Lola Montez | State Library of New South Wales

Lola Montez

Lola Montez portraitLola Montez, 185? Artist unknown, Pencil sketch, P2/166

Lola Montez was one of the most famous international entertainers to visit the goldfields.  Thought to be of Spanish, Cuban, Indian or Turkish origins, she was born Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert in 1821 in County Sligo, Ireland. The stage name Lola Montez was adopted after four months' dance tuition and a visit to Spain. She made her stage debut in 1843 where she performed dances during intervals of opera performances.

She displayed some talent for dancing, but her beauty and her celebrity were her major successes. She cultivated a dedicated following across Europe, performing for King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in Berlin. She had countless lovers, including composer Franz Liszt.

By the time she reached Australia in 1855, she had appeared in dramas, burlesques and light comedies in cities such as Dresden, Berlin, Warsaw, St Petersburg, Paris, Munich and San Francisco.

She arrived in Sydney from California in August 1855 and opened at the Royal Victoria Theatre, Sydney – the oldest and most popular theatre in the city which held around 3,000 people. Audience numbers were not particularly strong until she advertised the performance of her famous Spider Dance.

One newspaper article described the dance in detail:

'The full perfection of her frame was revealed as she swung gracefully to the centre of the stage, and paused for a moment. She made it appear evident that she was entangled in the filaments of a spider’s web. In a dance step, she portrayed that she was more and more confused as the fibres wrapped themselves about her ankles. The music slowed as she discovered a spider in her petticoat, which she attempted to shake loose; then she discovered other spiders, and examining her skirts, she shook them to reveal even more spiders. The fight against the spiders became more and more hectic, as she danced with abandon and fire, and at the conclusion she had succeeded in shaking them out upon the floor, where she stamped them to death … the audience was held spellbound, and somewhat horror struck, but when the dance ended, the applause was thunderous; and as Lola Montes addressed her audience after numerous curtain calls, bouquets were showered at her feet …'

Although almost solely remembered for her Spider Dance which the Sydney Morning Herald described as 'the most libertinish and indelicate performance that could be given on the public stage', she also appeared in comedy pieces such as Morning Call and the dramas such as Maidens Beware.

Victoria Theatre, Ballarat, this new and elegant theatre will open on Saturday, Feb. 16, 1856, Ballarat, Victoria Theatre, 1856, POSTERS 1227

Lola enjoyed heckling her audiences if they criticised her. In Castlemaine, Victoria, she informed her audience one night that she was too tired to do the Spider Dance and was promptly hissed at and jeered and called a coward. She responded immediately saying that she was worth 70,000 pounds and 'did not care a pin' for the audience.

Incredibly popular with the miners, Lola impressed them with her courage by travelling down a mine shaft by putting her foot in a rope noose and, with only a glass of champagne in her hand, went down the shaft to wild applause.

She sailed from Sydney to San Francisco in May of 1856. Four years later, she died in Brooklyn, New York. She was reputed to be only in her early 40s.

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Lola Montez schottische, by J. Paltzer, Melbourne, [185-?], MUSIC FILE/PAL