In July 1978, a hoard of silent movie films was uncovered from permafrost in Dawson City by Dawson alderman Frank Barrett. After I was informed of the find and inspected the site, I contacted Sam Kula, director of the National Film Television and Sound Archives (NFTSA) in Ottawa. Kula responded by immediately flying to Dawson City to investigate. Museum director Kathy Jones took on the task of recovering the films for the film archive, with the proviso that the collection would forever be known as the Dawson Film Find. Further, she insisted that the first screening of the restored films should be held in Dawson City.
True to his word, Kula, supplied two reels of restored footage from the Dawson Film Find for the world-premiere screening of a selection of the most interesting of the films, to be held in the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City.
Much had happened since the initial discovery of the films. In the spring of 1979, the swollen waters of the Yukon had flowed into Dawson. Eighty per cent of the town was under water. Buildings had floated from their foundations and settled in the streets. Lives were in turmoil as the community struggled to recover from the chaos created by Mother Nature. But Dawson City residents are always resilient, and buildings were quickly set right. Mud and debris were cleaned up and Dawson was open for business when the tourist season began, if in a somewhat modified state. People worked double time to recover their homes and their lives, while at the same time continuing their daytime jobs.
The atmosphere of the community was upbeat and positive in its recovery, although a general state of exhaustion prevailed as the summer turned to autumn. The premiere of the films was the exclamation point at the end of a remarkable summer. The first screening of the films was part of the annual meeting of the Yukon Historical and Museums Association (YHMA), which had been planned before the flood occurred. The two reels of film sent by Kula were slow to reach Dawson, and there was considerable anxiety over whether they would arrive in time. “On Friday afternoon, all we knew for sure,” said Kathy Jones, “was that they had left Edmonton. We were afraid that they’d been lost somewhere in between there and Whitehorse, but they finally showed up at 2 a.m. Saturday, thanks to David Ashley [a friend], who drove to Dawson with them from Whitehorse.”
Veteran musician and showman Fred Bass flew in from Vancouver to provide musical accompaniment to the films. Bass had been performing in front of live audiences for most of his 82 years. He began his career in show business “in the pit” in the old vaudeville days and graduated to playing piano for silent movies. He was a pioneer in Canadian broadcasting until he retired (he was an announcer for CKWX radio in Vancouver from 1928 to 1961). After that, he worked with stage director Fran Dowie in his Gold Rush Review in Barkerville, British Columbia, and in the Gaslight Follies in Dawson’s Palace Grand Theatre during the 1960s.
“Sourdough Sue” Ward, who had performed with Bass in Barkerville and in the Gaslight Follies, took to the stage at the Palace Grand in a gold-rush costume bedecked in feathers and sequins and served as master of ceremonies for the afternoon. The program was a 90-minute selection from the more than 500 reels recovered from the frozen depths the year before. To screen them all would have taken roughly 90 hours, not including popcorn breaks and trips to the washroom.
The theatre was jammed as an audience consisting of Dawson residents, YHMA conference delegates and visitors from as far away as Germany and Israel took their seats. As the lights dimmed and the screen flickered to life, Fred Bass pounded out the appropriate music for each film sequence. For scenes depicting harvest time in the Annapolis Valley, it was “I’ll Be with You in Apple Blossom Time.” When a huge World War I battleship came on the screen, he hit a sustained dark and sinister chord.
Bass had been given an opportunity to view the films before the screening, but dismissed the idea. “I didn’t do it then,” he assured me when we offered him the preview, “and I don’t intend to start now.” His fingers darted over the keys for more than ninety minutes, with only brief interruptions when Kathy Jones and I introduced each film segment, giving us a glimpse of what it was like sixty or more years before when he had performed the same duty as a young man. Bass was bathed in sweat by the end of the performance, but still smiling he graciously returned to the keyboard so photographers and a CBC film crew sent to Dawson from Vancouver for the occasion could capture the moment.
Many of the films showed the effects of decomposition of the original nitrate-based 35-millimetre stock, or the effects of water seepage or chemical damage while the films were buried. As a result, a good number of the scenes ended abruptly and the margins of other scenes were damaged. Considering the conditions of the originals, it was amazing that so much of the imagery was restored and that the quality in many of the reels matched that of films from the period that had been stored in studio vaults for seventy-five years.
Starting with a British Canadian Pathé newsreel, the program included episodes of the serial Pearl of the Army starring Pearl White, another serial titled The Red Ace, the rollicking comedy All Jazzed Up, the drama Half Breed starring Douglas Fairbanks, and Polly of the Circus, Sam Goldwyn’s first movie.
The evening was a big success, which was a great relief to Kathy Jones and me, as we had worked continuously on the project for the previous year. We had first come together professionally, and then personally, and we had quickly fallen in love. Only five weeks after the film premiere in the Palace Grand, on Oct. 13, 1979, Kathy and I were married in St. Paul’s Church in Dawson City.
Forty-plus years later, we remain married and are still actively involved in exploring the Yukon’s colourful and intriguing history. In October 2016, we enjoyed a reprise of sorts when we were invited to attend the North American premiere of Bill Morrison’s film Dawson City: Frozen Time, which screened at the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts during the 54th New York Film Festival. We enjoyed our time in the Big Apple and celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary a few days early with shopping and sightseeing, including a carriage ride through Central Park. We visited Times Square at high noon, and again at midnight. What an incredible and fitting experience that trip was, and what a remarkable conclusion to a project that began for us four decades before!
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. This article is adapted from his new book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” which is now available for purchase in select stores and online. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org