Dawson’s Front Street in the winter of 1898 was the Klondike’s ‘Broadway.’ A banner spans the avenue advertising the Tivoli Theatre. Behind it stands the Opera House, the Monte Carlo and the Horseshoe, which also presented live entertainment. (Public Archives C8797/Library and Archives Canada)

Theatres of the Yukon’s Klondike Gold Rush, Part 2: 1898

The character of the gold rush city became one of rapid growth and wild excess

According to Inspector Harper of the North West Mounted Police in Dawson City, “… the first boat arrived from the foot of Lake Labarge on the 13th May. From this [day] on boats commenced to arrive daily until the middle of June when they were arriving almost by the hundreds per day.”

The character of the gold rush city became one of rapid growth and wild excess. During the summer of 1898, tens of thousands of goldseekers poured into the Klondike.

Front Street developed rapidly, with hastily built elaborate multi-storey structures shoulder to shoulder with crude log establishments along a few short blocks on Front Street facing the Yukon River. It was packed with saloons, restaurants, theatres and an assortment of businesses. Some stood three storeys high, but the ornately ornamented facades hid the crude log structures behind them. They changed rapidly; large replaced small, and old replaced new. Fires burned them down and more ornate structures were under construction before the ashes had cooled. These businesses also changed hands as frequently as a gentleman changes shirts.

When the weather turned cold in the fall, the Klondike kings, the wage-earners and laymen, and the thousands of newcomers became a captive audience, eager for any kind of entertainment or diversion that the theatres might offer.

On the north side of the Monte Carlo stood the Horseshoe Saloon, which featured a dance hall presided over by the Oatley Sisters. To the south of the Monte Carlo was the grandest of the early theatres, the Opera House. According to the journalist, Tappan Adney, the Opera House was “a large log building, with a bar and various gambling lay-outs in the front, and a theatre in the rear, with a stage, boxes at each side, and benches on the floor for the audience.

“It gave vaudeville performances, lasting several hours each evening, the performers being mostly a troupe who stampeded with the rest from Circle City. The price of admission, strange to say, was at the low price of ‘four bits.’ or half a dollar, admission being secured, according to the usual Yukon custom, by first purchasing for that sum a drink or a cigar at the bar. At the end of the performance the benches were taken up, and dancing began and continued all night.”

“The receipts of the place were enormous, footing upwards of 22,000 a month. Early on Thanksgiving morning, after an uproarious masquerade ball, the dry building caught fire, and next morning saw only the blackened ruins of Dawson’s first theatre.”

Around the corner on King Street, and a block farther back from the riverfront was the Pavilion, operated by Jim Dougherty, one of the early pioneers from Circle. The Pavilion, which opened on June 13, 1898 (the day the Yukon was declared to be its own territory) was illuminated with acetylene lamps, which the Klondike Nugget newspaper proclaimed was an improvement over the standard coal oil lamps that had been in use elsewhere.

Nevill Armstrong described the interior of the Monte Carlo Theatre as: “… just a cheap wooden building, big plate-glass windows in front, with the name of the saloon painted across each window at each side of the front entrance. Immediately on entering to the left was the long bar. Behind this could be seen the usual collection of long mirrors decorated with tinsel or coloured paper and reflecting rows of bottle and glasses. On the bar were the scales for weighing the gold dust. … Men always acted as bar-tenders and attired themselves in immaculate white linen aprons, white waistcoats, white shirts and cuffs, usually with a large diamond tiepin and diamond ring.

“Passing through the bar one entered a small room which was devoted entirely to gambling; roulette, poker, faro, poker-dice, keno, etc.…

“Beyond this one entered the tawdry theatre. The seats on the ground floor or stalls consisted of moveable forms which could be readily pushed out of the way, leaving space for dancing, which took place every night after the usual vaudeville show was over. Above was a narrow balcony with three rows of seats. At the end of this, on each side of the stage, were six boxes. Here the Klondike Kings would sit with the dancing-girls and expose champagne bottles to everyone’s view. It required a Klondike King to buy champagne in those days. Each quart cost about £12. When the ‘Kings’ became incapable, empty champagne bottles were often filled with soda-water and sugar – and resold to them at £12 again!”

The show at the Monte Carlo was a vaudeville format, peppered with improvised local sketches that changed weekly. Some of the performers, from English and American concert-halls, gave a fairly good performance. Their off-the-cuff jibes and ad libs would convulse the audience, who never tired of the same performances night after night.

Many of the songs contained something of local interest, as “Christmas in the Klondike,” or “The Klondike Millionaire,” but the most popular songs performed the winter of 1898 were undoubtedly those sung by Cad Wilson. She was no beauty, didn’t have much of a figure, and her voice was nothing to write home about. Yet the brown-eyed redhead had a stage presence that was hypnotic, and her performance was a risqué repertoire with an affectation of innocence, combined with the most elaborate wardrobe on any stage in town.

Men would compete with each other to bestow her with the biggest gold nugget. They went mad when she sang, and when she started into “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” they pelted the stage with nuggets. Her most popular song, “Such a Nice Girl, Too,” became her anthem. After her performance, she would dash about the stage laughing gleefully as she picked up the nuggets. It was said that if she didn’t clean up $500 a night, she left the stage in a pout.

When they weren’t putting on vaudeville shows, the theatres would have more theatrical performances, boxing matches, charity functions or masquerade balls.

One amusement which caught on quickly was moving pictures, the first of which was shown Aug. 30, 1898. Crowds lined up at the door on opening night to witness, among other things, a steam locomotive chug across the screen. One of the miners was so thrilled that he jumped up and shouted: “Run her through again! Run her through again! I ain’t seen a locomotive for nigh on 10 years.”

A second projector was brought into service on Sept. 14, offering footage of the Corbett-Courtney boxing match. The manager of the Combination Theatre was so excited by this wondrous new product that he wanted to hire it immediately. Moving pictures quickly became one of the extra features added to the offering at theatres in Dawson City.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere.