“I used to go about the various mining camps, dressed in boys’ clothes,” said Marjorie Rambeau (who was only 10 years old at the time), “with my hair cropped close, playing my banjo for all I was worth … sometimes … the men would shake gold dust into my cap. Nobody suspected that I wasn’t a boy.”
Such were the recollections of the star of stage and screen, who, her story goes, accompanied her mother to Nome during the gold rush.
No one would have made that mistake when she later returned to the North. Now 17 years old (or 16, and even 15 in some accounts) she was part of the Thorne-Southard troupe that came to Dawson City in mid-June of 1906, where they were booked to perform a number of stage plays.
The troupe opened at the Auditorium Theatre, now familiar to most readers as the Palace Grand. In post-gold rush Dawson, theatre no longer consisted of “uninhibited productions characterized by risque themes and double entendres.” Gambling had been shut down, and the former saloon at the front of the building had been partitioned off into storerooms. But the building was still capable of presenting formidable stage performances.
Marjorie Rambeau, a stage prodigy who had been performing in live theatre since she was 12, starred in Merely Mary Ann, a play which had enjoyed previous success in London and New York.
On opening night, Yukon commissioner William McInnes and a large stag party occupied the biggest box in the house. Other Dawson socialites also attended the premiere performance of Merely Mary Ann, with Miss Rambeau in the lead role.
Among those joining her on stage were Dick Thorne and Ray Southard, the principles of the troupe, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Arbuckle later became famous as a silent movie actor until his career was ruined by a scandalous rape trial in the early 1920s. Reports of the Arbuckle trial tantalized readers of the Dawson Daily News for months before he was finally acquitted.
Merely Mary Ann was followed a week later by Captain Racket, and then the comedy, Two Married Men. Then the theatre company fell apart and most of them departed in July, leaving Marjorie and her mother stranded in the Klondike capital. Dawsonites were quick to offer their support to put on a benefit performance of The Maid of Croissy, which locals had staged the year before as an amateur performance. This time, Rambeau performed the lead role.
The event was a success. The cast performed before a full house that again included Commissioner McInnes. The Dawson News reported: “The cleverness with which she deals with this part gives the stronger light and shadow of the plot, the intrigue of which falls chiefly to her to intensify.”
Either the event did not raise enough money to enable the stranded mother and daughter to leave Dawson, or they liked the gig. Throughout the fall and winter, Marjorie Rambeau kept busy giving private instruction in elocution and directing amateur performers in plays such as Carrots, and The Young Mrs. Winthrop in September. The newspaper opined that if the attendance at the September performance was good, they would take that as an indication of encouragement to “remain all winter and put on occasional first class drama with local assistance.”
It worked, and she stayed. When We Were Twenty One hit the stage November 20 and 21, followed in February by A Texas Steer, in which Rambeau played the role of “Bossy.” This was, the Daily News later announced, her farewell performance. The community prevailed upon her to remain in Dawson until breakup, but she and her mother hit the snowy trail south at the beginning of April. An offer to play with an Ogden stock company and the departure of Sam Magnum, the leading man in her winter performances tipped the scales in favour of leaving.
Rambeau went on to a colourful and successful career in film and theatre. She was noted for her love of fast cars (she was twice seriously injured in automobile accidents). She was married three times – the last time for more than 30 years – and once had to pay restitution in a court case involving a married man. She was twice nominated for Oscars for her acting. In her later years, she reminisced about her time in Dawson – with a few embellishments.
She claimed to be the inspiration for the Yellow Kid, a character in Rex Beach’s best-selling novel The Spoilers. She was in Nome during the gold rush, but Beach didn’t arrive there until 1900, and I haven’t found verification that the two ever crossed paths – she was only 10 years old at the time. She made a fraudulent claim that Robert Service was there to see her off when she and her mother left Dawson City for the Outside in 1907. Of course at that time, Service hadn’t even set foot in the Klondike!
Her knowledge of geography – and politics – were either inadvertently or purposely vague. In an interview with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in 1959, she said that the “governor general,” who was “appointed by the president of the United States,” enticed her and her mother to stay in Canada by offering them food and accommodation for a year and a half. I need not comment further on the political incongruities of that statement. Her arrival and departure dates are well documented; she actually stayed in Dawson City for less than 10 months.
She also recalled that during her stay in Dawson City, Alaska, the “governor-general” gave her the first rose that had bloomed in the state! In Dawson City, Alaska?
The men of the Klondike? “Rough and tough they were,” she recalled in a 1916 interview, “fighters all and not used to women folk. They had notches cut in their pistol butts and they had some evil ways.”
New Year’s Day in Dawson was notorious for the heavy drinking, she related in another interview, so they locked the doors and shuttered the windows of their little cabin, and ignored the pleas of the party-goers to join them in revelry. But you know what? The New Year’s costume dance in Dawson lasted to four o’clock in the morning according to the Dawson Daily News of January 1, 1907, and Marjorie and her mother were there.
The people of Dawson remembered her time in Dawson City – perhaps more clearly than she did.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org