Coal And Culture
Opera Houses in Appalachia
by William Faricy Condee
Ohio University Press,
Dust in the Footlights
by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1996 All rights reserved.
"They are but beggars that can count their worth;
But my true love is grown to such excess
I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth."
As Juliet professed her love to brave Romeo, the good Friar Lawrence made haste to join them in holy matrimony. Their fair Verona was a small, wood-plank stage set before a painted backdrop, illuminated by lamps and candles and warmed by a cast-iron stove.
A crowd of 400 had gathered to witness the "two hours's traffic" of their stage, but the evening was to be foreshortened, consumed with a glow burning hotter than the lovers' passions.
The date was Thursday, May 18, 1865. The setting was the Forrest Theatre, largest of the Northwest mining camps. Over 15,000 people -- mostly young men -- were living in the rich Idaho placer district at that time. More than three dozen saloons lined its streets. Andrew Johnson was president of a reunited nation and reconstruction had begun. The great Indian Wars on the plains were still to be fought.
Into this wilderness encampment, as rich with cards and whiskey as with gold dust, came the famous actress Julia Dean Hayne, her bags packed with the fineries of culture: Shakespeare, Moliere, eye liner and rouge, long flowing gowns.
Her face creased with the lines of 35 years, and her voice missing the youthful tones that once swelled New York opera houses, Hayne was riding the stagecoach of her fame across the West for $300 a night. On the Forrest's little stage, she and her leading man, George Waldron, were playing the Bard's star-crossed lovers.
"Alive in triumph and Mercutio slain?" bellowed Romeo after the death of his friend.
"Away to heaven respective lenity, And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!"
But before Romeo could have his revenge on the murderous Tybalt a cry of "Fire!" echoed through the theatre. Flames were sweeping up the street through the center of town and the Forrest was in their path.
Waldron, all thoughts of Tybalt and revenge vanished from his mind, beat a swift retreat. Scepter and shield in hand, plumes waving in the wind, he dashed from the stage to the great amusement of the crowd, which hurled its jeers and applause after him.
A correspondent to the Sacramento Union reported finding poor Juliet outside "standing in a sluice box with disheveled hair, light dress and slippers, and without the least idea of what had become of Romeo." He offered her a blanket to cover her head from the cold rain that began to fall, and escorted her to more comfortable quarters.
The tragic end of the Forrest, which burned to the ground with the rest of Idaho City's business district that evening in May, paralleled the rise and fall of professional theatre in mining camps throughout the Northwest,
Opera houses and "temples of Thespis" capable of seating hundreds in their parquets, galleries and private boxes were erected almost overnight in towns like Virginia City and Butte in Montana Territory, Boise and Silver City in Idaho, and Walla Walla in Washington. Charging from one to two dollars a head -- payable in gold dust or nuggets -- they did a brisk business with the entertainment-hungry miners, only to vanish just as suddenly once the veins of ore ran out.
Incongruous as it may seem on the image of a hard drinkin', street brawlin' boom town gold miner, theatre was a favorite leisure-time activity and Shakespeare a most popular playwright.
Mountain men, soldiers, miners, homesteaders and cowboys all took Shakespeare with them as they settled the West, and when the first theatres were built they demanded productions of his works.
Dramatic troupes and elocutionists followed the 49ers to California, then northeast into the high country as each new gold strike was reported. Theatre in the gold camps was not the polite affair one found in the big cities, though. An audience of boisterous young gold miners would find ways of amusing themselves when the action on stage began to lag. Inappropriate laughter, pranks, catcalls, and obnoxious noises were common.
Or, if tensions were running high as they were in Walla Walla at the height of the Civil War, gunfights would break out. The Walla Walla Statesman reported a "shooting affray" in the Pioneer Theatre in April, 1862:
"The performance was passing satisfactorily to all concerned when a soldier who had been drinking too freely marred the pleasure of the occasion by boisterous conduct. Marshall Porter attempted to pacify him, and upon being resented was about to remove him from the house, when a pitched battle commenced, others of the soldiers engaging, and finally a general fight ensued between civil officers and citizens and soldiers. Pistols were drawn and fired indiscriminately. One soldier was shot dead on the spot and another received a wound from which he died soon after."
Gold camp audiences were quick to reward performers whose work pleased them, tossing coins and bags of gold dust to the stage. Attractive and talented actresses like Julia Dean Hayne would often receive a gold brick from admirers at the end of a successful run of shows.
But if a performance was dull or an actor relied too often on his prompter for lines, the miners were just as quick to show their disappointment. An awful production of "Richard III" in Sacramento, for instance, was interrupted by vegetables, a sack of flour and a dead goose, forcing the murdered King Henry to rise from the dead and make a premature exit.
Like gold-seekers, the performers in the mining camps of the Northwest went looking for quick riches. Some amassed fortunes greater than those of the miners they entertained; others experienced dashed hopes that mirrored many of their patrons.
When the miners moved on, they took the ore veins of theatre with them -- a large population in need of entertainment -- and the performers left to pan their gold in other streams..