Papinta, Queen of the Myriad Dance
“All of a sudden I chose to flash forth, flame forth, blaze! Whither from that was a mystery.”
Forever known as Papinta, The Flame Dancer, Caroline “Carrie” Hipple Holpin was a luminary of the stage in more ways than one. Like the colors inside a candle flame, her dancing was mesmerizing. Almost 150 years from the date of her birth, Miss Caroline Hipple Holpin is still confounding and inspiring her fans. She would be thrilled.
She was born about 1867 into a world that didn’t know electricity, moving pictures, automobiles, cross country trains, or women that relished their own power. She claimed that she was born in San Francisco, but when she was age 6 her father moved them to Chicago, where her parents soon died, leaving her and three siblings orphaned. Then their trail goes quite cold, as you may expect.
Young George may have been adopted, along with their sister Sadie, by Lizzie and Milon Cutler according to an 1880 Minnesota census, but by 1890 neither child is shown on the census living with them. Carrie said in one interview that George took care of her, but in fact little is known of their early life. Carrie herself loved to embellish her background, relishing the mystery that surrounded her. In one story she would be of Spanish decent, in another she might be Russian.
From a 1901 interview with the San Francisco Call, she recalled hearing this conversation on a trolley car,
“ “Have you see Papinta?”
“Yes. Who is she?”
That is always the question. I like to keep people guessing.”
For the star she was destined to become, her enigmatic beginnings would be a plus.
She and her beloved brother stayed together through her life. Evidently he was silent on the subject of their ancestry, for no interviews by him could be uncovered. Of her childhood, one story sounds true; she loved horses. She admitted that as a child she would beg the milk man to ride his steady horse along the rounds. Her sole aim in life was to be wealthy enough to own as many horses as she liked. In the end, she owned 61 blooded thoroughbred race horses.
Photos of the beautiful Caroline Hipple show a lively, slim woman with wavy black hair, a seductive smile and an angelic demeanor; a born star. Carrie was quick to say that she didn’t enjoy dancing, and that she even considered other forms of work. Until she met Mr. Ziegfeld, (father of Flo Ziegfeld of Follies fame) she had never danced. But 1893, the year that the Chicago World’s Fair opened, changed everything. She took lessons, was booked as a dancer and invited to be a featured performer at the Trocadero. Carrie took to it like a duck to water, becoming one of the first female vaudeville performers, and the first to perform with electric lights. A year later she went to Cincinnati, Ohio where the first of her patented electrical effects were used.
“W.J. Holpin worked them for me as he always has since.”
William J. Holpin was an electrical entrepreneur in 1890’s. He worked in the theater, and that is where he met and married the young beautiful Carrie.
With William’s electrical knowledge and her own flair for theatrics, she turned yards of silk into a seething and sultry ‘Fire Dance’ that set the world on its ear. Using her nubile form, and holding a fabric draped wand in each hand, she danced upon glass floors illuminated by carbon arc lamps, suffused with color and reflected by mirrors , emulating butterflies, flowers, flames and angels. Often her bare feet were burned and blistered. Her intriguing dance became the talk of the town. Reporters waxed poetic about her willowy form, rainbow colors and surprising athletic ability. Quickly Papinta became “Queen of the Myriad Dance”, and Modern Dance was born.
As she tells it, she and Loie Fuller, another early danseuse, both wanted the rights to The Crystal Maze, a machine of mirrors that reflected light and whirling colors. They were in a buggy race to get to the owner of the patent, Count von Prittwitz Palm, she won, and the rest is history.
But being a star was not always glamorous. Along with the constant travelling, strenuous routines and clamoring fans, it was also quiet dangerous. The arc lights emitted dangerous gasses and the glass floor plates were extremely hot. In Atlanta the glass plate she danced upon broke, sending her crashing into the machine and crippling her for days. She seriously thought of giving up the dance at that point, but after her burns had healed she continued to entertain, saying,
“Lightning never strikes twice in the same place, you know,”
She had over twenty routines and each had a special costume. Along with the full orchestra and lighting systems that she and her husband had developed, she was reported to travel with almost 30 trunks of clothing. In one interview she admitted,
“Sometimes one dress has to be packed in a trunk all by itself, so that it does not get harmed and that is the reason for the great number.”
