“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun”.
Even those with the most basic knowledge of, or interest in, Shakespeare, will be familiar with these words from Romeo and Juliet. Of course, they are uttered by Romeo in the famous balcony scene in Act 2.
However, the scene before us is no Royal Shakespeare Company production in Stratford-upon-Avon but a gambling palace turned melodeon or music hall called the Bella Union, located at Washington and Kearney Streets in late nineteenth century San Francisco.
And our “star-cross’d” lovers are not Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, or even Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, but a baseball bat wielding wild man and a 20 stone woman of whom it could not have been said for at least 30 years that she was “not yet fourteen”. The incongruity does not end there – because of her bulk she cannot be trusted not to demolish the balcony the moment that she steps on to it, so she is placed centre stage whilst Romeo growls his immortal words from the balcony instead.
Romeo is played by Oofty Goofty, whom we have met already in this series (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/great-san-franciscan-characters-12-oofty-goofty) And his “all-seeing sun” was portrayed by Big Bertha, a wealthy woman with a dubious past. Their performances are the talk of the town, although Oofty’s violent displays leave Bertha “covered with bruises from head to toe” every night, leading to her vowing never to play the part again.
Big Bertha, who is described by Herbert Asbury in his splendid The Barbary Coast as a “sprightly lass of 280 pounds”, had first appeared in the city in the mid 1880s claiming to be a wealthy Jewish widow in search of a man to help protect her fortune. In order to test any suitor’s value and good faith, she required him to hand over to her a sum of money that she would then double and risk on an unnamed investment.
This worked so successfully that she “collected several thousand dollars from a score of lovelorn males, not a penny of which was ever seen again by its rightful owner”. Although she was eventually arrested for a succession of such scams, none of her victims had the courage to charge her for fear of public humiliation. She was released on nominal bail and the case against her dropped.
She now decided to turn her attentions to a stage career, approaching Ned Foster and Jach Hallinan, managers of the Bella Union and Cremorne melodeons respectively. Recognising her potential they hired her immediately under joint management and put her on display in an empty storefront on Market Street. Dubbed the “Queen of the Confidence Women”, for ten cents she would, at regular intervals, rise from her reinforced chair and recount the list of dreadful crimes that she had committed in San Francisco and other cities, “embellishing her account with many vivid details”.
She would then regale the assembled throng with horribly off key renditions of the only two songs she ever knew: A Flower from my Angel Mother’s Grave” and The Cabin Where the Old Folks Died. This proved so popular that, after a brief engagement at Bottle Koenig’s, where her erstwhile Romeo had also performed briefly, her act transferred to the Bella Union stage and converted into what became an equally celebrated song and dance revue in which she sang “sentimental ballads in a squeaky voice”.
Aside from the Romeo and Juliet farce, Bertha was involved in one other crazy theatrical moment. She was cast in Byron’s Malzeppa as the eponymous hero strapped to a horse or, in her case, donkey as punishment for having an affair with a young countess. Her entrance always drew ecstatic applause, but one evening it all went horribly wrong.
Wilting under the nightly strain of carrying Bertha, the donkey lost its footing and crashed into the orchestra pit, taking the massively proportioned Bertha with it. The musicians’ reaction has not been preserved for posterity but it is not unreasonable to speculate that their language was not equally as colourful as that bellowing from the lips of the hero / heroine’s. Neither can I report whether the hapless donkey sustained any lasting injury.
But it did herald the end of Bertha’s bizarre acting career, who confined herself to singing and, on occasions, dancing. This proved more successful, culminating in her wrestling ownership and management of the Bella Union in 1895. However, restrictions placed on the sale of liquor three years previously eventually forced her to sell up and leave. And that is the last we hear of her.
“So please you, let me now be left alone”.