In January of 1942, Kate Rockwell Matson rolled into Hollywood to consult on the making of a movie based upon her life story. “When this century was just beginning,” wrote columnist Frederick C. Othman, “she was one of the dancing girls in the Savoy Theater, at Dawson, where the boys played roulette between acts.
Out front was a ‘barker,’ name of Frank Gardner. He took one look at the beauty from the States and he yelled: ‘Here she comes now—Klondike Kate, the Rocky Mountain buck-and-wing dancer!’ ‘And,’ she said [in 1942] between puffs on one of her home-made cigarettes, ‘I have been Klondike Kate ever since.’”
The story, though colourful, isn’t exactly true. Rockwell did not acquire the name Klondike Kate until 30 years after the gold rush. Indeed, the use of the nickname can be traced back to the era of the gold rush, appearing in newspapers as early as November 1897, but it did not apply to Kate Rockwell specifically at the time.
At first, its usage was associated with ladies and events of questionable reputation. But in 1915 author Harry Leon Wilson published the novel Ruggles of Red Gap, which includes a character named Klondike Kate; the book became a bestseller and was quickly adapted for the stage. Actress Leonore Harris played the role of Klondike Kate in the Manhattan stage production in the fall of 1915, and Edna Phillips Holmes starred in the same role in the screen version released by Essanay Films in 1917. Ruggles of Red Gap was remade in 1923 in a Paramount production with Lois Wilson playing Kate in this version. Kate seems to disappear as a character in the 1935 talkie remake of the film, starring Charles Laughton.
During the 1920s, references were made to “Klondike Kate” Ryan, who lived in Whitehorse, but the woman in question never set foot in the Klondike and appears to have acquired the moniker only after leaving the Yukon. It wasn’t until 1929 that Rockwell embraced the name with a passion and made it her own. In that year, Rockwell’s former Klondike paramour, Alex Pantages, now hugely successful and wealthy, was accused of raping a young woman named Eunice Pringle.
Rockwell was brought to Los Angeles as a potential witness for the prosecution, and within a short time the newspapers had branded her as the “Klondike Queen,” the “Flame of the Yukon” and “Klondike Kate” in big banner headlines. Rockwell adopted the latter name, and for the rest of her life she promoted herself as Klondike Kate.
Decades later her fellow sourdoughs, many of whom remembered Rockwell from the early days, embraced the title as well. From this point on, she appears regularly in newspaper accounts: when she attended social functions, when she travelled north to Dawson City, when she married Johnny Matson, a Klondike miner who knew her from the gold rush days, and finally, when she was embraced by Hollywood.
In her biography, written late in her life by Ellis Lucia, the claims about her being the premier attraction of the theatre circuit in Dawson City are overstated, but she was there and she did participate in the hard life of the theatres and dance halls. In fact, she was close enough to the epicentre to be considered the real thing. That was enough to earn her the title of “Queen of the Klondike.”
Cashing in on her notoriety, Kate travelled to Hollywood in May of 1934 to solicit interest in the making of a film based upon her life. She sold her idea to film agent Harry Weber, who had been her vaudeville manager after she left the Klondike many years before. Willard Mack and Edward Paulton set to work scripting the story, with Mack’s ex-wife and former sourdough Marjorie Rambeau to play the role of Kate in the movie.
Kate left Hollywood with a contract in hand and on May 31 headed to Dawson to see her husband, Johnny Matson, who was mining in the Yukon. She planned to return to Hollywood in the fall to serve as “technical advisor” to the scriptwriters.
In the end the film never happened, but eight years later Rockwell was back in Hollywood collaborating with Columbia Pictures, which bought the rights to her story. The afternoon of January 22, 1942, she sat in an office at Columbia Studios giving a demonstration of how to roll your own cigarettes. She pulled out a package of Bull Durham tobacco and tapped a little onto a cigarette paper that she held in one hand while simultaneously tugging with her teeth at the drawstring on the bag of tobacco in her other hand.
She did the same thing at the movie studio, giving instructions to actresses Jinx Falkenburg, Shirley Patterson and Evelyn Keyes. Falkenburg was reported to have been a quick learner.
“There’s hardly a man, woman or child who hasn’t heard of the colourful Klondike Kate, so her personally supervised story should have a ready-made audience,” stated American movie columnist Louella Parsons when she heard of Kate’s impending visit to Los Angeles. Parsons interviewed Rockwell when the latter arrived in Tinseltown. Kate demonstrated the fine art of rolling a cigarette and also gave Parsons a lesson in geography, pointing out that Dawson City was in Canada, as were the Mounted Police.
Being a veteran of the gold rush, Kate was a stickler for authenticity. The Hollywood dance hall girls weren’t anything like the real version, she was quick to note. “We danced like ladies—square dances and waltzes and things like that,” she said, “and our costumes were not the low-cut sort you see now. On stage we wore tights. Dance hall girls in those days wore high-necked shirtwaists, high button shoes and skirts down to the ground as well as wrist-length sleeves.”
Rockwell took pains to clarify that the Klondike wasn’t like the wild west. “People get funny ideas,” she said. “They think those days were wild and woolly for a fact. It was wild country all right, but the Mounties didn’t let much go wrong. As for the girls, I never heard a girl in a dance hall tell a vulgar story, swear, or curse … The scenes you saw in Dawson’s dance halls weren’t any wilder than what you see in some of the taxi-dance places today.”
But Hollywood and reality seldom overlap. The story that Columbia finally settled on was entirely fictional. “I don’t recognize anything in it that happened to me,” Rockwell said in October of 1943 during the filming of the picture. Ann Savage, the actress selected to play Kate in the movie, did not wear lighted candles in her hair in the film, like Rockwell claimed to have done on New Year’s Eve of 1900. The film was never screened in Dawson City.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Gold Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. His next book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is due for release in September. You can contact him at email@example.com