“Hollywood on the Klondike: Dawson City’s Great Film Find”
By Michael Gates; Lost Moose, 2023; 304 pages; $34.95.
In 1978, Michael Gates was a young museum conservator living in Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory when he encountered Frank Barrett, a local alderman and deputy mayor. Barrett had been overseeing a crew excavating ground beneath a recently demolished ice rink. There, a backhoe pulled up a load of dirt containing a metal box. Work stopped as the contents were examined. It was packed with old black-and-white movie reels, dating back to as early as 1917.
The box was one of several that had been stowed away at an unknown date in a root cellar. Included in the boxes were many silent movies produced in Hollywood early in the 20th century. The permafrost in the root cellar had kept the reels of nitrate film chilled and preserved. It was a major discovery, both for its value to film historians and for its selection of titles, which revealed what moviegoers in Dawson had seen decades earlier.
For Gates, the find prompted a deep dive into the entertainment options that existed from Dawson’s earliest days onward, and in “Hollywood on the Klondike,” he shares what he found. It’s a story that mirrors the growth of Dawson itself, from the 1890s when quickly erected theaters provided the predominantly male stampeders with often ribald stage performances, to the rise of moving picture houses two decades later, offering family-appropriate fare to what had, by that time, become a settled community. It’s the story of Dawson itself, told through the people and movies found on its stages and screens.
Gates begins with a tidy summary of the events that led to the last great gold rush. It’s familiar territory for many readers, but it never gets old. The town sprung from nothing within months of the precious metal’s 1896 discovery on what became known as Bonanza Creek. Initially, only miners already in the north clustered along the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, but by 1898 thousands were arriving from the south.
“The Klondike was a case study in extremes,” Gates writes, as he begins to dispel some of the mythology that has long colored popular conceptions of those early days. “Dawson City was nestled in the wilderness thousands of miles from civilization, yet it quickly became the most modern and cosmopolitan of cities.” He adds a page later that “the Mounted Police injected the stability that made Dawson City and the Klondike one of the most orderly gold rushes in history.”
It’s not that the town wasn’t lacking for alcohol, gambling, and prostitutes; it’s just that it wasn’t particularly unruly or violent. As winter closed in that fall of 1898, prospectors, trapped until breakup, crowded into saloons and halls where makeshift stages hosted dancing girls, plays, musical performances, burlesque, and more. With temperatures plunging sometimes 50 or more degrees below zero, the hot crowded bars providing liquor, food, and a show were a welcome relief for single men otherwise stuck in tiny cabins.
Drawing from newspaper reports and other historical records, Gates takes readers on a tour through the varied establishments that sprung up along Dawson’s Front Street, looking out over the Yukon River. In the chaotic boomtown atmosphere, these halls and theaters frequently changed names and ownerships, but there were some constants to the entertainment to be had. Onstage productions might be classic plays, popular musicals, professional shows, or local productions capturing and sometimes satirizing conditions in the faraway burg. Theater names, such as Dawson’s Broadway and the Monte Carlo, often demonstrated the aspirations of the frozen town, but others, like the Pioneer Hall and the Horseshoe, reflected the reality.
Gates also introduces us to many of the performers who graced those stages during the town’s earliest years. The Newman Children, already veterans of Skagway theater, were brought there by their parents in the summer of 1898, quickly becoming a popular act. Ten-year-old Margie danced, sang, and acted while patrons showered her with coins and gold nuggets (she tragically died six years later). Versatile performer Cad Wilson wooed men from the stage with her singing, acting, wardrobe, and suggestive routines.
Throughout its early history, buildings in Dawson were slapped together quickly and cheaply, and the heavy use of kerosene lanterns and gaslights for wintertime illumination resulted in frequent town-wide fires, often consuming theaters in the process. During a fire in April 1899, half of the Opera House was destroyed, while the Tivoli Theatre was reduced to embers. Within days, rebuilding was underway, however, and both reopened within a month. Yet just one year later, another town fire destroyed much of one block and took down the Monte Carlo.
It wasn’t long before electricity arrived in downtown Dawson, bringing much safer light bulbs and allowing for the showing of motion pictures, still a novelty everywhere at that time. The nascent film industry was growing up just as Dawson was settling down, and movies circulating through the United States and Canada began appearing on screens in the city. Dawson was the end of the line for these films. They were too expensive to ship back, so they went into storage, forgotten for over half a century before the 1978 find.
By the 1910s, those moving pictures, along with wholesome stage performances, had slowly begun supplanting the saucier offerings of the rush years. Mining had shifted from individual prospectors to corporate enterprises, and families had moved in. The city, like its entertainment, had been tamed. “In post-gold rush Dawson, theatre no longer consisted of ‘uninhibited productions characterized by risqué themes and double entendres,’” Gates writes.
“Hollywood on the Klondike” shows how Dawson transitioned from a boomtown to an established community through the entertainment consumed by residents, a unique approach that provides readers with a vivid sense of how the tiny city adapted to its rapidly shifting demographics. Countless names pass through the pages, appearing in theaters that quickly rise and often vanish soon afterward. It’s a story of theater flourishing and floundering, yet somehow surviving. Much like Dawson itself.