The mystery of the Orpheum Theatre Part 2

Some stories don't let go of you. Two weeks ago, I wrote an article about the Orpheum Theatre in Dawson City. It had been inspired by a simple inquiry from New York film maker, Bill Morrison.

Some stories don’t let go of you. Two weeks ago, I wrote an article about the Orpheum Theatre in Dawson City. It had been inspired by a simple inquiry from New York film maker, Bill Morrison. What followed was a flurry of activity to gather information about one of Dawson’s many old buildings. A skeletal picture of the history of the structure emerged. My wife Kathy was instrumental in pulling this information together.

We know it was constructed after its predecessor, the Horseshoe Saloon, was destroyed by fire in 1899. The Orpheum, version one, almost suffered the same fate when it too was stricken by fire four years later. But the fire department intervened and saved it. A large front-page photograph in the Dawson Daily News revealed the firemen extinguishing the flames. Despite fire-proofing measures taken in the mid-1930s, a conflagration in 1940 consumed the theatre and led to the construction of The Orpheum, version two.

Ben Warnsby and Palma Berger, both former owners of the rebuilt theatre, added their recollections of the theatre that rose phoenix-like from the ashes of the original. The sequence of ownership was clearly established, and memories of the building, and the flood that eventually ended its usable life were recalled.

But there remained unanswered questions. When, for example, was the building finally demolished? One date offered was 2002; another was 2012. I searched hundreds of photos taken over the past 25 years and narrowed down the date of demolition to before 2007. The Internet provided more information, including photos of the theatre in its later years, painted pale green, with a small sign protruding from the facade.

Then the telephone rang, and we had a conversation with Dave Robertson, Dawson businessman, and owner of the Dawson Trading Post. Dave had read my first article about the old theatre and called to fill in some of the missing data. When he purchased the building from Fred Berger in 2002, it was still standing, though nobody had entered the premises in years.

Robertson subsequently had the building demolished by Roger Hanberg, who sold all the salvaged lumber and hardware locally. The date: 2003 or 2004. I haven’t yet been able to find reference to the demolition in the Klondike Sun newspaper that would establish the date more precisely.

There was another big question that was left hanging in my last column. I theorized that the Orpheum theatre did not show movies between 1915 and 1937. I thought that the town was too small for more than one theatre. I was wrong; an advertisement for a 10-reel movie titled She Goes to War appears in the Dawson News on February 7, 1931. On February 13 of the same year, films were also part of a “Concert, Picture and Dance” at the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association building.

Then on August 5, 1931, the Orpheum re-opened after a short closure for the installation of new equipment which would enable the screening of the newest innovation in moving films, the “talkie.” The new sensation attracted a full house on opening night, and J. Len Wickman, the proprietor of the theatre offered a free matinee for all children under the age of 13.

It is hard to say what impact “talkies” had on business at the Family Theatre in the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association building, but they were soon featuring a block-buster silent version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They continued to advertise films, but by installing a dance floor in their theatre, they were also diversifying. While the Orpheum was offering a movie featuring Norma Shearer on December 5, 1931, the Family Theatre had put on a social dance the evening before.

Eventually, in April of 1933, Eric August Troberg purchased the Family Theatre from Fred Elliott and bought the “all-talkie” equipment from Wickman. It looked like the Orpheum was closed for good, but in 1936, D.R. Mackenzie, then manager of the theatre, had a large crew working on the Orpheum in October of 1936, in preparation for a re-opening.

Mackenzie had new film projectors and theatre seats installed for the grand opening. On October 24, Wallace Beery appeared on the screen in Darryl F. Zanuck’s production of The Mighty Barnum. Adults paid 75 cents admission, and children 50 cents. Children under age 12 got in for free. An extra quarter could buy reserved seating in the newly renovated establishment. Slightly over a year later, the Family Theatre and the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association building burned to the ground.

Gathering this information created other confusion that had to be resolved. The Yukonia Hotel burned to the ground in 1917, then burned to the ground again in the 1940 fire. But that didn’t make sense. If the Yukonia was destroyed in 1917, why wasn’t the Orpheum damaged? Further investigation revealed that in 1917 the Yukonia Hotel was located at the other end of the block; after that fire, the proprietor acquired the structure beside the Orpheum Theatre and renamed it the Yukonia.

Another distracting digression was the beloved vendor known as “Apple” Jimmy Oglow, who operated a store at the front of the Orpheum Theatre. Greek in origin, Oglow first came to Canada in 1898. According to the 1901 census, he was making a living as a pedlar and residing in the Aurora Hotel, on Front Street.

Oglow was running two fruit and candy stores on King Street in partnership with George Sarantis, in 1909, but their business dissolved and the following year, he was operating Jimmy’s Place out of the Orpheum Theatre. In 1921, he advertised his business as the largest fruit, confectionery, cigar and tobacco store in the North.

In 1935, Apple Jimmy caught the attention of noted visitors. Will Rogers, the famed humorist, and aviator Wiley Post, stopped in Dawson City, en route to Alaska. During their stopover, they made friends with Apple Jimmy. Taken by Jimmy’s colourful personality, Rogers offered to bring him back to Hollywood with them on their return trip.

Of course, that never happened, and Apple Jimmy’s opportunity for celebrity was dashed. Rogers and Post were killed when their plane crashed near Point Barrow, Alaska. Oglow threatened to retire after a next-door fire in 1939, but he was still in business a year later when the Orpheum fire wiped out his business for good. He died May 10, 1941, aged 71 years.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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