take part in the Gold Rush. Mrs. Crabtree and the family followed him out there the following year. Mr. Crabtree had not found any gold. Taking advantage of the national craze for “Fairy Stars” (child performers), Mrs. Crabtree enrolled her daughter in dancing school, and then pitted her against touring stars as the local challenger. For several years, the family toured mining camps and rough settlements, presenting singing and dancing Lotta for such pelf as they could command from the drunken, riotous, and uncivilized audiences they found out in the wilderness.
In 18 and 62, a professional agent began to book her at San Francisco melodeons, where she did jigs, flings, polkas and shuffles; played the banio; sang songs; and played protean (or male) roles. By 1864, she had conquered Frisco. She spent several years touring the Eastern half of the country with stock companies before taking New York by storm in 1867. For the next twenty-five years, she, sang, danced, and acted in a variety of roles that made her New York’s favorite—and wealthiest star. She spent the last 35 years of her life devoted to her many charitable causes.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.