The Palace Grand was reconstructed and opened in 1962 with the stage production of ‘Foxy,’ Starring noted film star and actor, Bert Lahr. Credit: Gates collection

Klondike theatres part 3: 1899-1900

Dawson City’s theatre scene was hot — and sometimes literally on fire

The discovery of gold in Nome, Alaska, drew many away from the Yukon in 1899, but the Klondike region continued to ride a wave of prosperity despite the exodus.

More than a million ounces of gold were officially recovered for 1900, the largest amount ever taken from the Yukon in a single year. The official census of 1901 determined the population to still be more than 27,000 people. Thus the stable population and the sustained prosperity of the creeks continued to support a bustling theatre scene in Dawson City.

Front Street during the spring of 1899 could boast of several palaces of entertainment. The Horseshoe stood beside the Monte Carlo, which was a few doors north of the Opera House, which in turn was only a few doors north of the Tivoli.

The Monte Carlo proudly proclaimed an all-star bill in January of 1899 featuring “The Only, The Great,” Blanch La Mont, plus Fred Tracy, the popular baritone, Nellie Lamore (one of the notorious sisters gamely pursued by Swiftwater Bill Gates) and Florence Brocee.

Meanwhile, the manager of the Tivoli announced a program including Little Margie Newman and the Newman children and more than a dozen other featured acts. The Tivoli had a matinee every day at three o’clock in the afternoon and featuring a four-act play by the Tivoli Star theatre troupe (admission 25 cents).

The Family Theatre received a makeover, becoming the Criterion in early spring, boasting a sparkling new bar at the front and a theatre and stage at the rear. Twelve bedrooms upstairs provided accommodation for guests, who, it was predicted, would flock to stay here because the building was out of the fire zone.

The prediction proved accurate. Fire struck Front Street on April 26, 1899. It started in Helen Holden’s room, on the second floor of the Bodega Saloon. The fire department was quick to respond, but it was 25 minutes before they could get water pumping into the flames. By that time, it was too late. Fanned by a brisk wind, the conflagration spread north, consuming much of Front Street between King and Queen Streets, including the Opera House (estimated loss: $50,000), the Tivoli (loss: $45,000) and the cribs along Paradise Alley.

The inquiry into the fire couldn’t come up with a clear cause, but it did lend support to Sam Steele’s efforts to remove the scarlet women from the business district of town. While the Opera House was rebuilt and open for business by August, the Tivoli seemed to disappear from the theatre scene.

The Pavilion on King Street, which was unaffected by the conflagration, was soon to have competition. A new theatre, the Grand Opera House, and the grandest of the Dawson theatres, opened beside the Pavilion on July 18, 1899. The showman Arizona Charlie Meadows, started the programme for the evening, which included the three-act performance of the musical “La Siege Inferno,” interspersed with performances by Howard, a juggler, and a demonstration of trick riding by bicyclist W.C. Campbell.

Pauline Claire performed a serpentine dance, employing long pieces of fine gauze, while May Lewis entertained with a banjo song and dance. Arizona Charlie demonstrated his marksmanship by shooting cigarettes from his wife’s mouth, and glass balls from between her fingers, until one night he accidentally shot off the end of her finger.

Within months, the Grand Opera House became the Palace Grand, then the Savoy, the Old Savoy, and finally, the Auditorium, until it was eventually rebuilt as a national historic site by Parks Canada in 1961.

Another big fire roared through the core of Dawson on January 9, 1900, and again several theatres were destroyed. The Horseshoe, whose theatre was once run by the Oatley Sisters was destroyed, as was the Monte Carlo. The Opera House once again burned to the ground as did several saloons and a number of other businesses.

Several entertainers were forced to flee the burning buildings, including the O’Brien Family, Florence Brocee and Rose Blumkin from the Monte Carlo, and Gussie Lamore, Beatrice Lorne the soprano, Mamie Hightower and Alex Pantages of the Opera House.

Pantages, who had been a porter in the Opera House, had just been placed in charge of a co-operative stock company 10 days before the inferno burned down the Opera House. He had saved up a considerable fund which he was willing to invest in Dawson City show business.

The cooperative stock company was quick to take action after the fire. When it failed to secure the Palace Grand Theatre, it reached an agreement with Ben Levy and George Apple to build a theatre in the ashes of the former Horseshoe dance hall.

The new Orpheum Theatre was opened to a standing room crowd a month later. Featured was the first act of “Who’s Baby,” a comedy by Nat Goodwin. All the old favourites took part, including Gussie Lamore and Beatrice Lorne, the “Klondike Nightingale.”

“The building itself is quite a model, with its two tier[s] of boxes, its balcony and its comfortable seats,” stated the Yukon Sun newspaper, “The orchestra…numbers amongst its members the finest musicians in the city.”

The theatre circuit in Dawson was thriving. The Dawson Daily News had a weekly column devoted to the comings and goings — and antics — of the theatre crowd. But telltale signs of changing times were on the horizon.

The Flora arrived from Whitehorse (or White Horse, as it was called at the time) on June 4, 1900, bearing passengers Cad Wilson and Nellie Holgate. Wilson, who had been the most popular entertainer in the heady days of ’98, had left the Yukon the previous fall reportedly taking with her $25,000 or more and an enormous nugget-studded belt.

This time, however, Dawson was only a stopover. Wilson and Holgate appeared for a short engagement at the Orpheum Theatre, then departed for Nome on the steamer Hannah.

Wilson and Holgate weren’t the only entertainers scampering for Nome. Travelling with them aboard the Hannah were playwright and entertainer John Mulligan and his wife. On July 7, Frank Simon, the manager of an all-star theatre troupe, departed for Nome. The remainder of the troupe was to follow in a week.

Another blow to the Dawson theatre scene was the departure of the O’Brien, Jennings and O’Brien act, who had graced the stages of Dawson for nearly a year. “No professional people ever in Dawson have reached such a height of general popularity,” lamented the Dawson Daily News in its theatre column.

But as soon as one door closes, another opens. A large theatre troupe numbering 40 in all arrived on the steamer Yukoner in early August. They were set to perform on stage at the Palace Grand (renamed the Savoy) Theatre. One of the members of the troupe, who would remain in Dawson for a couple of years, was a young actress named Kate Rockwell.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere.