Big Bertha arrived in San Francisco in the middle eighteen-eighties, posing as a wealthy Jewish widow searching for a good man to take care of her money, which she described as being far more than she could count. She required each suitor to transfer to her a sum of money, to be added to an equal sum of her own, the whole to be risked on an investment of which she alone knew the nature.
In this extraordinary manner she collected she collected several thousand dollars from a score of lovelorn males, not a penny of which was ever seen again by it's rightful owner. She was at length arrested, but none of her victims felt inclined to brave the torrent of publicity that would result from prosecution, she was released on nominal bail, and the cases against her dropped.(2)
As Big Bertha gained fame, the manager of the Bella Union hired her and put her on display in an empty storefront on Market Street as "Big Bertha, the Queen of the Confidence Women, Admission Ten Cents." Bertha's act consisted of a long "confession" of awful crimes she had never committed, followed by an off-key rendition of "A Flower from My Angel Mother's Grave." This went over so well that she took her act to the Bella Union and turned in into a song-and-dance revue, which soon became the toast of the town.
Meanwhile, another star named Oofty Goofty, plastered with tar and horsehair, was wowing them with his Wild Man of Borneo Act, during which he repeatedly snarled out his name while shredding hunks of raw meat with his teeth.
Big Bertha, the Queen of the Confidence Women, played a brief engagement at Bottle Koenig's and then went to the Bella Union, where she achieved considerable renown as a singer who couldn't sing, a dancer who couldn't dance, and an actress who couldn't act. Built as a gambling palace in 1849, the Bella Union quickly began hosting burlesque sideshows, which eventually supplanted gambling as the main attraction. Its biggest star was a 19th-century performance artist named Big Bertha.(2) Her work in the drama, indeed, was so remarkably bad that she attracted audiences from all over San Francisco and brought to the Bella Union and the Barbary Coast hundreds of citizens who had never vsited the quarter before and never did again. (2)
Her greatest triumph was achieved in "Romeo and Juliet", in which she co-starred with Oofty Goofty.
The management at the Bella Union, seeing the natural chemistry between San Francisco's biggest female and male stars, decided to cast Oofty and Bertha as the leads in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Their move was a decade ahead of its time, for it wasn't until 1896 that Alfred Jarry destroyed Macbeth with his outrageous parody Ubu Roi. Though the Bella Union version of Romeo and Juliet pretty much stuck to the original script, a few minor revisions in stage directions were necessary. Big Bertha was so heavy she couldn't possibly be hoisted to the balcony, which wouldn't have supported her in any case. So Oofty Goofy howled out Romeo's lines from the balcony, while Bertha played Juliet from the ground. Oofty Goofy, unable to shed his typecast persona, played Romeo as the wild man of Borneo; Bertha emerged from each performance covered with bruises from head to toe.
This was probably the most popular production that Ned Foster had ever staged, but within a week he was compelled to take it off the boards, for Big Bertha complained that as a lover Oofty Goofty was entirely too rough. She flatly refused to act with him any longer.
Soon thereafter Foster presented here in a condensed version of Mazeppa, in which she made her entrance strapped to the back of a donkey. This was also greeted with great acclaim, until one night the donkey fell over the footlights, carrying Big Bertha with him, and well nigh exterminated the orchestra. During the excitement Big Bertha, scratched and angry, crawled from beneath the braying donkey and, in language which she had doubtless learned during her career as an adventuress, indicated that she would never again play the role of Mazeppa. Thereafter she confined her stage work to singing, with an occassional dance, and appeared at various melodeons until 1895, when she obtained control of the Bella Union.
In 1895 Big Bertha takes control of the Bella Union on Kearny Street, or was it Pacific Street, where the Holiday Inn is now located. When she can't sell liquor, she shuts the establishment down for good and leaves the Barbary Coast(1)
Oofty Goofty was the stage name of a sideshow performer who lived in San Francisco in the late 19th century.
Leonard Borchardt's first glimpse of America was brief. The fourteen year old stowaway from Berlin was discovered en route to the new world by the Captain of the SS Fresia. He was forced to stay on the ship, join the crew to earn his passage, return to Germany and back again to the United States, before being allowed to disembark in New York. From there Borchardt drifted from state to state before signing up for the U.S. Cavalry in Detroit. After learning he would be fighting Native American Indians who might scalp him - Borchardt deserted, sold his horse and gun to a farmer, and headed for San Francisco. He arrived in 1884 at the age of 22.
