By Gretchen Hough Eastman

Amateur theater was a popular and important pastime at remote Army camps in the late 1800s.  Ft. Whipple, founded in Prescott in 1864, did not have a theater troupe in its first several years, a void lamented by the editor of the local newspaper, the Arizona Miner:  Theater, he suggested, would be “. . . much better than the sort of amusement indulged in by a great many of the Fort Whipple boys, i.e., getting drunk and shooting one another. . . “

ENTER, STAGE LEFT:  The Star of the Show, Frances “Fannie” Markbreit.  Fannie was born in 1848, and grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio.  She was cultured, bright, educated, and talented – as a piano player, singer and artist.  At age 24, she met Army General August Kautz, 20 years her senior.  They fell in love and married in 1872.

General Kautz had a distinguished military record.  He enlisted as a Private in the 1st Ohio Infantry in the Mexican-American War, and then went to West Point, graduating in 1852.  In the Civil War he commanded troops in the Union siege of Richmond, and after the war he served on the trial board investigating conspirators in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.  In 1874 he was assigned to the command of Ft. Whipple.  Fannie and their young son, Austin, born in 1873, moved with him to Prescott.

Fannie eagerly joined in all the social events held for officers and their wives at the Fort.  She attended night hops (dances), social suppers, card parties, and musical soirees.  She flirted harmlessly with the young men and was pleased to be the center of attention.  She even taught German language classes.

The staff at Ft. Whipple had tried a few times prior to the arrival of the Kautzes to organize and sustain a theatrical corps.  In 1873 General Crook’s wife Mary was the first woman to take part in a production; up until then the performers were always men – even in the female roles.  But the theater had been intermittent, without a consistent, dedicated leader.  Fannie would see to it that women were involved when she became the director of a vigorous Fort Whipple Dramatic Association.  She did slow down a bit in 1875 for the birth of their second child, daughter Francesca (“Frankie”).

She was determined to make Ft. Whipple the social and artistic center of Prescott.  Building a makeshift stage in what had been General Crook’s Club Room, Fannie and her fellow thespians started out with a one-act comedy, “The Boston Dip,” staged in 1875.  After a rousing performance, the group moved the chairs and “danced the night away.”

That first performance, open to the public and well-attended, drew front-page raves in the newspaper, and Fannie was off and running, as both director and performer.  This initial success encouraged the troupe to take on more complex plays.  Fannie drew in officers, their wives, and the enlisted men to perform.  It didn’t matter if they had no experience. It didn’t matter that Fannie had no experience as a director; she brought out talent that her performers didn’t know they had.

In January 1877 they built a new theater in the Headquarters Building with 200 seats and a 32-foot wide stage.  For the first time, a $1.00 fee was charged to cover the cost of the improvements.  Townspeople attended faithfully.

Most of the plays were light comedies.  Everyone who wanted to, talented or not (even the General) got to participate, to the delight of audiences.  A Tucson newspaper took a swipe at General Kautz, saying that he didn’t kill many Indians, but he murdered every role he ever played.

They were part of the U.S. Army, however, and not everything was fun and entertainment.  This fact was driven home when they learned about the loss of General Custer and his 7th Army at Little Bighorn.  Fannie organized a benefit to raise money for the wives and children of the fallen men.  She also held benefits for a local hospital and library.

EXIT, STAGE RIGHT:  In 1878 General Kautz was assigned to a post in California.  Prescott and Ft. Whipple felt the loss.  The editor of the newspaper wrote:  “Mrs. Kautz, by her genial and kind disposition, ladylike deportment, magnificent hospitality and open-heartedness in assisting every good work and charity as well as amusement, has won for herself the hearty good will and esteem of the community.”

ENCORE:  In 1903, after the death of her husband, Fannie and her daughters returned to live in Prescott for a time and became active in local amateur theater.  Upon her death in 1913, Fannie was buried next to August at Arlington National Cemetery.

Fannie Kautz is one of the several hundred pioneering Arizona women memorialized in the Sharlot Hall Museum’s Rose Garden.

For more information on Fannie and the extraordinarily lively amateur theater scene in Prescott, see “Stage-Struck Settlers in the Sun-Kissed Land” by Tom Collins, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Theater, a volunteer at Sharlot Hall.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.