Crabtree, Lotta (1847–1924)

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Crabtree, Lotta (1847–1924)

American actress. Born Charlotte Crabtree in New York City on November 7, 1847; died in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 25, 1924; attended Miss Hurley's Spring Valley School; never married.

Born in New York City in 1847, Comedian Lotta Crabtree grew up from the age of four in California, where her father pursued a dream of hitting it big in the Gold Rush. In 1855, she began touring the mining camps, entertaining miners with songs, dances, and recitations. Chaperoned by her mother, the red-headed moppet played barrooms, schools and grocery stores and, according to a correspondent to the Brooklyn Eagle, became "the pet of the miners."

By 1857, Crabtree had refined her routine and was touring theaters in and around San Francisco. Her first legitimate role was Gertrude in Loan of a Lover in 1858, during which time she also spent six months at Miss Hurley's Spring Valley School, the longest period of uninterrupted schooling she would have. In 1859 and 1860, she performed at the Opera House and Eureka theaters billed as "Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite." Her first appearance in New York was not successful, but, after a three-year

tour, she returned to a sensational reception in the premiere of Little Nell and the Marchioness, a play written especially for her by John Brougham. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine compared her to "California wine, bright, sparkling, piquant." Crabtree was an established star; playwrights rushed to write for her, and she won enormous success in plays like Heartsease, Zip, and Musette. From 1870, she toured with her own company, becoming one of the first actresses to travel with supporting players instead of relying on local stock companies to supply them.

Crabtree took Musette to London in 1883, where audiences had trouble following the plot and resorted to harassing the actors with catcalls and insulting remarks (not unusual behavior for 19th-century theatergoers). Undaunted, she is reported to have enlisted Dickens' son to write her an adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop, which both critics and audiences adored. She followed that triumph with a comic vaudeville called Mam'zelle Nitouche, in which she performed an opera parody, did a turn on the snare drums, and sang a Japanese song.

Returning to the United States, Crabtree purchased the Park Theatre in Boston for a huge sum and embarked on another successful tour. One reviewer, upon seeing her 1885 season opener at New York's Grand Opera House, described her distinctive talent: "No one can wink like Lotta. No woman can perform so wide a variety of contortions with her features… no one can kick higher or oftener." In 1887, David Belasco and Clay Green wrote a play for her called Pawn Ticket 210, which she introduced in Chicago. Throughout her career, she was distinguished by a perpetual childlike innocence, no matter how daring her dances or risqué her repartee, and her naturalness and grace won the hearts of audiences.

During a tour in 1890, Crabtree fell on stage, injured her back, and never fully recovered. Then 45, she retired, returning to the stage only briefly during World War I to entertain soldiers and veterans. She traveled, took up painting, and after her mother's death bought the Brewster Hotel in Boston and moved in. Having amassed a fortune, she invested in racehorses, theaters, office buildings, and jewelry. Crabtree died on September 25, 1924, leaving over $4 million to charity, much of which went to aid veterans, ex-convicts, and abandoned animals. One million was designated for the Lotta Agricultural Fund and bequeathed to Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts), where it provided interest-free farm loans and agricultural scholarships. Lotta Crabtree scholarships continue to be given to University of Massachusetts students. There is also a dormitory named for her on the Amherst campus.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Crabtree, Lotta (1847–1924)

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