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This Victorian-Era Performer Learned that the Stage Life in the American West Wasn’t All Applause and Bouquets

#This Victorian-Era Performer Learned that the Stage Life in the American West Wasn’t All Applause and Bouquets

Sue Robinson

The California Gold Rush. The very words evoked the strong reaction of an American populace driven by adventure and a lust for easy riches. Drawn inexorably west in the wake of the Jan. 24, 1848, strike at Sutter’s Mill were argonauts from every walk of life—shopkeepers, former soldiers, fallen women and those willing to parade their talents onstage for bemused hardscrabble miners. Among the latter was the Robinson Family, a husband-and-wife acting duo with four kids in tow. The youngest of the brood would become one of the most celebrated performers in the annals of Victorian theater in the American West. With her onstage portrayals Sue Robinson brought to a viewing public the humor, angst and subtle realities of everyday life in that time and place.

The “Fairy Star”

Born in suburban Chicago on Jan. 14, 1845, Robinson moved west at age 6 with her parents and siblings, who were soon performing for Gold Rush audiences composed primarily of young men starved of family life. The Robinson Family trouped the length and breadth of the mother lode settlements, from northernmost Georgetown south through Coloma, Angels Camp, Murphys and countless other hamlets since lost to history, their names—Bottle Hill, Poverty Bar, Limerick, etc.—reflecting both the struggles and humor of the era.

The touring life held little of the perceived glamour of the entertainment world. On July 4, 1855, the Robinsons found themselves performing atop a giant sequoia stump for a raucous crowd in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Three years later the family drew such a throng to Poverty Bar’s Treadway Hall that its main stringer and floor joists gave way. Even when performances fell short of expectations, Sue in particular garnered flattering notices from the various camp presses, which regularly lauded her as the “jewel” of the family troupe. One reporter ascribed her popularity to a combination of factors:

“She is only 8 years old, yet she appeared to understand all the fascinating qualities of her sex of a more experienced age. This in connection with her sprightly and graceful dancing, as well as her natural beauty and sweet disposition, is sufficient not only to make her a favorite among us, but also to endear her to the hearts of all with whom she is acquainted.”

People dancing on giant sequoia stump
By the early 1850s the Robinson Family had moved to California and was touring the entertainment-starved mining settlements of the Sierra Nevada. During its 1855 Fourth of July gig in the foothills the family performed atop a giant sequoia stump, which survives in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Every booking was critical to the family’s survival.

Recognizing the appealing innocence of their star attraction, Sue’s parents billed her alternately as the “Fairy Star” or “La Petite Susan.” Yet, the endless trouping in the rough-hewn mining camps scarred the young girl’s psyche. At age 8 she was severely injured while exiting a stage in Grass Valley when she brushed past the open flame of a footlight and caught her clothes on fire. Rushing to her rescue, her parents themselves were scorched in the effort. Fortunate to have survived, the Fairy Star was soon back onstage, though from then on she was prone to fleeing the stage at the mere hint of trouble.

From an early age the youngest Robinson recognized the importance even a few coins could mean to the survival of her struggling theatrical family. One evening, as she completed the Scotch lilt for an appreciative audience of Placerville miners, the men showered the stage with coins. Ignoring a bouquet of flowers thrown to her, Sue didn’t exit till she had retrieved every last coin, even filling her shoes with them.

The multitalented young girl’s singing embraced everything from sentimental ballads to grand opera, while her dance specialties included jigs, flings, clogs, the cancan, “La Cachucha” (performed with castanets), “Fisher’s Hornpipe” and a double “Sailor’s Hornpipe” performed with older brother Billy. Among her most popular numbers was a burlesque of Irish dancer and actress Lola Montez, who had reportedly taught both Sue and contemporary child star Lotta Crabtree the infamous Spider Dance, during which Montez would writhe and cavort to rid her flimsy costume of spiders, to the delight of appreciative male audiences.

