I was invited to give a reading at the Globe Theatre in Atlin this past weekend, after a number of false starts due to COVID-19. Mask-wearing and social distancing were still in effect when I presented a glimpse of my next book, which should be released next spring. In part, the book will be about the historic theatres of Dawson City, from their inception during the gold rush, to the present day, so it seemed appropriate to be speaking in such a historic setting.
The weather cooperated, and the drive to the village, which has a permanent population of less than 500 residents, was smooth and relaxing. I met Heather Keny, the energetic volunteer impresario of the theatre, early in the afternoon, to set up for the evening’s performance.
Keny is a dynamo, who has been arranging weekly performances at the Globe since COVID restrictions were lifted in British Columbia. Looking back over the summer she has arranged various musical acts, including The Lucky Ones, Café de Voix, The Ryan McNally Band, and coming up this weekend, Brandon Isaac. She showcased local talent (The Atlin Cabaret Take 2) back in July and featured local poet and author Stephen Torre in August.
In addition to Isaac, Keny has lined up Dawson City songwriter-in-residence Brigitte Jardin for the evening of the 25th, and a comedy matinée on Sunday, the 26th, featuring He Fangzhou and Devon Flynn. And don’t forget the film nights in between everything else. It’s been an impressive summer lineup for the historic theatre, which is booked almost every weekend until the end of October.
The Globe Theatre was built on Pearl Street in 1917 by Atlin businessman Edwin Pillman on the site where the Leland Hotel once stood, until it was destroyed by a devastating fire in 1914. The same year as the Globe, The MV Tarahne was built by the marine division of White Pass and Yukon Route, while the four-storey Atlin Inn was completed on the waterfront, heralding the beginning of a thriving tourist trade that lasted for two decades.
The Globe has an unassuming exterior, with a large sign with its name on it, mounted over the recessed entrance. Once past the vestibule, one immediately notices the high, arched ceiling, which gives a sense of space in the economical interior. Two features of interest are the original carbon-arc film projector once used in the theatre, and a series of old movie advertisements, now mounted in frames around the interior walls. These adverts were uncovered some years ago during the restoration of the building.
|The interior of the restored historic Globe Theatre in Atlin features an arched ceiling, old movie posters (now framed and mounted on the walls) found during restoration, and a century-old, recently restored, piano. (Courtesy/Kathy Jones-Gates)|
Over the years, Pillman screened many silent movies in this little theatre, and, when talkies came in, became one of the first establishments to make the conversion to sound. Like the many theatres found in Dawson in the early days, the Globe was used for various function other than moving pictures. Concerts were offered here, including school concerts in which children performed before audiences filled with proud parents. There were dances and boxing matches, magic lantern shows and funerals.
The theatre continued to be an active part of the community until the early 1940s, when Pillman retired and moved away from Atlin. Tourism had dwindled later in the Depression years, and the population fell to around 250 souls. But the community survived and so did the Globe, a slowly decaying shell, for decades.
I first saw the Globe Theatre in 1976, when I was recording architectural features of historical buildings for a federal program. Sue Morhun, who was active in the historical society when I was there, showed me around Atlin, explaining the history of the many old buildings. Looking at a photograph that I took at the time, I note a sign mounted on the wall to the left of the front entrance that declared “This Building Being Restored by Atlin Historical Society.” The building still stood square, but the grey, weather-beaten exterior was unpainted after decades of neglect.
Nearly two decades later, in 1995, the historical society delivered on its promise. A restoration plan was developed. Funding of $150,000 was provided over three years by the province. Restoration of the theatre began, starting with the foundation being raised onto a concrete footing, and the envelope of the building being made weather-fast. Drywall and a concrete floor were added in year two, and an addition was added at the rear of the building, to house the heating and plumbing, and create a backstage area, with washroom.
The finishing touches were completed in the final year of the restoration. The exterior was painted and the original sign was replicated and mounted on the façade. The most notable detail that was finished that year was the vaulted ceiling. Padding was installed to improve the acoustics, and the upholstered ceiling finish was tacked into place using round tin washers similar to those used on the original. A stage was built, and the original seating was refinished and reupholstered.
A grant of $20,000 from the Vancouver Foundation provided lighting and projections equipment. All other funding was raised by the historical society, including administration, research and tens of thousands of dollars worth of volunteer support.
The theatre was officially reopened at a ribbon-cutting ceremony that included the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia, and Edwin Pillman’s great-grandson, on August 1, 1998, during the centennial of the founding of the gold rush town.
The theatre has become a showcase for the cultural life of the community. Heather Keny has, through her volunteer efforts, raised funds to upgrade the equipment, ensuring that the theatre will continue to support a wide range of events. The most recent improvement: a century-old upright piano, that had been languishing for more than 20 years, was finally put back into working condition, thanks to the skills of Whitehorse’s Barry Kitchen, and rolled up onto the stage for its first performance just three weeks ago.
Its amazing what can be accomplished through the efforts of dedicated volunteers. Let’s hope that this hardy little theatre continues to feature northern talent for years to come.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. He is the author of six books of Yukon history. His latest, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Gold Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.