A tale of two icons

Deep in the heart of the Klondike capital, Dawson City, stands a proud and elegant building: The Palace Grand Theatre. Over the years, I spent many hours in it as Parks Canada's curator of collections, but I also spent many enjoyable hours, joining the...

Deep in the heart of the Klondike capital, Dawson City, stands a proud and elegant building: The Palace Grand Theatre.

Over the years, I spent many hours in it as Parks Canada’s curator of collections, but I also spent many enjoyable hours, joining the ranks of the thousands who have visited and enjoyed the entertainment she had to offer.

I attended public meetings, conferences and workshops, silent movie screenings, filming of the long-running CBC television show Front Page Challenge, and of course, more than 20 seasons of summer theatre entertainment in that theatre.

The Palace Grand Theatre has been designated as nationally significant, although the original was demolished in 1961; the building that stands on that spot now is a reproduction, rapidly approaching 50 years of age. It is an icon in its own right, valued for its association with the romance of the gold rush.

At one time, enthusiastic citizenry of Dawson City assembled a small exhibit in one of the upstairs rooms, calling it Klondike Kate’s room, but I don’t think it ever was her room. Kate, like the Palace Grand Theatre is now renowned for what she symbolizes rather than for who she was during her Dawson days.

The Palace Grand Theatre was constructed by one of the most colourful characters ever to walk the streets of Dawson City: Arizona Charlie Meadows. Standing nearly two metres tall, Meadows sported a jaunty moustache and goatee, with long flowing hair worn beneath a broad-brimmed sombrero; he was a rancher, a scout, and bullfighter, a rodeo great, crack shot, renowned wielder of the lasso, and above all, a consummate showman.

Arizona Charlie commissioned Portland architect C.H. Albertson to design and build the structure. The result was the most impressive theatre in Dawson City when it opened as the Grand Opera House July 18, 1899, while Dawson was at its peak of gold rush giddiness.

The theatre presented a variety of vaudeville acts, spiced up with demonstrations of Arizona Charlie’s shooting prowess, an act that continued until the night he shot off the end of his wife’s finger during the performance.

The saloon and gaming area provided the business with the necessary profit to keep the enterprise running, and after midnight, when the theatre performance concluded, they rolled back the canvas floor cover and the dancing continued until breakfast the following morning.

Eventually, Dawson cleaned up its act and became a more settled and civilized community, but that took the fun out of it, and when the civic leaders shut down the saloons and gaming, theatres became much less profitable. Nevertheless, the Palace Grand, later known as the Savoy, then the Auditorium, staggered on for decades like a punch-drunk fighter until she was rebuilt and re-opened July 1, 1962.

Klondike Kate was another symbol of the glory days of the gold rush, though she didn’t come on the scene until 1900, after the glory days were past. Arriving with a large theatre troupe of 40, as a “sketch artist,” she set about performing on stage, in the now re-named Savoy Theatre. Between acts, she was a percentage girl – one who encouraged the gold-laden miners to part with their hard-earned riches for a dance or a bottle of champagne.

She has been portrayed as a hard-working girl with a golden heart, but one, who, balancing on the thin edge of social approval, was accepted by the more established members of the community as well. If this was true, Kate may have been one of the few who successfully straddled the social boundary between ladies of the entertainment world and those of social acceptability.

In order to separate the truth from the myth, I searched the gold-rush-era records for anything about Klondike Kate. Can I verify her assertions in any independent sources? Many years ago, one of my historian colleagues set out to do the same thing and came up empty-handed.

Was she actually crowned the Queen of the Yukon with a head piece of lighted candles? The newspapers of the day would have reported on such an event, but are strangely silent on the question. Perhaps those issues are missing from the archives.

I found her name in a number of articles from the Dawson newspapers. Although there may be references to her performances in the Savoy, I did not find any in my cursory search.

Her name pops up in April 1902 when her paramour Alexander Pantages, by now the manager of the Orpheum Theatre on Front Street, advertizes the re-opening of the refurbished establishment. Kate is part of the opening act: “A burlesque on the Spanish-American war in which (she) will introduce her company of Zouaves fully equipped.”

Her name pops up again a short time later as the orchestrator of a series of tableaux vivant, or living pictures, where, supported with special lighting and costumes, the people on stage assume stationary positions of characters in famous works or art.

The most notable performance for which she can be documented is at a well-attended benefit concert in the Palace Grand, then named the Auditorium Theatre, on the evening of 31 June, 1904. The Dawson Daily news described her serpentine dance the following day, where “coloured lights and figures played upon yards and yards of silk É It was pretty,” reported the News, “and so testified to by the audience.”

Many of the facts in the oft-repeated biography of Klondike Kate don’t stand up to historical scrutiny, but it would require more time and interest than I can offer the reader at this time to correct the story. It would serve her well, though, to confirm in more detail her presence in the Klondike from 1900 to 1904.

A quick search of the historical record reveals that Klondike Kate, “Queen of the Klondike,” didn’t emerge as a personality until the 1930s, at a time when nostalgic sourdoughs were starting to fill the blanks in their Klondike experience with colourful characters and corrected memories. At one of the frequent sourdough gatherings, a man was actually booed by the assembly when he took pains to point out that Robert Service didn’t arrive in Dawson City after climbing the Chilkoot Pass as so many others had.

It was in this atmosphere that The Klondike Kate of legend, as we know her today, emerged, nudged along by the considerable self-promotion of the icon herself, as a full-blown symbol of the gold rush.

That this image played so well to her later-day audience of sourdoughs speaks loudly to the need for the former stampeders to create a softer, more nostalgic view of the events of four decades in their past.

Like the Palace Grand Theatre itself, Klondike Kate has come to symbolize one of the memorable facets of this remarkable gold rush.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.