Tragedy and a Rivalry

Sue was only 10 when her mother fell ill and died on Aug. 22, 1855, while on tour in Diamond Springs, sending the family fortunes into a tailspin. Economic uncertainty was and remains a stressor in the acting profession, but his wife’s death pressured Joseph Robinson to take dire measures to provide for his children. In addition to trying his hand at theater management, Sue’s father opened a dance school in Sacramento, advertising his daughters, “La Petite Susan” and Josephine, as potential dancing partners for gentlemen customers. As survival took precedence over propriety, father Robinson—characterized by one period newspaper as a peripatetic “bilk,” a Victorian-era term for an untrustworthy individual—appears to have abandoned any feelings of paternal responsibility for his daughters’ welfare.

Another formative factor in Sue’s childhood was an ongoing, unspoken competition with Crabtree, who rose to become a nationally known actress and variety star. Both girls experienced insecure childhoods spent relentlessly touring the mining settlements to perform before mostly male audiences. They occasionally crossed paths. Sue played the hand organ in a troupe that supported Lotta’s first professional performance, and in the mid-1850s Robinson performed in a saloon opposite Crabtree in a neighboring saloon. In a painful memory for Sue, the miners abandoned her performance, crossing the street en masse to watch the charismatic, slightly younger Lotta. Dressed in green and wielding a miniature shillelagh onstage, Lotta became the darling of the newly immigrant Irish then fueling the labor force in the camps.

Sue Robinson and Lotta Crabtree
Early in her career Sue Robinson (above left) performed largely in the shadow of the younger, more charismatic Lotta Crabtree (above right). In one humiliating instance, when the actresses were billed in neighboring saloons, Sue’s audience abandoned her in favor of Lotta. But Robinson persisted, playing more than 300 roles before packed houses in the most respectable theaters of the era.

While both girls learned the basics of stage presence, Robinson struggled with less emotional and financial support than that afforded the more celebrated Crabtree. The disparity prompted one contemporary actor to remark that had Sue been given proper theatrical training, she would have equaled any other actress of the time. Yet, the multitalented Robinson persisted in the face of adversity. Celebrated as a “child of extraordinary promise,” she sang, danced, played the banjo and, as she matured, excelled in the genteel comedy pieces and farces that followed the featured melodramas. By age 14 Sue was receiving top billing in show posters promoting the Robinson Family.

Growing Celebrity

In 1859, after remarrying a captivating performer scarcely 10 years older than his oldest child, Joseph Robinson moved his family to the Pacific Northwest, where recent gold discoveries augured a new gold rush. Playing their way through Oregon and Washington by 1860, the family spent a year in Victoria, British Columbia, headquartered in a building Joseph leased and converted into a theater. Trouping back to Portland, Sue appeared onstage with the handsome Frank Mayo, a regional actor and comedian who went on to national fame. Like Sue, he had come West as a young hopeful during the gold rush.

In some ways Sue’s life was typical for a member of an acting family prone to chasing the next theatrical opportunity and dollar. Generally ostracized from polite society, actors were clannishly protective of their own. On May 4, 1862, 17-year-old Robinson married fellow thespian Charles Getzler in Walla Walla, Wash., where she soon gave birth to Edward, the first of their two sons. Though Getzler was 12 years Sue’s senior and not her first love, he professed his adoration for her. Seeking stability and a parental figure to help assuage both the loss of her mother and her father’s veiled exploitation, Robinson almost certainly hoped for a stable married life. Sadly, it was not to be. Much as the Fairy Star had been the breadwinner for her vagabond gold camp family, so Sue shouldered the support of her husband and boys as a young adult.

Complicating matters was her growing status as a celebrity, which carried its own perils. A few months into the couple’s marriage a smitten theater patron approached their home, threatening to kidnap Sue. As Charles wrestled the deranged fan to the ground, a concealed gun in the man’s clothing discharged, killing the would-be kidnapper. On another occasion, when fistfights and gunshots erupted in a theater audience composed of enamored Union soldiers and citizens desiring decorum, a panicked Sue ran offstage. “Susie never seemed quite the same afterward,” recalled one eyewitness to the fray. “A slight commotion in the audience would attract her attention in the midst of her best song, and in her best play she always looked as though she was just a little afraid someone was going to shoot.” That nervous strain hovered just beneath the surface. When an earthquake struck during a performance of The Soldier’s Bride at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City, Nev., Sue bolted from the stage, only returning when the aftershocks had subsided. The tremulous quality of her closing song betrayed her lingering fear.

