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Matchless Melba brings Baby Doe back to life

Article by Sharon Chickering

Performers – August 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

“I see you. I know you’re there. Come to stare at the old lady.” Baby Doe Tabor speaks at us with scorn.

We squirm in our narrow seats. We’re not prying — really. We’ve just come to watch the show.

She unwraps the scarf from around her neck, hanging it on a clothes tree. Next she removes the old calf-length coat and gray motoring cap. Continuing to fume, she gradually warms as if sensing we are friends. We become confidantes in her tale of rags to riches to rags.

The year is 1933 and Elizabeth McCourt Doe Tabor (“Baby” Doe), a widow, is living in a rough cabin at the Matchless Mine in Leadville. Victorian society was shocked when the divorcee married mining mogul Horace Tabor in a lavish Washington ceremony in 1883 while Tabor was serving a one-month term as Colorado Senator. The Matchless Mine contributed to Tabor’s fortune, and was the place to which Baby Doe retreated, penniless, upon his death.

Like a caged tiger she roams the stage in her scuffed miner’s boots. There is too much emotion for her to sit still. She is a beautiful young woman girting with her beaux: a porcelain doll who puts Tabor on a pedestal; a doting mother whose two daughters can do no wrong; a proud, strong woman in the face of adversity: a tearful widow; a devout Catholic living in dire poverty.

Melva Touchette is a sixty-ish grandmother, a motel manager. Watching her light up a cigarette and hearing her bursts of laughter give one no clue she is an actress. However, she does love to talk and on stage there is no question about her acting abilities. Melva Touchette becomes Baby Doe Tabor.

Touchette describes herself as a woman who leads with her head rather than her heart. But her acting is more than mental exercise — it has passion and feeling down to the real tears that fall when she recalls Horace Tabor’s death. It is a convincing portrayal.

She discovered Baby Doe’s tale as a graduate theater student at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Having decided a career on stage would accommodate her often “bigger-than-life” personality, she returned to school as an empty-nester. Chosen to represent the university at a contest, a fellow student suggested she use the first draft of a play he had written about Baby Doe.

“The part is for an older woman,” he told her. Touchette laughs when she recalls that the other students were always trying to figure out her age.

Although she did not win the contest, she says: “I read the play once and knew I wanted to do this character. It was one of the rare times I made a choice based on my feelings.”

Having found “her” character, Touchette faced a major hurdle: she began to suffer hearing loss, a condition probably inherited from her mother. In preparation for what she feared was inevitable, she saw a medical specialist and began a sign-language class so she could concentrate on theater for the deaf. However, the specialist encouraged her to continue using her talent on the regular stage. Seeing her perform, no one would guess she suffers a disability.

FOLLOWING GRADUATE SCHOOL, Touchette toured for a year before arriving in Leadville five years ago to tell Baby Doe’s story at the Tabor Opera House, built by Tabor in 1879 to provide a first-class theater for the city. Booking the Opera House for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings (the only nights available) she found the audiences, and therefore the receipts, sparser than hoped. Finishing the summer run and paying her bills, she was broke and had no plans.

“I thought I’d just head downhill and see what happened.” Fate intervened.

The night before she was to leave town, a friend invited her out for dinner. They headed for the Silver King Motor Inn where the friend overheard the motel owner say he needed a resident manager. Touchette interviewed for the position the next day and was hired on the spot.

Although she has finally arrived “at a place I genuinely love, doing something l love,” Leadville’s high elevation (10,152 feet) has taken a physical toll. Touchette must have her altitude-thickened blood drawn monthly to relieve the resulting sluggishness.

CONVERSELY, SHE FEELS a flow of energy from the mountains — the same Sawatch Range that Baby Doe looked out on for thirty years. When she visits the mine, “I’m very close to Baby Doe. Inside the play, however, I’m almost overwhelmed by the loneliness. I’m sharply aware of the pain of her character.”

There are times when Touchette gets discouraged.

“I haven’t had the time and energy to do the show the way I’d like to because of the demands of my job at the Silver King,” she says. Her audiences are often small, and she is the proverbially “starving” artist who works one job so she can afford to do the other one she really loves.

“I want the story told,” she says. “Something in it touches the audience personally. It’s a universal story. Whatever adversity, this woman would pick herself up and go on. People need this message now.”

Although parallels exist between the two women, Touchette emphasizes that “Baby Doe made some choices I wouldn’t have made… I wouldn’t have moved to the Matchless and put my children into that situation of poverty.” There is also no hint of the self-imposed penance that Touchette believes was Baby Doe’s motivation for living her final thirty years in poverty. For the actress it’s just a lot of hard work.

Perhaps her own struggles in life have allowed Touchette to be empathetic in her portrayal of Tabor’s widow.

When it seems the struggle is becoming too hard, Touchette reminds herself: “It would be almost unforgivable to not perform after all that preparation — maybe I’d be denying an obligation to my maker (to use my talent).”

Just as Baby Doe had her faith, so does Touchette. “I need God to supply me with the energy to do the show,” she says.

At each performance Touchette sizes up her audience and chooses three men who, unbeknownst to them, will serve as first husband Harvey Doe, friend Jake Sands or Horace Tabor. Whether on stage or in the audience, she flirts, holds hands, kisses cheeks, draws the men out so they enhance her performance (most of the time). She’s never sure how these sometimes-reluctant participants will react.

The pace slows.

“I’m tired. I need to rest,” the old woman says. Shoulders stooped, she shuffles off the stage.

Baby Doe may be finished taking risks, but Melva Touchette will be back to do the portrayal again.

Sharon Chickering of Leadville has a day job as a librarian.