Just in time for the holidays, we’re in conversation with Michael Gates, author of Hollywood in the Klondike: Dawson City’s Great Film Find (Lost Moose Publishing/Harbour). It’s a rollicking, superbly researched, and highly entertaining look at Dawson’s rich legacy as an epicentre of Gold Rush and early twentieth century entertainment.
As Ron Verzuh says in The British Columbia Review, "You can almost taste the rotgut liquor and smell the sweat, cheap cigars and perfume in this historical account of Dawson City’s heyday in the 1890s. You can almost hear the hoots and hoorays on the 4th of July down at the many saloons and hotels. And you can almost feel the utter loss of a claim gone bust or the heartbreak of a prospector who gave his stake to a dancehall girl.”
Michael Gates is the Yukon story laureate. He is the author of several historical books, including From the Klondike to Berlin, which was shortlisted for the Canadian Authors Association Fred Kerner Book Award, and Dublin Gulch: The History of the Eagle Gold Mine, which received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. He was formerly the curator of collections for Klondike National Historic Sites in Dawson City and pens the popular column History Hunter for the Yukon News. He lives in Whitehorse, YT.
Hollywood in the Klondike is a fascinating dive into the story of one of the great film finds of history, and situates that story against the backdrop of Dawson’s history as a Gold Rush town. Why did you want to turn this era of Dawson’s history into a book?
I fell in love with the Yukon and its history many years ago when I visited for the first time. I chose a career in the Yukon and succeeded in that. For nearly 25 years, I was the curator of collections at Klondike National Historic Sites in Dawson City. Although my original interest lay in other parts of the Yukon, the exposure to Klondike history, when I worked in Dawson City, shaped my focus in the years that followed. A man named John Gould was my mentor. He was born in Dawson City and raised out on the creeks where his father mined a claim on Hunker Creek. He introduced me to the miners still working in the goldfields and explained the modern and the historic methods of placer mining to me.
Years later, I started writing a column called History Hunter in the Yukon News. Sixteen years and hundreds of columns later, I still haven’t run out of interesting Yukon people, places, and events to write about. Matter of fact, the more I write, the more stories that are brought to my attention.
I try to examine little-known facets of Yukon history, but over the years I have discovered that the average person on the streets of Whitehorse does not know much about Yukon history. I see it as my challenge to make my stories come to life for them. I was personally involved in the salvaging of the silent films in Dawson City, and it irks me that the story of their discovery has been retold in various contexts where the details of the project have been distorted or miscast. Sam Kula, who was the Director of the National Film, Television and Sound Archives in Ottawa, and who led the restoration of the films, has passed away, so my wife Kathy and I are the only ones directly involved in planning the recovery of the films in Dawson, who survive to tell about what happened when the films were discovered.
So, to answer your question, I turned to this era because of my knowledge and experience, my personal involvement in the recovery of the films, a desire to document an unusual frozen find from Dawson City, and personal wish to illustrate what a unique and unusual part of Canadian history that the Klondike Gold Rush was.
What was the most striking discovery you made as you researched the book?
The Klondike Gold Rush was one of the most interesting social events in Canadian history, and a defining moment in the history of the territory. I dove into the historical accounts – memoirs, diaries, newspaper accounts and archival records to piece together the events before, during, and after the Gold Rush. The Gold Rush inspired the literary talents as such giants of the written word as Robert Service, Jack London, and Pierre Berton. Their work was later turned into feature length movies. It certainly inspired me as well. Within a couple of years, from 1897 to 1900, a piece of boggy moose pasture was turned into the “Paris of the North,” fueled by the incredible riches that were being extracted from the frozen creek bottoms and hillsides near Dawson City.
The Klondike Gold Rush was one of the most interesting social events in Canadian history, and a defining moment in the history of the territory.
What struck me most was that moving pictures reached this isolated Gold Rush town just two years after they were invented by the Lumiere Brothers in Paris, France. There were a striking number of people who later became famous in Hollywood who performed on stage, tended bar, sold newspapers, and held other menial tasks in Dawson City in those early years. I was fascinated to find their names in the early records of the time. Marjorie Rambeau, who later appeared on screen opposite such actors as Clark Gable, John Wayne, James Cagney, Jean Harlow, and Loretta Young, performed on the stage in Dawson with a traveling theatre group that included a young Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
I often wonder about how being in the Klondike affected them later in their illustrious careers. Did they ever get together to reminisce about their time in the Klondike?