In her best moments, absent such disruptions, Robinson exuded a calm, professional demeanor—quiet by theatrical standards. Feeling more comfortable onstage than off, her pursuit of acting as an adult after a childhood spent before the footlights was her most logical, if not only, career choice. Empowered by her celebrity status and the ability to earn a living, Sue continued performing even after marriage and the birth of sons Edward and Frederick. As a dramatic actress she often executed men’s “breeches” roles, perceived in that time and place as both sensational and erotic. Clearly, Robinson didn’t feel hemmed in by conventional gender boundaries.

For Victorian-era actresses the theater was a paradox. By entering what was traditionally a male space, they breached societal norms, a transgression that discredited their work. Yet, the theater was a place where women could earn an income equal to that of a man and maintain a degree of autonomy over their lives. The theater also had the power to overturn prevailing gender stereotypes that bound women to domesticity, keeping them indoors, protected, frail and helpless.

Stardom in San Francisco

Sincerity was a hallmark of Victorian ideology, and Robinson’s realistic acting—deemed “finished, truthful and good” by one critic—continued to reap positive reviews. Another critic found the “young but promising actress possessed of far more real talent than many who are lauded before the public as stars of the first magnitude.” Though the charismatic Crabtree had outshone Robinson in childhood, Lotta never grew beyond the song and dance routines that were her bread and butter. Sue attained a higher level of recognition as a legitimate actress in classic dramatic roles opposite the leading male actors of the day.

During her tireless theatrical career Robinson is thought to have played more than 300 different roles and performed before tens of thousands of people. Her first stage appearance in the growing entertainment mecca of San Francisco was at the Union Theater in 1855. Sue was praised for her Ophelia, played opposite the Hamlets of Lawrence Barrett, John McCullough and Edwin Adams, three of the era’s best tragedians. She appeared for almost two seasons as Sacramento’s leading lady, executing Desdemona, Lady Macbeth and Portia in other Shakespearean plays, as well as comedies, melodramas and farce. In December 1868 Sue accepted a one-year contract with Maguire’s Opera House in San Francisco, and by the early 1870s she was regarded as one of the best, if not the best, comedic actresses in the West.

Maguire’s Opera House, San Francisco
In 1868 Robinson signed a contract with Maguire’s Opera House (above), one of the most prestigious theaters in the West Coast entertainment mecca of San Francisco. Within a few years, however, the divorced and heartbroken actress had started her own touring company and returned to an exhausting schedule. On June 17, 1871, Sue died of an unspecified illness. She was only 26 years old.

Still, mainstream Victorian mores inevitably seeped into the life of the successful, assertive actress, who was often billed under her husband’s last name. Getzler accompanied his career wife to San Francisco, where in 1869 a domestic dispute led to violence. A year later she filed for divorce. Sue’s accolades may have threatened the insecure, underperforming Charles, whose job as saloonman also may have contributed to alcohol abuse. The divorce papers charged that “without cause or prevarication…he committed a violent assault and battery…by beating and bruising her severely, telling her at the same time that she was only a thing to use for his own convenience.” In colorful testimony Getzler accused Sue of being unchaste, called her a “bitch and strumpet” and insisted “all actresses are whores.” In an era when courts weighed a woman’s chastity, the judge accepted his assertion the couple’s younger son, Frederick, was not his and split custody. Sue kept Frederick, Charles kept Edward.

On the Move

After the divorce, though the loss of the companionship of son Edward grieved her, Sue continued to tour with her own theatrical company. Three women and five men constituted the Sue Robinson Company, which closed its run in Virginia City, packed up a mud wagon and pushed on to Reno. Actors were challenged to find paying customers, and the quest kept them constantly on the move. A ticket speculator in Reno charged theatergoers 75 cents to take in Robinson’s performances and pocketed a tidy profit, while the troupe lost money on the deal, having covered the hall rental. After performances in Truckee and Dutch Flat, Calif., the troupe performed on dusty stages in gold rush towns long past their heyday, out of necessity skipping town with unpaid hotel bills.

