The grand old theatre and the man behind it

At two metres tall, he stood a head above the crowd. His hair flowed down to his shoulders from beneath his broad-brimmed hat.

At two metres tall, he stood a head above the crowd. His hair flowed down to his shoulders from beneath his broad-brimmed hat. With moustache and a patch of whiskers below his bottom lip, wearing his signature red bandana around his neck and fringed buckskin jacket, he was like a sight from a Wild West show.

His name was Arizona Charlie Meadows, and he was from a Wild West show. Often called King of the Cowboys, he had travelled around the world as part of one Wild West show after another. He had ridden in Buffalo Bill’s world-famous event, and he had rubbed shoulders with the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Will Rogers.

He was a persistent rainbow chaser, and he could certainly have been the prototype for the dime-novel hero of the era. It’s no surprise that he chose to follow the throng north to the Klondike when gold fever struck in 1897.

Charlie, his wife Mae, and an entourage headed north loaded down with food and several tonnes of supplies and equipment, including Charlie’s rifle, a fancy pistol and plenty of whiskey. It was one of the largest outfits being taken north the winter of 1897/98.

The Meadows party avoided the seedy criminal elements of Skagway by taking their gear to Dyea and over the Chilkoot Trail. Once on the trail to Dawson, it seemed that everything that could go wrong did: flood, disease (his horses all died), shipwreck and freeze-up all impeded his progress to the Klondike, but he made it to Dawson City anyway, by December of 1897.

Meadows was what they called a “plunger,” who took a chance at every opportunity. Soon he had shares in many claims in the Klondike. He printed a special vanity newspaper called the Klondike News – one edition only – and made $50,000 from that venture alone.

But the venture for which Meadows is still remembered today, is the building of the Grand Opera House. Always a showman, Meadows preferred entertainment to mining, so he sold off his mining investments and ploughed the proceeds into the finest theatre in Dawson City. This building went through many name changes: the Savoy, the Old Savoy, the Auditorium, and the Nugget Dance Hall. But the name that has stuck is the Palace Grand.

The facade of the theatre, which was designed by C.H Albertson, an architect from Portland, Oregon, is said to have been built from the remains of two abandoned sternwheelers because lumber was in short supply. The building was three storeys high with horseshoe-shaped balconies on the second and third floors that were filled with private boxes for the use of wealthy patrons.

In the early days, theatres also housed saloons and gaming halls. In the Palace Grand, the saloon occupied the front portion of the building, and the theatre, the rear. A bar ran along the right-hand wall of the saloon, behind which, instead of the traditional panels of mirrors, the walls were decorated with large scenic northern views painted by artist Arthur Buel.

Within the smoke-filled saloon was a boisterous crowd of men, “spitting, smoking, swearing, drinking and gambling.” The most popular game of the time was faro, along with roulette and poker. Marathon poker games often went on for days, with some that ran up stakes as high as $50,000.

This was not the most comfortable environment for civilized women to have to pass through if they wished to attend the theatre, and as the community became more settled and stable, the anti-saloon lobby eventually caused saloons and theatres to be run in separate establishments.

The theatre was a mixture of elegance and frontier at the same time – decorative features set against rough timber. When he couldn’t find the appropriate theatre seating in time for opening, for example, Meadows settled for 500 high-backed kitchen chairs. Similar reproduction chairs are used in the theatre today. His take despite the uncomfortable seating for the opening night performance, July 18, 1899, was $12,000.

The performances were a mixture of professional theatre and rowdy audiences. The Klondike Nugget newspaper explained to newcomers that when a theatre patron was pleased with the performance, “his outward expression of appreciation takes the form of a well-stimulated malamoot howl.” From outside, the casual passerby might conclude that the building was filled with howling huskies, or lunatics.

The Palace Grand quickly became the centre of Dawson theatre life. Acts varied from melodramas to “acrobats, trained dogs, dancing bears, magicians, knife-throwers, tumblers and comedians.” The theatre also presented special events such as boxing matches, dramatic readings, chorus lines, benefits, balls and even sacred concerts.

Arizona Charlie, acing as the master of ceremonies, typically appeared on stage before the curtain was raised, sombrero in hand, and, making a broad sweeping bow, introduced the evening’s program. On a slow night, he would liven up the crowd with demonstrations of his prowess with a gun by shooting a cigarette held in his wife, Mae’s mouth, or targeting glass balls held between her fingers. That always put life back into the crowd, until one evening, he shot off the end of one of her fingers, and the shooting demonstrations ceased for good.

In another presentation, titled The Arizona Scout, Meadows almost drowned in a set of his own design, in which he was to fall into a tank, filled with almost three metres of water, on the back of a horse. As the horse fell in, the rider grabbed for the rail and missed, finding himself in the tank and under the flailing horse. Fortunately, stage hands pulled him to safety.

As the population started to decline after the gold rush subsided, management unwisely chose to pursue a program of legitimate theatre, and the theatre struggled to remain open. Sensing a decline in the appeal of his Wild West style of showmanship, and replacement of the frontier community by a more stable and staid one, Meadows sold off the Palace Grand Theatre in October of 1901.With his departure, Dawson lost one of its most flamboyant characters.

Under the name of the Auditorium, the theatre staggered through the decades. It was saved by the Klondike Visitors’ Association, and then given to Parks Canada in 1961. Parks Canada tore down the old Auditorium, which was beyond repair, and rebuilt the theatre in 1962. During its first season the restored Palace Grand Theatre featured the musical Foxy, starring the well known Broadway and Hollywood actor Bert Lahr. Since then, it housed the Gaslight Follies for many years, and has had varied performances and events within its walls.

It is said that the building is haunted. As the curator of collections for Parks Canada, I oversaw the exhibits and historic furnishing of the building, and spent plenty of time inside it, but in all those years, I never saw the ghost of Arizona Charlie, or anyone else, for that matter.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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