Five guys are sitting, standing or dressing in this small makeshift room. I’m on the floor, my legs on steps leading back down to my corner, where I store every costume I’ll need for the Frantic Follies, the Yukon vaudeville show.
Lyall Murdoch sits on a chair next to the mirror and make-up table wearing a Frantic Follies T-shirt. The bare bulbs in front of the mirror light him up from the back.
He’s giving me pointers on how I can get bigger laughs out of the “Bum” routine.
He should know. He and his brother began the Frantic Follies 39 years ago and he’s played the Bum and other characters in the show for most of that run.
I’m curious about how he came up here — how the show started, why he chose Whitehorse, and so I ask him if he minds telling me.
Lyall looks at me. “You know, back in 1967, no one really knew much about the Yukon. What you learned, you learned in high school — and maybe it was Spell of the Yukon and that was it. So it was an unknown adventure.”
His brother, Jim, got here first, brought up for a job with Northern Commercial as a men’s wear manager. Jim told Lyall that he should come up, too. Lyall and Ched Miller (later big in Vancouver broadcasting) drove up to the Yukon just to see the place.
They loved it. “It was the Yukon! Besides we couldn’t get in the bars at our age down in B.C. And it was a good excuse to get away from our parents. We were young single guys. For us it seemed like a year-long party.”
He travelled back and forth to university then on a Yukon Educational Grant. Someone on the committee asked if he would return to Whitehorse and use his education here. He said, yes. “I would have returned anyway. I was having such a great time. I was making $2 an hour and that was good money.”
Whitehorse was small back then, only 7,000 people and he felt like he knew everyone in town. He built a cabin in the winter and learned how to play the banjo. He lived on mushrooms, rice and onions.
“That was all you could afford?” I ask.
“No, I liked them.” He looks at me with a straight face. “I still do.”
Jim had joined a drama club and convinced his brother to join despite the fact that Lyall didn’t have a theatre background.
Forty cast members put on the first version of the Frantic Follies in 1968, ran it every Wednesday night. Then the next year, the brothers bought a newspaper and so weren’t available, and the drama club decided to drop the show and do something else.
“After we ran the newspaper into the ground, we looked into reviving the show for profit. For the tourists.” He says back then a train came into town and dumped people off and there wasn’t anything for them to do in town. So for $2 a ticket, they started the Frantic Follies in 1970.
It didn’t make any money for 10 years. Tour companies were skeptical about including it on their itinerary. Eventually more and more of them did.
“Jim died a year before we actually made any profit.”
Jim designed the show. “The content changes but the formula stays the same. We stick with what’s funny year after year. It’s like Disneyland. You know what works — so you keep the very best stuff.”
It’s geared toward the one-time viewer, although Lyall admits that hundreds of Yukoners see the show again and again. “But they’re bringing their guests and they want them to see the show they saw.”
I ask him what he thought of Whitehorse now, why it was still a place he chose to live.
“Well, now I think it’s a good place to raise kids.” He cites the low crime rate. “Where else can your eight-year-old son walk to school?” He has a daughter, Nicole, age 11, and a son, Greg, age 8.
He admits, too, that he got a profit from the show that he never imagined. He met his wife when she auditioned at the Frantic Follies.
“I thought she was interesting. She looked up from the floor at me from where she was stretching, and I thought, ‘I like that.'”
He had no control over the dancer auditions, but seemed happy that she got the part. They’ve been married for 13 and a half years.
Next year is the 40th anniversary of the show and they want to do something with alumni vaudevillians.
In some ways, Jim and Lyall found a way to fill that lack of Yukon-history awareness in the public mind, making sure that every last person who wants to can hear not only a part of Spell of the Yukon, but also other poems by Robert W. Service and everything else that makes the Yukon unique.
Visitors leave with a great impression of the Yukon — and enough history and culture to make them investigate further.
But I can’t ask any more questions. I have to get ready to be the Bum now. “Your costume,” he says, “is the only thing in this show, I think, that was original from the first show.”
It’s in tatters, been worn by hundreds of bums before me. But it’s a part of Yukon history, too. And the Frantic Follies makes me part of that connection to Whitehorse.
Lyall says, “It’s a good way to make a living. Doing something you love.” He flashes a big goofy smile. “And you can take off to Mexico in the winter. And that’s not bad either.”
Jerome Stueart chose this city on purpose. Maybe you did, too. He’d like to hear from you. Write to him at [email protected]
PHOTO: RICK MASSIE [email protected]