The company’s luck changed in North San Juan, a Sierra Nevada hydraulic mining camp where Sue had performed as a child 12 years before. On July 4, 1870, the day of the troupe’s arrival, the settlement suffered a devastating fire. Without hesitation, two of Robinson’s leading men manned a fire hose from the vantage of the hotel roof. Thanks in part to their efforts, the blaze was confined to a small section of town, and that night the company’s performance of Camille set a new theater attendance record in North San Juan. Grateful townsfolk rewarded the troupe with several ovations and curtain calls.

Though Robinson reportedly earned more than $80,000 ($1.5 million in today’s dollars) in the 1860s—largely while touring through Washington, Oregon and Idaho—and though she had announced her retirement on several occasions, each time she was compelled to return to the stage in support of her family. One biographer blamed her “worthless” husband for having forfeited her earnings on faro tables across the West. When not touring, Sue performed menial labor to supplement the family income.

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According to friends, such persistent financial concerns, coupled with overwork and continued threats by Getzler that she’d never again see son Edward, contributed to her decline in the summer of 1871. Uncharacteristically, Sue canceled several performances, calling in sick. In early June her vindictive ex-husband sent her sheet music to a song entitled “You’ll Never See Your Boy Again.” Whether the sentiments of the lyrics pushed her over the edge is uncertain. Regardless, on June 17 Robinson succumbed to an unspecified illness while on tour in Sacramento. The epitaph on her tombstone in that town’s New Helvetia Cemetery reads, A fallen rose, the fairest, sweetest but most transient of all the lovely sisterhood, suggesting the fleeting nature of the acting profession and the ephemeral status of the characters she’d portrayed onstage.

Sue’s career had been in ascendance, as she had recently agreed to appear as leading lady at McVicker’s Theater in Chicago, one of the nation’s leading playhouses. Though just 26 at the time of her death, she had already spent 20 years in show business, her career having paralleled the glory years of economic prosperity with professional highs before appreciative audiences.

“Not All Sunshine”

Much of Sue Robinson’s life has been lost to the greater drama of the California Gold Rush and its substantial effect on the settlement of the American West. Forced into a performing life by her parents, she made the best of her significant talents, as both a child entertainer and as a stellar adult comedic and dramatic talent. Her early theatricalities before rough, mostly male audiences provided them welcome respite amid dangerous, demanding lives. She was rewarded with a successful career. Fittingly, her last role was in a play called Ambition, an emotion that had driven her to persist through many trials and setbacks.

Ironically, in their time the Old West figures that today capture the lion’s share of popular interest seldom captured headlines beyond their immediate locales, while the popular actors of the Victorian era were familiar to untold thousands nationwide. The male and female celebrities of their day, such performers informed behavior, fashion, society and politics. Robinson herself often starred in melodramas steeped in morality and devoted to the Irish experience, thus helping homesick immigrants deal with the realities of a new world. Her dramatic choices underscored her fame, earning her the adoration of audience members, though on occasion the latter’s emotions got the better of them. For example, years after Robinson’s death a deranged fan, still distraught over the loss of the cultural icon, tried to dig up her grave in the New Helvetia Cemetery.

Among Robinson’s many mourners was Gold Hill News editor Alf Doten, an ardent fan and returning audience member for many of Sue’s Virginia City performances, who in his notice of her death correctly surmised, “Her path through life was not all sunshine.” On learning of her death, Doten rushed to a local photographer’s studio to purchase three pictures he’d taken of Sue, taking comfort in the images of the actress he’d admired from the flip side of the footlights. His gesture was a fitting tribute to a woman who had been thrust into the challenging life of a performer in the American West and risen to the top of her profession.

California-based writer Carolyn Grattan Eichin adapted this article from her 2020 book From San Francisco Eastward: Victorian Theater in the American West. For further reading Eichin also recommends Troupers of the Gold Coast: The Rise of Lotta Crabtree, by Constance Rourke.

Originally published in the Spring 2024 issue of Wild West magazine.

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