Based on your research and decades as a resident of Dawson, what do visitors get wrong or misunderstand about Dawson and the Gold Rush?
Very few people have visited the Yukon, so their image of what it was like a hundred years ago, or is like today, is shaped by what they see in the media. Television and the film industry are very conservative media, and they seem to be afraid to stray from the norm. Characters are portrayed in typecast roles. Plots are often cliched – we didn’t have town marshals confronting the bad guys in gunfights on the street like we see in western movies, but that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from applying these familiar narratives to our unique situation. Pierre Berton mocked Hollywood in his memoir, and in his book Hollywood’s Canada.
Very few people have visited the Yukon, so their image of what it was like a hundred years ago, or is like today, is shaped by what they see in the media.
A classic misrepresentation of the north is the depiction of events happening in the dark of night – in mid-summer! We call it the land of the midnight sun because from mid-May until mid-August, it never gets dark in the Yukon. One of my goals in writing books like Hollywood in the Klondike is to set the record straight about such details.
In your book, we meet so many incredible stage performers from Dawson’s colourful past. If you could spend a day with one of these performers, who would you choose and what would you do?
What a thrill that would be! It is so hard to choose. I think I would want to walk down Front Street Dawson one afternoon or evening in 1898, perhaps stick my head in the door at the Horseshoe Saloon to get a glimpse of the Oatley Sisters, then step inside the Monte Carlo, which was next door, and watch little Margie Newman enthrall the homesick stampeders. I would then walk down the boardwalk a few doors to the Tivoli, where the most popular of all the entertainers, Cad Wilson was performing. I would stay until her performance concluded, so that I could watch the miners, in from the creeks, throw gold nuggets onto the stage, at her feet.
If I were to watch them for 24 hours, I would want to see if their lives were as colourful as they have been represented. I am curious to see not only how they performed on stage, but how they conducted themselves after hours. Where did they eat and sleep, what was their social life like, things like that.
How have residents of Dawson and the Yukon responded to the book?
The response has been positive from the moment the book came out in print. I have been approached by several people who lived in Dawson at the time of the film discovery and remember it happening. They appreciate that the story, yet another example of the unique and unusual circumstances surrounding Dawson and the Klondike goldfields at the time of the gold rush, is being told. Yukoners are certainly purchasing the book – I have signed many of them personally.
Excerpt from Hollywood in the Klondike
The Silver Screen
One amusement that caught on quickly was moving pictures, the first of which was shown August 30, 1898, in the Combination Music Hall. 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 ten years."
A second projector, this one called an Animatoscope, was brought into service on September 14 at the Oatley Sisters’ dance hall, offering footage of the Corbett-Courtney boxing match to attract patrons. This film projector was part of the luggage brought by two wealthy American ladies who encamped in a large circus tent across the river from Dawson City. Screenings of such features as fights or the Spanish-American War were viewed merely as "a novelty, nothing to compare with the livelier delight of theatre-in-the-flesh." The Pioneer Hall was rented for the evenings of November 18 and 19 to show films and stereopticon views produced by the Wondroscope Company. Fred Tracy, the singer, took to the stage to accompany certain illustrated songs. His performance was a hit, and Tracy was called back for several encores. The Monte Carlo was the next establishment to offer moving-film presentations, and when they were first shown in late November, they were the featured attraction at the Sunday performances in an "entertaining and instructive program."
On Sunday, December 11, the Monte Carlo again featured entertainment by the Wondroscope Company. The projectionist was Professor Walter Parkes, who narrated a trip from Seattle over the Chilkoot Trail. "The audience was completely carried away by the beautiful and realistic views thrown upon the screen," reported the Klondike Nugget.
Fred Tracy and little Margie Newman enthralled the audience with their singing, but what captivated viewers the most according to the Nugget were the moving pictures that followed. "Every picture was perfect, and when the ‘Black Diamond Express’ came tearing down right into the audience, the cheering and yelling and stamping of feet could have been heard for two blocks away. The program was not allowed to continue until it was shown again. Mr. Sparkes [Parkes] showed his ability as a moving picture manipulator by reversing the train and bringing it on again at lightning speed."
From Hollywood in the Klondike: Dawson City’s Great Film Find by Michael Gates (Lost Moose, 2022). Courtesy of Harbour Publishing.