In 1982, the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce established a bifurcated award honoring visual artists and performers – a long-awaited award that recognized art as a major contributor to the local economy. The board unanimously supported the idea and John Parent, if I remember correctly, suggested that it be named after Lee and Sally Lewis.
The first recipients of the Dr. Leland and Sally Lewis Award for Visual Arts were Dick and Bev Hackett, with longtime choir director Miriam Libby receiving the performing arts award. The first awards were presented at the 1983 Chamber Installation Dinner at the National Hotel when the winners were not announced until the annual banquet.
If you knew Dick and Bev, you can imagine how difficult it was to convince them to attend such an affair. The only reason they agreed was a suggestion from Allan and Betty Rogers that being at the dinner would represent a sign of appreciation from the arts community to the Chamber of Commerce for creating the award. Little did Dick or Bev know they were going to be the first recipients and the cantankerous Bob Paine would introduce them and give the presentation.
Paine, as elders will no doubt remember, liked to talk about Nevada City’s past, but insisted on being called a storyteller, not a historian, because historians had an obligation to stick to known facts and storytellers could, within reason, tell any colorful tale they wanted. (And Bob spun a few doozies, that’s for sure).
These days, storytelling versus history can usually be sorted with an internet search or a visit to the Searls Historical Library. Despite these readily available resources, however, the new owners of the National Hotel claimed during their 2020-21 renovation that Lola Montez was invited there. The truth is that Lola left Nevada County in the spring of 1855 to participate in a gold rush then underway in Australia, and the hotel did not open until the following August.
There is no indication that she ever returned here, so the promotional use of Lola’s name and likeness, suggesting that she had once been a hotel guest, is an example of storytelling, not story. But we’ve written about it in the past, so there’s no need to rehash Lola mythos today.
JUST ONE MORE
Well, OK…maybe just one more.
But first, let me say that Sarah Coleman, Miles Toland, and Brianna French designed and produced a fantastic Nevada Theater mural project that will dazzle viewers for decades. It’s a stunning piece of art, but I was surprised to see that as part of the mural project, a portrait of Lola now hangs in the lobby, depicting one of the “lowest performers.” most remarkable” of the theater – a statement made for many years by many people. . But Lola died in 1861 and the theater did not open until 1865.
I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, and I enthusiastically applaud the mural project, but in 1865 Lola was dead and buried in Brooklyn. It’s an undeniable fact that even my dear friend Bob Paine couldn’t have slipped.
How did such a factually impossible statement become part of local history? The most likely explanation is that although Lola performed in Nevada City at a Nevada theater, it was another Nevada theater – unrelated to the current one – located a few blocks from the building that now bears this name. The timeline mix was apparently printed decades ago and, as the old saw says, the rest is history. Except, in this case, it’s not history; it is a myth that will not go away.
Notables who danced, sang, preached, acted, lectured, or entertained audiences at the 1865 Nevada Theater include very important figures of the second half of the 19th century. But, alas, Lola was not one of them.
Mark Twain, Tom Thumb, clergyman/social reformer Henry Ward Beecher, French violinist Camilla Urso, Italian opera star Pasquale Brignoli, illusionist Harry Keller, dancer Loie Fuller, Cornish countertenor Richard Jose and many other luminaries of the Victorian era graced the original 1865 Nevada Theater stage, including soprano Emma (Wixom) Nevada, who in 1901-02 took time off from her usual schedule of operas Europeans to tour the United States. The tearful and moving concert she gave at the Nevada Theater in March 1902 turned out to be Emma’s last performance at her childhood home.
As for the Dr. Leland and Sally Lewis Prize for the Visual Arts, I think Sarah, Miles and Brianna deserve a standing ovation, and I hope that circumstances allow for an official presentation later this year.
Historian Steve Cottrell, former Nevada City Councilman and Mayor, can be reached at [email protected]