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Early Entertainers and Theaters of the West


By Paisley Kirkpatrick

Everyone likes to be entertained.  The arrival of a theatrical troupe or a famous personality has always been exciting, and the early days of the West were no exception.  Entertainers were always a welcome sight, especially in the mining towns and camps of the Mother Lode where the audience was mostly masculine.  The miners wanted pleasing performers, and they were happy to reward them.

The early entertainers were a hardy group.   They traveled long, uncomfortable miles over rugged mountains, dangerous trails, and arid deserts to see the glitter of gold and to achieve fame.

Once the actors and actresses reached their destination, they often had to perform under primitive conditions.  There were no dressing rooms or sanitary facilities.  Many times their stage would be the floor of a blacksmith’s shop with a wagon canvas for a curtain.  They would appear in a tent, schoolroom, or a saloon.  The orchestra was usually a flute, violin, and guitar played by musicians who had never read a note.

They offered medicine shows, drama, and variety.  There were special rooms with cheap decorations, where the patrons could meet an actress for a price.  Many times a miner would pay $100 for a seat and toss more gold on the floor when the show was over.

In Virginia City, the Queen of the Comstock, the first theater, opened in 1860.  It was called the Howard Street Theater and ladies were not admitted.  Business was good so Maguire’s Opera House opened its doors in 1863.  It was an opulent establishment.  The auditorium was carpeted, ornate crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, spectators were seated upon gilt chairs and there were velvet railings for the boxes.  The enthusiastic audiences were wealthy, but not necessarily elite.  They came for entertainment and had the money to pay for it.  The shows ranged from Adah Isaacs Menken in the “Mezeppa” to minstrels and dog fights.

Taken from Women of the Sierra by Anne Seagraves



  1. Great post, Paisley! While it’s so easy for us to turn on the TV for entertainment, our ancestors didn’t have that luxury. I tweeted this.

  2. Thanks Susan. I agree, we are a spoiled society. I know I complain about not finding much entertaining on TV anymore, but I suppose if we went back to the two or three channels like we had when the TV first became common in households, we would think our selection now fantastic.

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