Borchardt would try any crazy scheme for money, starting with his impersonation of a "Wild Man of Borneo", the scam that was to give him his infamous moniker. He was painted with glue, stuck with hair, and laid out on a roof to dry for five hours. Then he was shackled in a cage and fed raw meat whilst scaring visitors with grunts and wails of "Oof, Oof". He performed this act in the Dime Museum Show and was a huge success; but his manager skipped town with the proceeds, leaving Borchardt close to death on account of his pores being blocked by whatever it was that had been fused to his skin. Borchardt made the news and was visited by curious medical students as he lay in a Turkish bath for five weeks waiting for the glue to dissolve. This cost the City $300 before he was well again. From then on Borchardt was known throughout California simply as Oofty Goofty.
Instead of shying away from the limelight as some might after such a to-do, Borchardt (now a celebrity of San Francisco's Barbary Coast), embraced his new persona and no dare was considered too much of a challenge. From one day to the next you would not know if you might find Oofty Goofty acting as a human skittle in Woodward's Garden where patrons would win a cigar if they hit him with a baseball, or hear of him heading to New York pushing a shiny red wheelbarrow for a bet, (a challenge that failed after 40 miles when he was knocked over in the darkness, landing head first in a creek).
For $20 he even allowed himself to be shipped in a box to Sacramento as a joke gift for a young lady. That they carted him there with the box updside-down, and left the package unopened in a warehouse over the weekend, did nothing to lessen his bravado, although he later admitted he was "pretty near played out that time".
But Oofty Goofty was made from tough mettle. Not only did he survive a court martial for his earlier desertion, escaping three years of hard labor by throwing himself off a cliff to achieve early dismissal on grounds of disability.
Oofty, after a long and illustrious career, met a different, sadder fate. His big career move came when an irate clubowner, embarrassed at having booked such a loser, had the bouncers pick up Oofty and throw him through the air and into the street. Oofty slammed into the pavement with enough force to crush the spine of an ordinary mortal.
Staggering to his feet and brushing himself off, he made a remarkable discovery: He felt no pain! Just to make sure, he entered the nearest saloon and offered to let its nastiest-looking denizen punch him for a nickel. Still, he felt no pain. Soon Oofty was earning a good living with his expanded repertoire: for a nickel you could slug him, for a dime you could kick his rear end with all your might, and for a quarter you could slam him in the butt with a baseball bat.
Practically every male in San Francisco, from the movers and shakers to the lowest denizens of the Barbary Coast, could brag of having banged on Oofty at least once. But finally, after decades of suffering the painless blows of fate, Oofty suffered the inevitable fatal blow. Heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan busted his spine with a pool cue, and Oofty died broke a couple of years later(1)
While San Francisco would undoubtedly have liked to claim this colorful character forever as its own, Oofty Goofty actually moved to Texas where his antics continued. Sullivan's legendary belting did not stop him from traveling from one oil field to the next, where he would invite drunken workers to thrash him with a baseball bat for cash. Neither did his fertile imagination subside when it came to entertaining the masses with his fanciful schemes for making money. The last we hear of him, Oofty Goofty favored racing to drink beer with a bar spoon and quail-eating contests that became all the rage at the time.(3)
|Oofty Goofty's companion, Philomena Faulkner|
|This is not the same guy.|
He is referred to in a story by Bill Pronzini, "The Bughouse Caper." [Kurland, Michael (editor) "Sherlock Holmes - The Hidden Years" New York, St. Martin's Minotaur 2004]
So is the Grateful Dead's Bertha maybe, actually about Big Bertha? I recall it was supposedly about a large fan in their office but perhaps this is more factual.
1.)^Weirde, Dr., Oofty Goofty Stars in Romeo and Juliet,
2.)^Asbury, Herbert, The Barbary Coast: An Informal History, pg. 136
3.)^Breach, Sam, Leonard Borchardt's “Oofty Goofty”, http://www.sfcityguides.org/public_guidelines.html?article=1326&submitted=TRUE&srch_text=&submitted2=&topic=San%20Francisco%20Characters