Much has been written about the life of a dance hall girl during the days of the gold rush. Nothing can be as poignant or revealing as the words of one of the ladies who lived the life. Here is an article from a Dawson newspaper from 1900 that provides a revealing insight into the life of a Dawson City soubrette. I hope that you enjoy reading this:
The Wicked Side of Dawson
Life of a soubrette as told by herself
ON STAGE AND IN BOXES
Chief ambition is to Get Men Drunk and Work Them for Champagne at Fifteen Dollars a Small Bottle – Men Seen There in Their True Colours – A Life of Deception and Duplicity
“The following interesting letter was recently found on the streets of Dawson, having evidently been accidentally dropped by the writer. It gives a graphic description of the life of a soubrette and the lights and shades of life in Dawson vaudevilles and dance halls, and as such will prove interesting reading to many not initiated into the wicked ways of Dawson by gas light.
“For obvious reasons, the name of the writer was suppressed, but she can rest assured that her letter, after being copied, was duly sealed and mailed to the proper address on the envelope. The writer of this letter is too clever to hide her life under a bushel:
“Dawson, Y.T. 1900
“My dear Mr. V———What am I doing? I am working and there is no legitimate theatre in this country. They are a sort of combination theatres, consisting usually of a short, impromptu sketch, followed by a series of songs, dances, etc., given by ‘artists,’ scraped up from God knows where.
“Then comes the ‘drama’ – a name given to burlesques, tragedies, or anything the capricious managers may see fit to put on at the last moment, though usually you are given three days for rehearsing and learning your parts. After all this follows the big dance, in which all the aforesaid artists and dance hall girls engaged for that purpose join.
“The show starts at 9 p.m. and ends about 2:30 a.m. and the dance continues all night and day if there is anyone foolish enough to remain, though the time for the musicians to leave is 6 a.m.
“Now you may wonder why, in this land of gold, they give so much for a paltry 50 cents or one dollar, the price of admission, but there’s the catch! The wise and sturdy old miner will pay his admission and if he walks straight to his place in the pit he may escape. But lo, if he lingers around the bar to take a drink he is almost sure to be led astray by a pair of promising eyes and the first thing the poor chap knows, he finds himself alone with his siren in one of the boxes – you must know the upper part of all these houses are allotted to boxes – and there the fair one proceeds to ‘blow’ him or ‘take him down the line’ to the tune of $1 a drink or $15 a small bottle of wine. Out of this the little soubrette gets 25 or 50 per cent, according to her arrangements with the house. In addition to this they get from $50 to $150 a week.
“Salaries are gauges, not according to their ability on the stage, but their cleverness in the boxes. Though there are some engaged for the show, it is optional with them whether they go into the boxes or not, and in justice to a few I must say there are some clever specialty people here.
“Strange and incredible as it may sound to you, many of the girls, whose chief ambition apparently is to get men drunk, are comparatively moral and faithful to their husbands or lovers, and the poor chap to whom their eyes promised so much finds himself the next morning with empty pockets and a frightful head – the only souvenir of the beautiful vision his lustful eyes beheld the night before, and considering himself, I suppose, very badly treated and even cheated. Do not think, my dear friend, that I condone this mode of extracting gold from the Klondiker’s poke, but the society of any woman must be worth a great deal to these lonely fellows and, so far from blaming the girls, I cannot help but admire the clever way in which they blend pleasure and commerce. But how degrading.
“Now in all this jumble I suppose you ask yourself what part I take. Well, I am playing in the dramas at a weekly salary of $——-, and am privileged to go home when I finish my show, so can avoid all the dissipation. I keep my eyes open, hoping that something will turn up that will in a way recompense me for the sacrifice I am making by living in this morbid and obnoxious atmosphere.
“The plays go very well here, notwithstanding the fact that most of them are very badly done. Keeping such late hours and so much dissipation prevents proper study, and, with the existing state of things, it would not pay a manager to keep a company for plays alone. You cannot increase the price of admission and the salaries, scenery etc., entail an enormous outlay. I do not believe that really artistic acting would be appreciated; certainly it would not pay a legitimate actor to come to this country unless he had other interests.
“The shows are for the men and as the wine flows they become less particular as to the kind of amusements they beguile the hours with. Besides the miners there are men about town who come to have what they call a good time and will spend thousands with but little urging, and will walk up to the boxes like little men without the least bit of coaxing. These are what the girls call ‘good fellows,’ be they gentlemen or the personification of all that is uncouth and vulgar.
“Here is where we can see the man as he is, and you don’t have to scratch the skin to find the gentleman, however they may pose on the outside. In here the veneering only serves to reflect the animal within, and no one has a better opportunity to study man than the little girl who touches the button for another small bottle.”
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org