Poland’s greatest actress of all time was Helena Modjeska (1840 – 1909) who came to Southern California in 1876 with her husband Charles Bozenta Chlapowski (known in America as Count Bozenta), and a small group of friends including the future novelist and Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz. Their Polish agricultural colony in the little pioneer town of Anaheim was a financial failure in the drought and depression of 1877. Modjeska, however, learned some of her former roles in English and made a sensational stage debut in San Francisco in August of that year. Additional successes in eastern cities helped launch a notable American dramatic career that was to last for 30 years.
Life on the 19th century theatrical circuit before the days of the motion picture and television, was strenuous and demanding. Bozenta accompanied Modjeska as she and her acting company traveled for nine grueling months each year by railroad, steamship and horse-drawn vehicle. She played not only in the great theatres of New York and London, but also in makeshift halls and “opera houses” of rural America.
Although she never lost her Polish accent, Modjeska became America’s most distinguished Shakespearean actress of the 1880s and 1890s. She played twelve Shakespearean parts in this country in addition to other classic and contemporary roles. In 1883 she appeared in America’s first professional appearance of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”. She was admired for her high artistic ideals and her positive influence upon American theatre of her day. Throughout her American career, Modjeska made periodic return voyages to her native Poland for theatrical tours and visits with friends and family. The old city theatre in Krakow is now named in her honor. A current exhibit in the theatre museum celebrates her career and the 150th anniversary of her birth in Krakow.
From 1888 until 1909, Helena Modjeska was a much-loved pioneer resident of Orange County, California. After her death, the north peak of Saddleback Mountain was named Modjeska Peak. The portion of Santiago Canyon in which she and her husband lived is now called Modjeska Canyon.