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HISTORY HUNTER: Children in Klondike theatre

Marjorie Rambeau was a stage prodigy, who started her career in Nome when she was just 12 years old
Little Margie Newman, sitting on the left donkey on Front Street in Dawson City, opened the Mascot in Dawson the summer of 1898. Little Margie went on to be the sweetheart of every homesick miner in the Klondike, but sadly, she died before her acting career took off. (Special Collections, Hegg 556/University of Washington Libraries)

In my last column, I wrote about Young Edwina Hewett, who performed with her family on the stage of the Auditorium Theatre, which we now know as the Palace Grand. But she wasn’t the only child to tramp the boards of Dawson City’s gold rush theatres.

Annie O’Brien was 12 years old when she first appeared on stage in Dawson for two years with her parents, in an act that was named “O’Brien, Jennings and O’Brien.”

In addition to dramatic performances and singing, young Annie was apparently light on her feet. The evening of March 15, 1900, in a contest at the Orpheum Theatre, she took the title of best buck and wing dancer from reigning champion, Frank Kelly.

Marjorie Rambeau was a stage prodigy, who started her career in Nome when she was just 12 years old. She was part of the Thorne-Southard troupe that arrived in Dawson City the summer of 1906. She and her mother spent almost a year in Dawson, where Marjorie staged various theatre productions and taught elocution.

Rambeau went on to become a star of stage and screen, where she earned two Oscar nominations in 1940 and 1953. Her name is permanently impressed in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The Newman children George, Willie and Margie arrived in Dawson with their parents in the spring of 1898. Their first stage appearance was the week of July 5, at the Pavilion Theatre, along with other acts including Maude Roselle (who was killed by her lover in the Monte Carlo a few months later), Myrtle Drummond, Emma Forest and Nellie Lamore.

While the Newman children were the featured act, little Margie was clearly the hit of the show, and ultimately, the most revered child actor to perform in the Klondike. With her round face, and long dark hair parted in the middle, and falling to her shoulders in ringlets, ten year-old Margie plucked the heartstrings of many weary miners, who, homesick thousands of miles away from family, were reminded of their wives and children when they watched her perform.

One newspaper reported: “The presence of little Margie had infected the heart-hungry absentees in a far land to a strange degree with longings of their own little ones and all readily responded.”

According to all accounts, the Newman children were regularly showered with nuggets and gold coins when their stage act concluded.

The children performed at the Mascot on opening night the summer of 1898, and quickly followed that with an appearance at a “grand family entertainment” at Belinda Mulroney’s Fairview Hotel, August 12. Within weeks, they were being featured at the Monte Carlo, then they performed at a fund raiser for the Fraternal Order of Elks in the Tivoli Theatre October 25, along with other celebrities including singers, jugglers, Captain Jack Crawford, and an appearance of Dawson’s most popular entertainer in 1898, Cad Wilson.

The Newman children were cycled through every theatre in Dawson and back again; the Tivoli, the Novelty, the Standard, and the Auditorium. At centre of it all was little Margie.

Margie Newman was frequently singled out in newspaper reports for her stage performances, singing, dancing and dramatic. Then, in September of 1902, Margie and her mother departed the Yukon on the steamer Tyrrell. While outside, she gained stage experience, presumably in Oakland and then in Portland, before returning to the Yukon in the spring of 1903. She came in with the acting troupe assembled by Lillian Hall, the actress who married wealthy miner Jim Hall, who, coincidentally, owned the Auditorium Theatre.

During the summer of 1903, Margie had upped her game. She arrived in Dawson on June 17 with her mother, on the Steamer Canadian. Two days later, she was hailed as “still the princess of the Klondike” for her performance in the Farce Turned Up. That was followed on June 23 with her role as Liza in The Christian. Later in the summer, she was the widow’s daughter in A Midnight Bell.

The season wrapped up at the end of August with a mixed bill, with selected scenes from Camille, The Christian, and A Bachelor’s Romance. Margie was featured with Lottie Oatley between acts in a performance of the Mirror Dance.

Most of the troupe then returned for the Outside, but Margie remained in Dawson. Her father took up the management of the Auditorium Theatre, and Margie was reunited with her brothers. In addition to dramatic performances, they put on a vaudeville program, Sunday concerts and participated in fund raising events.

They re-opened the Auditorium Theatre when the weather became warm enough in the spring of 1904, but the Newman family’s Dawson run was at an end. Their final performance came in early June, before a packed house; Little Margie was the object of the community’s praise. Margie was applauded for having “contributed more to the entertainment of Dawson people in larger measure than any other of her profession.”

“When children were scarce in the camp,” eulogized the Dawson Daily News in a tribute to little Margie, “and many a heart-hungry miner was hugging in his bosom the pictures of his dear ones at home, ‘Little’ Margie, the child actress, made their acquaintance and became a great deal more than the mere child actress, singing and dancing for their amusement. Her acquaintances on the creeks probably became wider than that of any single individual in the country, while in Dawson, she was known to every man, woman and child.”

Little Margie had grown up with Dawson City. She embodied the spirit of the gold rush, and her performances inflamed the hearts of many homesick miners in the early days, and she was long remembered for that, but by 1904, the gold rush had subsided and the population diminished. Her departure symbolized, in a sad way, the decline of the gold rush town, and everybody knew it.

On June 14, 1904, the Newman family stepped aboard the steamer Monarch and headed downriver for the Tanana country in Alaska. The plan was for her to return to the Outside in the fall, where she would attend finishing school and receive professional theatrical training for a career on the stage.

The following year, the newspaper noted that Miss Newman passed through Dawson from the Tanana district, en route to the Outside, where she was to receive medical treatment. She died in Portland, Oregon July 5, 1906 of “exothropic goitre, with heart complications, hastened by extreme [summer] heat.” The little gold rush heartthrob was dead at the age of 16, and a promising future on the stage would never come to be.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at