During his recent visit to Dawson City, Film maker Bill Morrison inspected ground conditions under the recreation centre. (Kathy Jones-Gates/Yukon News)

History Hunter: Is there more film buried in the Klondike?

Thousands made the arduous journey to the Klondike in 1898. Many never bothered to stake a claim in the goldfields, seemingly content to have reached their destination. They were drawn to Front Street, which was the social epicentre of this this remarkable moment in history: false-fronted buildings, clustered shoulder-to-shoulder, offering booze, gambling, dancing and entertainment around the clock.

Six theatres offered variety programmes and vaudeville acts. The miners, flush with riches from their claims on the creeks, showered entertainers with gold nuggets. By August, these live acts were augmented by a novelty that had only been invented by the Lumière Bothers in Paris, France, two years earlier: moving pictures. The first of these, shown with a “Projectoscope,” appeared as an added novelty to the entertainment at the Combination Theatre in August, 1898.

Three months later, a special attraction, the “Wondroscope,” was featured at the Pioneer Hall. “Projectoscope” presentations were advertised at the Monte Carlo in December, and the Tivoli in January of 1899. Among the subjects featured in these screenings were prize fights and naval battles of the Spanish-American war.

As the population dwindled over the following decade, several of the theatres closed, and amateur theatre emerged as a regular form of entertainment in Dawson. By 1910, the surviving theatres were bringing in projection equipment, and converting to silent movies.

In 1914, there were three venues for moving pictures operating in Dawson: The Orpheum, the Auditorium and the Family Theatre. Each offered a nightly selection of drama and comedy films, which were changed three times a week. Dawson was the end of the distribution chain, meaning that the films were two and three years old by the time they reached there, but residents of the gold rush city didn’t care; they were thirsty for entertainment. Newsreels filled out the programs, showing the isolated community what was happening in the Outside world.

It was too expensive to return these films after they were screened, so they accumulated in the thousands. The basement of the Carnegie Library on Queen Street (now the Masonic Hall), was filled with them.

Instructions were issued to Clifford Thomson, the local representative of the film distributors to dispose of unwanted films in 1929. He complied by hauling them from the library, across the street to the athletic centre, where the reels of film became landfill in the old swimming pool, which had become too expensive to maintain. Fifty years later, some of these buried films were rediscovered and restored. Now known as the Dawson Film Find, they filled a major gap in the history of silent film.

When the new talking picture projectors reached Dawson, the silent films became as unwanted as week-old newspapers. Accounts in the Dawson News chronicled the demise of the silent films. The “talkies” arrived in Dawson in 1931 and the silent films were doomed to a sad end. In July, 1932, several tons of them were thrown into the Yukon River.

“We are only keeping up with the times,” stated Fred Elliott, the manager of the Family Theatre. “My patrons want the ‘talkies,’ so we are going to have them.” Elliott wasn’t finished, however; a month later, he hauled the last of the silent films down to the waterfront and set them ablaze.

“Pictures formerly worth thousands of dollars went up in smoke in a very few minutes,” reported the Dawson News; “The heat was so intense that a person was unable to get within seventy-five feet (23 metres) of the fire.” In ten minutes, nothing but ashes and metal reels remained.

The story of the film discovery fifty years later made headlines around the world when a ton of old reels were shipped to the National Archives in Ottawa. A year later, someone who had scavenged a number of additional reels stepped forward with the highly flammable goods, and the Dawson City Museum shipped another much smaller consignment of films to the National Archives.

Ninety years after the initial disposal of old silent films, the question remains: are there any more? Acting on various clues, Bill Morrison, the New York filmmaker who created the award-winning film Dawson City: Frozen Time, is convinced that there are. And he has an ally. Michael Goi, a film director and cinematographer, has had a forty year career making films in Hollywood. He is interested in the preservation and restoration of old films.

“They are a historical record of both American and Canadian cinema at a time when cinema was just being born,” says Goi of the Dawson Film Find. To him, the recovery of even one more reel would represent an important piece of film history.

Morrison and Goi visited Dawson City recently, and are determined that if there are any more salvageable reels of old film somewhere in Dawson, they are going to find them. Goi thinks there is the potential for a long-term project. If there is anything left to recover, he says, it could take five to ten years and millions of dollars to restore these cinemagraphic treasures.

With his credentials, he may be able to deliver the goods. The past president of the American Society of Cinematographers, Goi has had four Emmy nominations for his work on the television series Glee, My Name is Earl, and American Horror Story.

Morrison adds that there were local people who recorded Yukon history on moving film, most notably former Yukon Member of Parliament and lawyer, George Black. It is ironic, notes Morrison, that Black had the presence of mind to record the destruction of the last of the old movie theatres, the DAAA (1937) and the Orpheum (1940). Yet not one frame of the hoard of films unearthed in 1978 has anything to do with the history of the Yukon, except to illustrate the things that people were watching on the silver screen so many years ago.

During their visit to Dawson, Morrison and Goi met with Mayor Wayne Potoroka to determine the possibility that films remain buried under the current recreation facility between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Together, they inspected the site where the films were buried, pored over city records of past recreation center construction, and talked to people who were involved with previous work at the site.

A visit to the site where the debris from the 1978 excavation was dumped revealed nothing, and a reconnaissance of the waterfront led to speculation about where the old films might have been dumped in 1932. The two filmmakers plan to return to Dawson City in the spring of 2020 when, if there is a repeat of this year’s low water level, they may find what they are looking for buried in the silt along the shore of the Yukon River.

Is there anyone reading this article who may be able to provide more information about the location of any more silent film treasures in the Klondike? If so, I would love to talk to you.

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 msgates@northwestel.net

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