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A final curtain call for Dawson City’s Diamond Tooth Gertie

Amy Soloway retired from the role after 14 years as the Gold Rush-era dancehall queen

Amy Soloway has no idea what she’s going to do this weekend. For 14 years, her Friday and Saturday nights were spoken for. After retiring from the role of Diamond Tooth Gertie this week though, her calendar is wide open.

“Well, I won’t be singing,” Soloway says over FaceTime. It’s two days after what was meant to be her final performance in the evening show at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall. Unfortunately, Soloway missed it due to illness. Fortunately, that didn’t stop Dawsonites from giving her a final standing ovation.

On June 26, as Soloway should have been taking her last bows as the famous Gold Rush dancehall queen, roughly 70 people paraded down Dawson’s dirt roads toward her house. Some played saxophones. Some wore suspenders. Some threw flowers up at her. They all joined in singing “Simply the Best” while Soloway, as she puts it, full-on ugly cried.

“I keep telling everybody I get the benefit of having died without having died. Everyone’s telling me what they think and feel and giving me flowers,” she says. On the counter behind her, some of those flowers sit in a vase. There are more in the dining room, living room and even the bathroom. “It was one of the highlights of my life.”

She still can’t believe she affected anyone enough to get that kind of send-off. It makes sense that she did though.

Playing Gertie for three shows a night, five nights a week, over the course of 14 years, Soloway likely entertained hundreds of thousands of people. They’ve approached her across Canada, and even once in Cuba, to say they’ve seen her sing, or that their dad has a picture with her in his office. She’s not surprised by it anymore, but she is always incredulous.

Gertie has meant a lot to her too. Soloway isn’t ready to talk about why she left the production, beyond that there was a difference of values between herself and the current production team. But she will talk about why she loved it.

Gertie brought her North for the first time in 2009. Soloway, then in her mid-30s, had just returned home to Nova Scotia after performing in Toronto and the U.S. when she got a call from Konrad Pluta. A fellow maritimer, Pluta was also the musical director at the gambling hall, where the role of Gertie had been recently vacated.

Pluta, who lives in Calgary now, says he knew he needed someone who could sing, was able to improvise and who could roll with the punches and unpredictability of live, interactive theatre without getting rattled. Having worked with Soloway at a dinner theatre in Halifax, Pluta knew she had all three qualities.

“That’s her as a consummate performer, is always giving you 100 per cent attention,” he says. “As an audience, you never feel left out and that’s rare for a performer.”

He says his pitch was brutally honest. He told her everything that was great about the gig and he told her everything that wasn’t—that the six month contract started and ended in winter, that veggies were expensive, accommodations were tough and internet connections were spotty.

“I knew she would love it,” he says. “Amy’s a people person and (in Dawson), not just the audience is up close, the town is up close and in your face. I knew she’d embrace the town and the people completely.”

Pluta was right. She says the people are what kept her here.

“Everyone was like an onion,” she says. “It really was the case that the person who was your blackjack dealer could be a Reiki Master … everyone had these layers to them up here, you know? And I found that really compelling.”

The first few years, when she was working contracts Outside in the winter, Dawsonites would get in touch, ask where she was, and come visit. Dawson is a place that sees a lot of people come and go, she says, so the ones who stay are careful about who they get attached to. It wasn’t lost on her that people embraced her.

“We just kind of were made for each other,” she says of the city.

Already, people have offered her performance space all over town. Soloway says she’ll likely do a weekly gig at the Drunken Goat. Otherwise, she’s going to relax. She’ll play tourist when family visits in July. She’ll paint a spare room. Hang out with her cats. Go camping with her partner. She’ll think about what she wants to do next. It may be singing. It may be acting. It may involved more playwriting—her play, The Game of Love, had its debut at the KIAC Ballroom this past winter.

She doesn’t feel like she can shake Gertie completely. After so many years together, she says parts of their personalities have melded (“though I could say stuff as Gertie that would get huge laughs that if I said it as Amy would just not land”).

She hopes to hang on to some of Gertie’s moxie with whatever character she inhabits next. She’ll have to. The one thing she does know is she wants to play someone who swears.

“To me, that is also a big part of being up here is there’s a little edge that you have to have to live properly up here,” she says, laughing. “And I don’t mean that as a negative. I think that’s a positive. You have to be strong.”

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