There is no escaping the truth that certain performers have possessed an entirely distinctive mystique that cannot be explained by general principles of professional ability or contained in ideas such as beauty, talent, familiarity, or passion. Lotta Crabtree was perhaps the most significant stage genius of this sort. Cute rather than beautiful, improvisational rather than schooled in her acting technique, a perpetual ingenue caught in a time warp for thirty years that arrested her age somewhere between sixteen and twenty, an eccentric dancer, an audacious banjo player, "Little Lotta" emerged as a girl entertainer in the California gold fields. Good fortune gave her a supremely theatrical mentor in Lola Montez who trained her in the art of equanimity standing at the focus of people's eyes.
After an apprenticeship performing in goldfield taverns playing skits ("Nan the Good For Nothing") and musical interludes, her family moved to San Francisco, and there on the stages of the city's theaters she developed an ardent following. There was something about the small, red headed performer with her daughterly candor, her pertness, and her energy that captivated grown men and women. She played variety as well as drama, and her first vehicles, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Jenny Leatherlungs" afforded her a quiet moment solo on stage when she could strum her banjo and create an intimate connection with the audience. In 1864 she toured America's East Coast theatres performing both plays.
Crabtree's initial appearances inspired moderate interest at Niblo's in New York, until she apprared in Philadelphia. There Leonard Grover, a manager, glimpsed the possibilities and convinced John Brougham to fashion a vehicle suitable for her unique talents. She premiered the signature play of her early career, "Little Nell and the Marchioness," an adaptation of Charles Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop on her second national tour. As little Nell her genius as a physical comedian emerged as well as her daring in pursuit of stage effect. She provoked a sensation and established the ingenue play--the girl drama--as a central component of post-Civil War drama.
She was fearless in her exploration of the limits of characterization, donning outre costumes, ventriloquizing a range of male and female voices, and entirely willing to appear a dirty slumgulion as much as a refined debutante. Beginning 1870 she toured with her own star company, a practice she pursued tirelessly for twenty years.
One dilemma surrounding her career was the disparity between audience response in America and in Great Britain when she performed. She was welcomed with rapturous delight in most American cities, even when playing the most threadbare of plays. But when she presented "Musette," one of her stronger vehicles, in London in 1884, she was hissed. In some way Americans recognized in Lotta their own gestures, moods, and manners--things that appeared decidedly odd to those unfamiliar with American ways. Though she would appear in European dramas, "Fancon, the Cricket" and the like, she preferred plays set in the country of her nativity, such as "Zip," "Heartease," and "Little Detective."
Throughout her professional career her mother Mary Ann Crabtree, a cunning, disciplined, and acquisitive woman, served as her manager. She oversaw a burgeoning fortune, invested in real estate, paid off her alcoholic husband not to be in the vicinity of any performances, and launched numerous lawsuits to hold various exploiters of her daughter at bay. She also fended off the waves of suitors who appeared declaring their devotion to America's "darling." Lotta never married, though rumors of her connections to various men circulated America's newspapers throughout her life. By the time of her retirement at age 45 she had become as cagey a financial wized and real estate collector as her mother, and a lover of horse flesh as well, installing her brother Jack as chief of her stable of race horses. In private life she possessed a serious streak, an intense sympathy for members of the acting profession, and a concern about the quality of life in the cities she inhabited--New York, Boston, and San Francisco. She gave many benefactions, and her will largely went toward charitable works. David S. Shields/ALS