Lights, Camera, Action!
● By Style
Hard on the heels of gold-rushing '49ers came the actors, many toting trunks full of costumes and scripts.
They performed popular melodramas and farces while aboard ship or camped along the Overland Trail. After reaching California, they found audiences hungry for theatrical entertainment, including the works of William Shakespeare. “Theater was more than entertainment for uprooted Easterners,” writes Helene Wickham Koon in How Shakespeare Won the West: Players and Performers in America’s Gold Rush, 1849-1865. “It was sustenance for the spirit.”
While most of the early mining camps sported their fair share of gambling houses and saloons, they also furnished venues – ranging from crude wooden platforms to the trunks of felled trees – where the miners’ own patched-together acting groups or traveling troupes of professionals could perform simple skits and multi-act plays. While the larger audiences and fancier theaters of San Francisco lured many acting troupes and individual performers, most of the companies took their shows inland to Sacramento, Stockton and the larger mining camps of the Mother Lode, including Old Hangtown.
In the early spring of 1852, John O’Donnell welcomed patrons to Placerville’s first legitimate theater building. His Empire Theater stood on the south side of Main Street, adjacent to a hotel of the same name. That night, a handsome New York actor named Frank Chamfrau took to the stage to play his famous role of Mose, a two-fisted, big-hearted Bowery fireman, clad in a plug hat and red shirt.
A renowned, close-knit clan of troupers known as the Chapman family also toured the Mother Lode and most likely performed for Placerville’s miners. Though considered to be superb Shakespearean actors, the Chapmans usually chose to perform broad comedies and exaggerated melodramas that attracted larger audiences.
The Buchanan Theatrical Troupe, on the other hand, presented Shakespeare classics including Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, and Macbeth at the Placer Theater in 1856. Two years prior, the Empire had burned, but in July of 1854, Bruce Herrick fitted up his Olympic Hall in the old Placer Hotel with a stage and scenery to provide Placerville with a new theater.
“Buck” Buchanan organized his small company “to enlighten the central mining regions of the state with illustration of the drama, as it had never been seen before, and as the hills declared ‘would never be seen again.’” As the troupe rode into Placerville and other mining towns with its four-house team towing a 10-passenger carriage, the animated Buchanan would walk alongside it, thumping a large drum.
On the evening of April 6, 1856, the cry of “fire” emptied the Placer Theater. The Buchanan troupe followed the crowd to Sacramento Street where, still dressed in their costumes, they pulled ropes, carried buckets of water, and helped fight the inferno wherever needed.
The Placer Theater continued to host performances until its roof caught fire in the July 6, 1856 fire. Charles Bonstel completed restoration of the theater in October and rented it to Darwin DeGolia. DeGolia changed the name to Concert Hall, where (according to the Mountain Democrat of September 6 and 13, October 25, and November 29, 1856) he held “monthly soirées.”