Moving pictures were invented by the Lumière Brothers in France in 1896, the same year that gold was discovered in the Klondike.
In the stampede to Dawson City that followed, all sorts of modern devices were carried to the city of gold. A featured amusement was moving pictures, the first of which were shown August 30, 1898, in the Combination theatre. The Klondike Nugget reported on this new feature: “Besides the strong drawing attractions of Mulligan, Maurettus and the host of supporters, they are showing the most modern of Edison’s inventions, the ‘Projectoscope.’ It resembles a stereopticon, in that pictures of objects are projected upon a screen but there the resemblance ceases, for in the Projectoscope the pictures move exactly as in life. The sensational rounds of a prize-fight, bull-fight, naval battle, etc., are reproduced exactly as in life.”
Crowds lined up at the door on opening night to witness, among other things, a steam locomotive chug across the screen. One of the miners was so thrilled that he jumped up and shouted: “Run her through again! Run her through again! I ain’t seen a locomotive for nigh on 10 years.”
While many laboured in the goldfields to stockpile their frozen pay dirt in anticipation of recovering the gold during the spring cleanup, others sought refuge in the warmth and companionship in the saloons, dance halls and theatres of Front Street in Dawson. Amid the singing and dancing, the boxing matches, the sacred concerts and the masquerade balls, featured in the numerous gold rush theatres, Klondikers were captivated by the first offerings of the nascent movie industry. Yet at this time, moving pictures were a mere novelty amid the live entertainment that sustained the gold-rush town.
Moving pictures continued to be a novelty attraction in Dawson theatres in the years that followed. The Orpheum and the Auditorium theatres and the Arctic Brotherhood Hall battled for the patronage of Dawsonites by occasionally offering moving pictures.
In October of 1910, Ben Levy, the owner of the Orpheum, moved the competition up a notch, announcing the arrival of a new projector and many new films, and also the news that it would be opening for the winter with new selections of films every week. Levy started billing the titles of the films in his advertisements in the newspaper. One of the first titles was Frankenstein. Levy upped his game even more by announcing major renovations to the Orpheum in February 1911. A year after Levy converted the Orpheum to a movie theatre, a new competitor entered the arena: the Family Theatre in the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association (DAAA) building.
Walter Creamer, the manager of the DAAA, was a creative entrepreneur, eager to keep the business a profitable concern, so in 1911, he converted the second-floor gymnasium into a theatre. Steady competition continued between the different theatres in Dawson until the declaration of war with Germany in August of 1914. At the time, there were still three theatres screening moving pictures. But the war killed whatever was left of the gold rush town as hundreds left the north, never to return.
Because of its remoteness and seasonal isolation, Dawson City was at the end of the film distribution chain. The cost of shipping films to Dawson City was high, and like many other goods, once they reached the Klondike, they were too expensive to ship outside again. Thus, these films, dog-eared and worn out from heavy use, arrived in Dawson two to three years (or more) after they were first released, a fact that would make it obvious to summer tourists visiting Dawson that Dawson had become a social isolate and cultural backwater. A good example of this delay was the film His Madonna, which was already five years old when it was screened in Dawson in April 1917.
By 1932, the Family Theatre still offered obsolete silent movies on a sporadic basis, while the Orpheum countered with talkies like All Quiet on the Western Front, starring Lew Ayres, and The Virginian, starring Gary Cooper. The rivalry between the two theatres continued through the early months of 1932; by the following summer, the Family Theatre was still offering silent films but alternating with tourist dances.
However, the era of silent films was at an end, and Fred Elliott, now manager of the Family Theatre, threw in the towel. On July 28, 1932, he disposed of several tons of silent films in the traditional way—by hauling them to the waterfront and throwing them in the river. “We are only keeping up with the times,” said Elliott. “My patrons want the ‘talkies,’ so we are going to have them.”
Elliott followed that a short time later by burning the remainder of his silent films on the banks of the Yukon River. A few years earlier, a large quantity of silent films had been thrown into the indoor swimming pool at the DAAA building when it could no longer afford to maintain the pool. The films were uncovered 50 years later, causing a sensation because many of the reels contained rare footage, long thought lost to the theatre world.
Movies continued to be a regular form of entertainment in Dawson City, offered first at the Family Theatre, then at the Orpheum. That competition ended when the DAAA building was destroyed by fire late in 1937. The Orpheum followed suit in 1940, but a theatre of simpler design was quickly rebuilt by its owner, Harry Gleaves. The Orpheum passed through several owners until it closed for good after it was severely damaged by the major flood that inundated Dawson in early May of 1979.
The owner, Fred Berger, reported that they were able to catch fish inside the building after the water had receded. The insurance settlement was not enough to pay for new seats in the theatre, let alone cover the cost of rebuilding. By that time, Dawson City was receiving live television broadcasts, and in the early 1980s, the town subsidized distribution of satellite broadcasts, including movies on the Home Box Office channel. It was no longer viable to operate a movie theatre in such a small market.
On Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. in the Grey Mountain Room of the Mount Mac Recreational Facility, there will be a special presentation on how the films were found, followed by musical entertainment and a screening of films that were uncovered in permafrost in 1978. Everybody is welcome to attend this free event. Take a step back in time and watch a selection of films that were shown on a typical evening in Dawson theatres more than a century ago. There will be food and refreshments, a presentation Stay tuned for more information.
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