Culture took hold despite tough crowds, conditions

By Dixie Reid
Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998

Bayard Taylor and Stephen Massett spent the afternoon together at Sutter's Fort and made their way to Front Street by early evening. They arrived just in time for Sacramento City's first night of culture.

The occasion -- on Oct. 18, 1849 -- was both highbrow and historic. "The Bandit Chief" was the first English-language play ever presented in the West, and it unfolded inside the Eagle, California's first professional theater. Box seats were $5 apiece; pit seats were $3.

Eagle theater
When the curtain was down at Sacramento's Eagle Theater, patrons were apt to pull out a deck of cards -- and sometimes a pistol.

One newspaper wag called the Eagle Theatre an "oasis in a great desert of the mind." It was just canvas stretched across a wood frame and secured under a tin roof. The city had no river levees then and the Eagle flooded so often, even on opening night, that it was closed down two months later.

But civility was here to stay. Actors, singers, dancers, musicians, minstrels and even circus performers came to Sacramento City, as it was called then, seeking a fortune made more easily than by wresting reluctant ore from rocks. A top-notch actor, for instance, might earn $500 a week.

Later on, Taylor and Massett wrote about the Eagle's opening night. Massett was less impressed with the play than with the storm's consequences.

"It had been raining hard and blowing a gale of wind the whole day, and the strength and durability of the building had been sorely tried," he wrote in "Drifting About," a book he wrote in 1853. "However, as the hour drew near for the opening of the doors, crowds of anxious miners thronged the entrance, and despite the winds and torrents of rain, the place was immediately filled.

1st governor a 'squirrel'
"By the time we arrived," he wrote, "we found that those fortunate to have secured pit tickets had the pleasure of enjoying a freshwater bath for the same money -- a luxury unknown almost in those days as people rarely washed themselves -- for by that time, the water was on a level with the seats."

His friend Taylor wrote in the 1850 book "El Dorado" that spectators, mostly miners, wore heavy overcoats, felt hats and knee-high boots. The drenched canvas offered no ventilation, so the theater was stifling hot. And Taylor also recalled the unscripted antics of the sole female cast member, Elizabeth Ray. He wrote that she repeatedly "threw herself into an attitude" on stage.

"The miners to whom the sight of a woman is not a frequent occurrence, are delighted with these passages and applaud vehemently," he wrote.

Popular California Song, 1849
The smelly, unwashed miners -- their pockets bulging with gold dust -- sometimes left the diggings upriver to entertain themselves in Sacramento City. Early on, the canvas settlement offered them not only theater but the services of "soiled doves" and gaming houses. Games of chance reportedly were more popular than prostitution and were practiced anywhere, even in the genteel lap of dramatic theater. In an 1875 essay, theatrical agent John H. McCabe shared this anecdote about the Eagle:

"When the curtain was down, some of the audience would produce a deck of monte cards and give their neighbors a "lay out.' Considerable sums sometimes changed hands by this operation and, not unfrequently, a fight. Revolvers and knives would make their appearance freely, but nothing serious ever resulted."

Gold Rush Californians gambled on anything -- "in effect, everything which could be thought of to while away an idle hour or on which bets could be made," according to an 1880 Sacramento County history. Among the most popular gaming opportunities around here were bear-and-bull fights, cockfights and horse racing. The Sacramento Jockey Club, founded in 1850, maintained a quarter-mile track at Brighton, a settlement east of town.

*"It's an oasis in a great desert of the mind."
-- News wag's description of Eagle Theater
The miners who couldn't make it into town didn't lack for entertainment. Gaming was a regular diversion for them, too, and a fortune made one day was often lost that night. Variety-show performers sometimes traveled to the camps. In Marysville, local residents offered visiting players a crude theater consisting of a bedsheet curtain and footlights made by sticking candles into holes bored in the floor.

The bulk of Gold Rush earthly pleasures, though, was centered in Sacramento City and San Francisco. San Francisco's first-known cultural event was a June 1849 concert by musician Stephen Massett, who later attended the Eagle Theatre on opening night. He billed himself as Jeemes Pipes of Pipesville.

These entertainers traveled the same routes to California as did the gold seekers, and suffered the same discomforts and dangers en route. Actor John B. Atwater was both barefoot and destitute when he reached Sacramento City in 1849. However, he would go on to operate the Eagle Theatre and, later, San Francisco's first theater, Washington Hall.

It was at Washington Hall in January 1850 that Atwater staged San Francisco's first play, "The Wife." The San Francisco Call reported: "The only thing worthy of note on that occasion was the high price charged for admission, the large attendance and the poor performance."

High prices didn't discourage Gold Rush wildcatters from amusing themselves. They proved that in 1853, when the famous opera singer Catherine Hayes booked a "grand concert" at Sacramento's Presbyterian Church. The "choice seats" were to be auctioned off, and bidding for the first one started at $100 and rose to $1,200 (about $20,000 today.) The Sutter Rifles presented the ticket to Gen. John Sutter. The balance of choice seats went for as much as $50.

Lola Montez
The notorious dancer Lola Montez performed only once in Sacramento, where her hot temper made her unpopular, a newspaper of the time said.
Apparently, though, even cheap tickets wouldn't ensure a sellout for the notorious Lola Montez. She had traveled the world as a Spanish dancer and lived in Grass Valley. She danced only once in Sacramento City, in 1854, and a newspaper reported that she "made herself very unpopular by her violent and uncontrolled temper." She soon left California forever.

Throughout the Gold Rush, Sacramento's theater companies provided most of the top-notch entertainment. And it wasn't always flooding that confounded the upstart culture.

San Francisco's Washington Hall closed seven days after it opened to critical reviews of "The Wife," because the theater's treasurer had wagered, and lost, the week's receipts on a game of monte. That caused the company to break up and the actors to scatter.

Elizabeth Ray, the performer who'd made such a spectacle of herself at the Eagle, left for the Sandwich Islands with her husband. And John B. Atwater operated a traveling show for a while. He was last heard of living in Wisconsin, where he made a fortune developing firearms for the Civil War.

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