History Hunter: A tribute to the Palace Grand Theatre

It was the best designed and most pretentious of all the theatres in Dawson City

My wife Kathy and I attended a celebration of the re-opening of the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City on September 15. It had been under wraps for two years while Parks Canada completed some badly needed upgrading of the mechanical systems and foundation.

This building is a replica of the original, which was built on the very same site. Constructed in 1961, it is now old enough in its own right to have acquired heritage status, and is recognized as nationally significant because of its association with the romance and excitement of the Klondike gold rush.

The Palace Grand Theatre was born of the Klondike gold rush, but it was not the first born. The year before her doors were opened to the public there were – would you believe it – six theatres in Dawson City.

At the height of the gold rush, operations like this were the very social epicenter of a vibrant boom town. Four theatres stood practically side by side on Front Street. During the summer of 1898, there was the Opera House (the first theatre built in Dawson), the Horseshoe, where the Oatley Sisters held court, the Mascot, the Monte Carlo and the Combination. The Pavilion stood on the lot beside the Palace Grand.

These edifices were full service operations with saloons and gambling at the front of house, and the theatre to the rear. They offered vaudeville-style variety entertainment. When the show was finished for the evening, the chairs were moved aside and the house orchestra tuned up and dancing continued until the early hours of the morning

When they weren’t performing variety, the theatres held boxing and wrestling matches, charity fund raisers, auctions, political rallies and public meetings, masquerade balls and even “sacred concerts” on Sundays.

The Palace Grand theatre was the brain child of American showman Arizona Charlie Meadows. Designed by prominent Portland architect H.C. Albertson, the Grand Opera House opened its doors for the first time on July 18, 1899. It was the best designed and most pretentious of all the theatres in Dawson City.

Arizona Charlie was the master of ceremonies, introducing the fast-paced acts. He performed himself, wrote at least one play (and almost drowned during its performance) and demonstrated his shooting prowess with a pistol, until, one night, he shot off the tip of his wife May’s finger.

Like the other theatres in Dawson, this one changed management – and names numerous times. In October, 1899, it was renamed the Palace Grand. The following August, it was called the Savoy, then a year later, it was the Old Savoy. By that time, it had been purchased by “Arkansaw” Jim Hall, a wealthy miner who owned claim Number 17, Eldorado. Hall renamed it “The Auditorium.”

Hall had married the former Lillian Green, a vaudeville performer from San Francisco in 1899. In the summer of 1903, Mrs. Hall brought her own stock company to Dawson where they performed in her husband’s theatre. After six weeks, the Hall Stock Company moved on to Nome.

In mid-June of 1906, the Thorne-Southard troupe came to Dawson City, where they performed a number of stage plays in the Auditorium. Among the performances was “Merely Mary Ann,” starring young stage prodigy Marjorie Rambeau. Joining her on stage was Roscoe Arbuckle. Better known as “Fatty” Arbuckle, he later became one of Hollywood’s first silent film stars.

The troupe fell apart in Dawson and Marjorie Rambeau and her mother were stranded in Dawson for the winter. The young actress taught elocution and directed a number of amateur performances before leaving town the following spring. Like Arbuckle, Rambeau also became a big film star, and was later twice nominated for Academy Awards.

As the population dwindled a decade after the gold rush, amateur theatre replaced the professionals. Early on, silent films were being added to the bill, and by 1910, moving pictures had become the featured entertainment. Soon, the Orpheum Theatre, the Family Theatre in the DAAA Building, and the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, were featuring moving pictures.

After the death of her husband, ownership of the theatre was transferred to Lillian Hall in 1909, and she sold it on to Harry Abraham in 1912. In December of 1913, Billy Mullen, formerly a Dawson stage regular, renamed the Auditorium the “New Theatre.”

This name lasted only a few weeks, and the Auditorium re-opened July, 1914, showing silent movies. It was here, a few days later that Commissioner George Black interrupted the evening’s films to gravely announce that Canada had joined Britain in declaring war against Germany.

The population continued to decline as hundreds left Dawson to enlist overseas. The town could no longer sustain three movie theatres, and the Auditorium stumbled along sporadically over the following years. The Orpheum and the Family Theatres continued to alternate offering moving films through the 1920s, transitioning to “talkies” in the 1930s, until the DAAA burned down December 30, 1937, followed by the Orpheum in 1940.

Briefly renamed the Nugget Dance Hall in 1938, the Auditorium became more decrepit through the 1940s and 50s. Fortunately, through the efforts of the Klondike Visitors Association and the intervention of Parks Canada, the theatre was declared to be of national historic significance. Reconstructed in 1961, it re-opened with the off-Broadway play “Foxy,” as the centerpiece of the Dawson City Gold Rush Festival in 1962. It starred Bert Lahr, famous for his role as the cowardly lion in the movie The Wizard of Oz.

Since then, it has been open for tours, hosted the Gaslight Follies, been the site of the Commissioner’s Ball, and served as a venue for countless drama and music festivals and grad ceremonies.

For many years as curator for Parks Canada, I came to know the Palace Grand inside and out. Unlike some others, I never once saw a ghost, but to me, as I’m sure it does for many others, the sounds of countless performances echo within these walls and bring back fond memories.

On the Sunday of the Labour Day weekend in 1979, the doors of the Palace Grand were thrown open and the theatre was filled to overflowing with Dawsonites who had spent the summer recovering from a devastating spring flood. On the program that day was a selection of films recovered from underneath the old hockey arena the year before.

To accent the importance of the event, piano veteran Fred Bass of Vancouver had been flown in to provide musical accompaniment to the films. When I asked the octogenarian if he wanted to pre-screen the films to rehearse his performance, he brushed the suggestion aside stating that he had grown up playing piano in the early silent movie theatres.

And sure enough, from the first flickering on the giant screen set up on the stage, till the final chords died away at the end of the performance, he played flawlessly. It was my special moment to remember.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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