She went so far as to brag a bit as well, saying,
“No costume that I have contains less than 150 yards of material, and that used in the Fire Dance contains 520 yards of silk.”
In fact one of her costumes in 1901 was made of 1000 yards of silk and was held up by ‘whips 18 feet long”. After her grueling twenty minute show she would collapse backstage, covered in sweat and completely exhausted. In San Francisco at the Orpheum Theater she often gave two performances daily. She was often exhausted, and longing for the comfort of Papinta Villa.
Soon she was the highest paid and most proclaimed dancer of her day, visiting every major Capitol in the world. In 1900 she was the featured performer of the Paris World’s Fair. Her brother George was her tour manager.
Why she chose Concord, California to start her horse ranch is somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps it is because it was close to San Francisco, or San Rafael, where her husband’s father lived. Perhaps it was the beauty of the land at the base of Mt Diablo along Pine Canyon Creek. She said that she ‘thought it up’ on her way back to San Francisco from Fresno. I believe it was because one of the pre-eminent breeders and owners of racehorses, B. C Holly, lived right across the Carquinez River in Vallejo. Carrie’s husband William wished to be a race horse owner, and she had always loved horses; it seems like a perfect plan.
In 1897 she purchased 165 acres of prime land for $8000. In a time where Box and Opera seats cost $.50, reserved seats cost $.25 and balcony seats cost $.10, this was a grand fortune. 1899 she purchased a band of broodmares and a prominent Thoroughbred stallion named El Rayo from the Estate of B. C. ‘By’ Holly. She and William began to breed and race their own horses. Giddy with delight she would tell anyone who asked that she wanted to spend the rest of her life at ‘Papinta Villa’, and would regale them with stories of all her horses and pets. In March 1900, The L. A. Herald printed pictures of Carrie, kissing her horses, climbing fences and strolling through her orchard. Carrie also took the reporter for a wild ride through San Francisco in her own ‘trap’. In an eerie turn of phrase, realizing the folly of her impetuous drive, she quipped,
“ …wouldn’t it be terrible to lose the ranch after sweatin’ through all of those shows for it?”
Then in March 1905, while she was away on tour and filming the first motion picture of her modern dance, her husband was stricken with what was considered then to be a massive heart attack. He died and Carrie hurried back to California, devastated. William was only 35 years old; even by the standards of 1905 he was a very young to die of a heart attack. Papers of the day tried to make it a story, some claiming it was certainly a mysterious death. To make matters even worse, W. James Holpin and his daughter, William’s father and sister, were claiming rights to the Rancho and all the stock. They had presumably destroyed all of William and Carries important papers, such as marriage certificates and Williams’s last will and testament. Carries will was still intact in the trunk where all the documents had been stored.
Carrie filed suit against W. James, April 6, 1906, just 12 days before the Big Quake and Fire in San Francisco. Employing Attorneys from San Francisco and Martinez, Carrie fought back and in September of 1906 she won the suit to retain the ranch. Though she loved horses, Carrie sold all the stock, turning the horse ranch into a chicken farm as she continued to tour the world.
She buried her husband in the family plot in Martinez, California on the banks of the Carquinez River. Williams’s mother was buried there as well. She ordered for him a $1600 monument, and it arrived in San Francisco on April 18, 1906; the same day as the Infamous Quake and Fire. The monument was never seen again.
Heartbroken Carrie continued to illuminate the stages of the world with her beautiful dances and thrilling performances. She also continued to use the dangerous carbon arc lamps to light her stages.
In Cuba, cigars were named after her. Jewels and gifts were lavished upon her. Papers of the day trumpeted her performances. Young girls emulated her dances. Everything she had ever wanted was laid at her feet. She was a Superstar in every sense of the word.
Then on August 10 1907 while she was on tour in Dusseldorf, Germany, she collapsed after her show and died. Many sources put her death in November of that year, but they are mistaken. Because she was abroad when she died, it took three months to ship her body home so she could lie beside her beloved William. She was buried in Martinez on November 27, 1907. It is believed that she had been overcome by the very dangerous fumes from the arc lamps she still used.
She was 38 years old and at the height of her fame and beauty. Though she had not wanted fame, she accepted it gracefully, saying about herself,
“I’m just an ordinary woman with the impudence to try what I don’t know anything about…”