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Vaudeville Susie's Riot; or, Entertainment on the Frontier

The Rebel sympathizers resented the Union soldiers taking all the seats when Vaudeville star Susie Robinson of Corvallis took the stage. The soldiers wouldn't back down. Then somebody pulled a pistol ... and the battle was on.

An illustration showing a Vaudeville theater scene in around 1899, from Schribner’s Magazine, by William J. Glackens. The theater in which a riot broke out over frontier Oregon beauty Susie Robinson was, of course, considerably less refined than this one. (Image: Library of Congress)

In the winter of 1860, the little riverside frontier town of Corvallis was home to a young Vaudeville singer named Susie Robinson.

Susie was the star attraction of the Robinson Troupe of Vaudevillians, led by her father. And “star” was the word for Susie: Virtually the entire male population of the mid-Willamette Valley was in dopey, hopeless love with her.

“Her form and voice were praised by all, and her virtue extolled, while her father gathered at the door of his theater willing tributes enough, each day, to have made her a golden crown,” recalls pioneer George A. Waggoner in his 1905 memoir. “Was ever a queen so fortunately situated?”

Waggoner opines that, although Susie’s talents would not have carried her far on Broadway, she was by far the best thing anyone in Corvallis had ever seen.

“We know now that she was not a great actress or singer,” Waggoner remarks, rather ungallantly; “and my roving eyes have since discovered that she was not a remarkable beauty, but at that time many Oregon boys had never seen the gay tinsels of a stage costume; never been thrilled by the rich tones of a cultivated voice, or seen a beautiful woman poised on one toe, and she took the frontier heart by storm.”

Had Susie Robinson and her father stayed in Corvallis, she probably would have had a long and rewarding career in the up-valley Vaudeville theater scene. But in the autumn of that year, something very exciting happened near a little creek way out in what is today the state of Idaho: Gold — lots of gold — was found in Orofino Creek, a little way east of Lewiston. Then, the following spring, a little party of prospectors struck gold even closer to home — on the banks of Griffin Creek, just a few miles from Baker City in Eastern Oregon.

Torrents of eager miners departed from Corvallis and other valley towns that year, headed for the gold fields of the east. Ramshackle, lawless towns sprang up, with names like Auburn and Granite. Eager young swains poured eastward hoping for a lucky strike — closely followed by the usual crowd of gamblers, swindlers, robbers and other hard characters looking for easy marks.

And, of course, as towns sprang up in the gold fields with populations in the thousands composed entirely of young, rich bachelors, it was clear that the demand for a good Vaudeville theater would be nearly unlimited.

How could the Robinson Troupe stay in boring, depopulated Corvallis when such a literally golden opportunity beckoned?

And so the Corvallis Family Robinson packed up its things and followed the eager miners over the mountains, and re-established itself just across the Columbia River in Walla Walla, in what was then Washington Territory.

 

Now, as you may recall from history class if not from personal experience, 1861 also saw the outbreak of the American Civil War. There was a frontier fort in Walla Walla, and a couple of companies of Army regulars had been stationed there. And when the Robinson Theater set up shop in town, word of Susie’s talents and charms spread through the ranks of the boys in blue like a bugle call. Soon entire companies were pouring into the theater, seating themselves by platoons before the stage, filling the entire joint.

The local Walla Walla miners resented this a great deal. They, too, were thoroughly smitten with Susie, and did not intend to be kept from her shows by these out-of-town interlopers. These feelings were especially strong among residents who were in sympathy with the South — which was, at that time, the majority of the town.

Tensions grew, but not much; frontier miners weren’t big on impulse control. Instead, they simply showed up in force and drove the soldiers out of the theater one day, ordering them not to return.

Now, these soldiers were men who had enlisted to fight the Southern rebels. But instead of doing that, they were now parked in a crappy fort in the middle of nowhere, where their sole purpose was to discourage the area’s Native American tribes from getting “uppity.” They were already a little sensitive about being left out, especially as word came in of battles and conquests back east. They were in no humor to let the humiliation heaped upon them by these rowdy Rebel sympathizers go unchallenged.

Accordingly, on the next performance at the Robinson Theater, the soldiers came prepared.

“They came fully armed, and determined to insist upon their rights,” recalls Waggoner — who was in the crowd that day. “We all knew a fight was coming, and divided our sympathies according to our political opinions.”

Members of both camps were able to get into the theater before capacity was reached, and harsh words were exchanged. Susie, perhaps hoping to defuse the brewing blow-up, came out on stage and started to sing. This made things better at first … but then suddenly it made it all much, much worse:

“A hearty round of applause greeted her, and she acknowledged it as a favorite can, and commenced to sing,” Waggoner recalls. “One of the soldiers, who had been drinking, continued to cheer, and the marshal attempted to take him from the room.”

The drunken soldier wheeled on the marshal, whipped out his heavy Colt Dragoon revolver and pistol-whipped the officer with it … and the fight was on.

“Instantly the house was in an uproar,” Waggoner recalled. “Susie screamed and ran from the stage. Navy Colts leaped from their scabbards and bellowed like the roar of artillery.”

A local outlaw named “Cherokee Bob” jumped up and started shooting, picking soldiers off like bowling pins at a shooting gallery. Return fire knocked him off his chair, but it later turned out he’d been wearing armor under his shirt.

“The firing continued from all parts of the room, and a terrible stampede ensued, everyone but those engaged trying to get out of the house,” Waggoner writes. “More than 50 shots were fired, and the room was filled with smoke, out of which pistols blazed, fired at supposed enemies, although several times friends fired upon each other.”

Waggoner, unfortunately, gives us no hint of what his role in the fracas was — whether he was among those shooting, or those running for the exits. But he was there in the aftermath, carrying a man shot directly in the breast to a surgeon for a desperate attempt to save his life. The man, who had given himself up for a goner, turned out not to even need the surgeon; a bag of coins in his pocket had turned the bullet away from his vitals, leaving him with a minor flesh wound.

Others weren’t so lucky. However, considering the number of shots fired and the size of the crowd packed into the theater, the death toll was astonishingly light: Just three men died. Dozens more were wounded, however.

 

In classic gold-field boomtown style, this deadly riot was accepted as just part of life on the frontier; the wounded dressed their injuries as best they could and got back to work, the dead were buried with appropriate ceremony, and everyone else made plans to sit closer to the exits next time Susie took the stage.

“No one was arrested, and the theater went on as usual,” Waggoner writes. “But Susie never seemed quite the same afterward. 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 afraid someone was going to shoot.”

This sort of shell-shock on Susie’s part is certainly understandable. Still, as Waggoner points out, it’s not every Vaudeville actress who can honestly say that men have fought and killed and died for the right to hear her sing.

(Sources: Waggoner, George A. Stories of Old Oregon. Salem: Statesman, 1905; Bromberg, Erik. “Frontier Humor: Plain and Fancy,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Sept. 1960)