‘70s Laura Belle reenactor dons veil in reprise of role for ‘Crawl’
Rebecca Clark has played the younger Laura Belle McDaniel. This year, perhaps appropriately for the Cemetery Crawl, she is going to play the notorious Colorado
City madam from beyond the grave.
The annual fundraiser for the Old Colorado City Historical Society (OCCHS) will be Sunday, Aug. 23 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (last tour at 2 p.m.) at Fairview Cemetery on South 26th Street. Clark will be among eight people depicting characters from older Colorado City days who are buried at Fairview.
Tickets are $7 in advance at the History Center, 1 S. 24th St., or $9 at the gate. In a change this year, ages 12 and under get in free.
“I told my father [OCCHS treasurer Dave Hughes] I would do it if I was heavily veiled,” Clark said, then added, slipping into character, “I was in a car wreck and broke my neck, so I'm not the beauty I once was.”
Clark was the first of three in her family to play Laura Belle, who had run a house in Colorado City's red light district for nearly 20 years before her death in 1918. Clark originated her reenactment, when she altered a ball gown from her mother's (Patsy Hughes') younger days and wore it on a float depicting historic Colorado City at a 1978 Cripple Creek parade.
After reprising the role a few other times, including a precursor Cemetery Crawl about 20 years ago, Clark turned it over to her own daughters - Jennifer, who has played Laura Belle at the Crawl for the past several years, and Lindsay who did so once.
But this year, both her daughters have had babies, so Clark agreed to return under the above-stated conditions. Even if she's not quite as thin as she once was, the reach is not that great. Laura Belle was 56 years old when she died and always had been “a solid woman, never skinny,” Clark explained.
Unfortunately, no photos or drawings of the woman survive.
In any event, what Clark likes most about Laura Belle are character traits that had nothing to do with her appearance or her business. For example, in that fatal crash, it's said she was taking a blind miner to a medical specialist in Denver. “I think it's important, although we all like to remember her racy side, that she did a lot quietly” for Colorado City, Clark said.
Clark herself had a hand in gathering first-hand information about Laura Belle. “According to two oral interviews, including one that Clark did in the 1970s with car- racing family progenitor Louis Unser, Laura Belle was a major donor to the local schools. In addition, “her 'girls' would deliver food to destitute people, especially in the winter,” Clark said. “Louis Unser says she gave to police and firemen fundraisers and that they gladly accepted her donations.”
The interview also gave her an insight about Unser himself. “I have a feeling he visited her house,” Clark said. Then in his 90s (and she in her early 20s), “he started flirting with me, saying the person who had brought him in for the interview was his girlfriend, not his wife. So he was quite the rake, even late in life.”
But despite her generosity, Laura Belle never achieved true respectability. According to Unser, there actually was a problem getting men to be pallbearers for her funeral - their wives opposing the notion, possibly for personal reasons in some cases - until “Louis went around and shamed the men into it.”
Clark's inclination to play Laura Belle stems from personal admiration. “She had to have been pretty savvy to be both a madam and successful businesswoman,” said Clark, whose own career has included managing business operations. Beyond that, Laura Belle was “very forward thinking for the times. She had her girls 'checked' once a month by the local doctor… She took care of them, made sure they were fed, clothed properly, and not spreading disease.”
In general, Clark described Laura Belle as “a fascinating woman. I'm proud to portray her and have my daughters portray her.”
Laura Belle won't be the only “soiled dove” in this year's Cemetery Crawl. Sharon Swint will portray Blanche Burton, a Colorado City contemporary of Laura Belle's who is also known for her generosity and a violent, untimely death. In Burton's case, “she had bought a ton of coal and divided it among families who needed it the day before she died,” Swint said. Death came to the blond-haired hooker in an explosion and ensuing fire.
A friend of famous gold miner Bob Womack, Burton had gotten into “the business” in Cripple Creek when she was relatively old - age 32. Before that, she had been married with two children in Kansas. One of the children died in a fire, and the other she put in a convent, Swint related.
Until 1983, undoubtedly because of her profession, Burton had an unmarked grave at Fairview Cemetery. That was when the local Rotary raised the money for a new marker with her name.
The other new character this year is Mrs. Lou Ross, mother of Harrell Ross, who died in a drowning accident in 1904 at the age of 13. She will be played by OCCHS member Suzanne Schorsch.
“He and two of his friends went exploring in old Red Rock Canyon and decided to swim at the abandoned quarry,” Schorsch states in an e-mail. “Harrell 'swam but a little' and drowned in 10 feet of water. The water was very cold and they believe he had a cramp. Harrell was a bell boy at the Plaza Hotel and was having a day off when he passed away.”
A continuing Cemetery Crawl character will have a new actor this year. Steve Lebel, will play Colorado City attorney and mayor Oliver Ingraham.
In addition to careers, Lebel is like Ingraham in having come to Colorado from New England. “One of my partners volunteered me,” Lebel said of his decision to take on the part. “I'm a history nut - all kinds of history, military history, you name it, so I found it kind of interesting.”
Returning characters/ performers (in parentheses) at this year's Cemetery Crawl will be:
Westside Pioneer article