Sometimes you wonder if there’s another, far more interesting story lurking behind what’s printed in the old newspapers.
First, some background: James Jeffries was the heavyweight boxing champion in the autumn of 1904, although he had announced that he was planning to soon retire. “Davy Crockett,” was a beloved melodrama that had toured the nation for a quarter century until the 1896 death of the actor known for the role.
Knowing in retrospect of Jeffries’ imminent retirement, it seems clear that the retiring sports celebrity was seeking a second entertainment career. It may appear odd for a boxer to switch to the dramatic arts (tonight only: Mike Tyson in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”) but according to a 1905 New York Times review, Jeffries wasn’t a bad actor — although the audience liked it most when he hit things or flexed his muscles. As his production was heading for New York in the spring, they might well have sought a place like Santa Rosa for an off-off-off-off-Broadway tryout.
Then there was the encore. “After the play,” the Times noted, “Jeffries illustrated how he ‘did up’ people, not in the manner of the pioneer Crockett, but in the style of San Francisco, A.D. 1904 [scene of Jeffries’ last match].” Put this together with the Press Democrat item and we discover that the champ finished with a crowd-pleasing three-round boxing exhibition including his manager and sparring partner. A piece de resistance, as the PD wrote.
But as TV detective Adrian Monk says, here’s the thing: how could they have made a profit? “Davy Crockett” was a five act play with at least six actors, several costume changes, props, elaborate stage sets, and even special effects. (Snowstorms! Howling wolf packs!) Even filling all 2,000 seats at the Athenaeum, it’s hard to imagine that a single performance at an out-of-the-way farm town would have made enough on tickets to justify a production like this. Maybe they’d have made the nut by staying around for a few days or week — but one night only?
Then there’s the reference to the troupe’s great success in Nevada. According to the annals of Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City, “Davy Crockett” had a single performance on Sept. 27. That theater seated 1,000 at most, making the odds for a profitable one night stand even more unlikely.
So was there another reason for Jeffries to visit Santa Rosa? Already noted here was an item from three weeks earlier, where the Press Democrat gushed over an unlikely trio: Luther Burbank, a locally-born championship horse, and “a Sonoma county boy [who] wants to go against Jim Jeffries.” The last item didn’t make sense at the time, except as silly bravado — an amateur boxer certainly won’t have an opportunity to climb in the ring against the world heavyweight champion. But what if Jeffries’ stage performances were followed by private sideshows, where locals paid serious money to watch their hometown favorite go up against “the Boilermaker” in a late night backroom? Such an unsanctioned bout would naturally have to be hush-hush to protect his championship title, and arranged in advance. And the question of Jeffries’ stature aside, there was nothing unusual at the time about a slugfest between a visiting pro and a local amateur; it was common, even expected, for traveling carnivals to offer a boxer or wrestler ready to take on all comers.
And Jeffries was game for off-the-books fights. The same month as his Santa Rosa appearance, he was in a San Francisco saloon and famously confronted by World “Colored” Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson, who wanted a shot at the full title. “Tell you what I’ll do,” Jeffries reportedly said. “I won’t meet you in the ring because you got no name and we wouldn’t draw flies. But I’ll go downstairs with you and lock the door on the inside. The one who comes out with the key will be the champ.” *
The secret Santa Rosa slugfest is only speculation, and just maybe the “Davy Crockett” performance alone was profitable enough; after all, John Philip Sousa brought his band here a few weeks later, and no one would suggest that his piccolo players were mixing it up with local toughs behind the barn for a sawbuck. Still, the theory would explain why the editor was so enthusiastic about that anonymous country boy fighting Jeffries just three weeks before Jeffries turns up in the county. For lack of a name, let’s dub him “the Cazadero Kid,” and hope he came out of it without permanent injuries.
As for Jeffries, he was pressed to come out of retirement and fight Johnson in 1910, when he was touted as “The Great White Hope.” It was the only time he lost in the ring.
*Encyclopedia of World Boxing Champions; McCallum, John D. (1975). pg 12
UPDATE: Jeffries announced his retirement from the stage a few months later to pursue business interests. The “Sonoma County boy” could have been Ralph W. Rose of Healdsburg, who in the autumn of 1904 won three Olympic medals (first place in the shot put event, second in the discus and third in the hammer), and set a world’s record in shot put at the end of the year. An item in the May 9, 1905 Press Democrat mentions, “…[Rose] was suggested as a likely man to meet Champion James Jeffries in the pugilistic arena, but Rose, to the satisfaction of many of his friends, decided that he would not adopt the suggestion.”
JIM JEFFRIES TONIGHTChampion of the World Appears at Local Theatre in “Davy Crockett”
Tonight, there will probably be a great audience at the Athenaeum to see Jim Jeffries, the champion pugilist of the world, appear in the title role of “New Davy Crockett.” This will be one of his first appearances before the stage footlights. He and his company have been playing to record breaking houses in Nevada and each night the “standing room only” sign has been displayed. Jeffries is said to be a success in the role he fills and the piece de resistance for many of those who see the performance comes after the play proper when Jefferies [sic] gives an exhibition of the physical culture in which he has become so proficient with Joe Kennedy his trainer. Billy Delaney will be among those present. The physical culture will be seen in three rounds. The advance sale at Newman’s has been a big one.– Press Democrat, October 4, 1904