By Jim Harmon
Few got more “ink” in Missoula newspapers back in the late 1880s and early 1890s than the man known as the “Great Tragedian.”
Daniel Edward Bandmann was a much-acclaimed, world-traveling Shakespearean actor who was born in Bettenhausen, Germany, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1863 as a young, 20-something actor.
A couple of decades later, as part of a U.S. tour, his troupe stopped in Missoula for a four-day gig at a local “opera house.” It turned out to be quite memorable. The “opera house” had been constructed on the site of an old stable and the aroma on a warm June night in 1884 (how shall we say this?) “flavored” the performance.
Despite that first impression, Bandmann was smitten with Missoula, and would soon make it his home.
By this time, the Great Tragedian was well into his 40s, had traveled the world twice and written a book, “An Actor’s Tour, or Seventy Thousand Miles with Shakespeare.” He was in his second marriage and had a rather open affair with a young starlet named Louise Beaudet, a member of his troupe. His weakness for women would nearly bankrupt him in later years.
Once settled in Montana in the late 1880s, he produced Shakespearean fare at Missoula opera houses while busying himself purchasing hundreds of acres of ranch land in the Hellgate canyon (known these days as Bandmann Flats), where he raised livestock and planted some of the finest orchards in the state.
Now, saying he “settled” in Missoula is a bit misleading. He had a home here, but he continued to be the “jet-setter” of the 19th-century.
Here’s an example from a three-month period in 1888.
In mid-July he was in Missoula, but planning a trip to England.
In August, he was receiving an icy reception on a London stage, when his production of “Jekyll and Hyde” went all wrong. An overseas dispatch read, “Through an unfortunate mishap in the stage setting and some absurdities of dialogue intended as humor, the performance accounted to little more than burlesque.”
By September of 1888, Bandmann was back on the East Coast where the New York Sun reported, “People about the American horse exchange, 50th St. and Broadway, had something to talk about yesterday. Actor Daniel Bandmann headquartered his newly imported stallions and mares there, and at intervals he brought them out to show them to his friends. They are all Percherons, and exceptionally fine ones… the entire bunch will be sent to Montana this week to his ranch.”
As witnessed above, the press, from New York to London to Missoula, covered his every move whether it be on the opera stage, in legal matters or about agriculture and ranching. By the 1890s, it was nearly impossible to read a Missoula newspaper without seeing his name. If he announced the cast of characters for a Shakespearean production, it made the paper. If he sold Canadian Poplar trees, it was duly reported. If he was having a gopher problem at the ranch, it made news.
The Western Democrat reported, “Anyone who is anxious to kill gophers – go to Daniel E. Bandmann’s ranch. Will Cave says it is the best place for gophers he ever saw, he having killed, with M.B. Hendrix, 150 in one day. The next time he went out there, they were just as plentiful.”
Not to be outdone, the Missoulian launched wall-to-wall-on-going-gopher-goings-on-coverage, “Daniel Bandmann, whose ranch, east of this city, is infested with gophers and ground squirrels without number, is in receipt of a small shipment of Ericsson’s patent Squirrel and Gopher bombs, and has arranged for a regular gopher carnival on his ranch for tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock.”
In the follow-up report we learned, “The Gopher-Squirrel exterminating performance at the Bandmann ranch drew out a number of Missoulians… the Ericsson bombs were buried and exploded and it is believed that their work was effective. The experiments will be continued.”
Even Bandmann’s dog made the news, “The rehearsal of the Bandmann company at the opera house, last evening, was greatly enlivened by the frantic maneuverings of Richelieu’s prize canine. A reward has been offered for information that will tend to disclose the identity of the misguided individual who had decorated the dog’s rear appendage with the theater dust pan.”
Bandmann also operated toll roads and bridges, which rankled more than a few locals, including some Indians who refused to pay, and camped out on Bandmann’s property.
As the story goes, Bandmann dealt with the Indians by, “…(stepping) out of his door in a terrifying costume… reciting theatrical lines at the top of his voice switching languages from German to English to French… (Then) he abruptly turned around and re-entered his home. He and a friend watched from the kitchen window as the Indians gathered round in consultation then systematically packed up and moved on never to use his yard as a camping spot again.”
You can visit the Missoula city government website for more details of that story.
But, that humorous reference to Bandmann’s toll roads and bridges was the exception. More commonly his enterprises led to lawsuits and assaults, while his women-troubles threatened to do him in. More on all that next week.
Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.