Klondike Korner: Getting Ready For the Ball

They’ve been sprucing up the front façade of the Palace Grand Theatre recently, sanding off the old stain and lathering on the new.

The contractor needed to get the job finished quickly, as June 4 was the date set for the Robert Service School’s commencement exercises, which have taken place in the grand old building for well over a dozen years now.

The PG is not quite as venerable as it might appear from the exterior and the interior.

The original building was erected in 1899 by Arizona Charlie Meadows and was conceived as a head-on collision between a fancy European opera house and a boomtown dance hall.

The combination worked beautifully and many a visiting artist has pronounced it the fanciest venue he or she has ever played.

It’s not the original, though. That was sadly decayed and decrepit by the 1950s and was saved from destruction by the Klondike Visitors Association in its original incarnation as the Klondike Tourist Bureau in 1959.

The National Historic Parks branch of the Canadian government took it over in the early 1960s and rebuilt it as part of Tom Patterson’s dream to recreate his success in Stratford, Ontario, by giving birth to a theatre festival in Dawson City.

The logistics of cost and travel were all against this, but Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion) did premiere a run of the musical Foxy here in the summer of 1962.

Foxy took Ben Jonson’s play, Volpone, and moved it from Renaissance Italy to the banks of the Yukon River, as well as ahead in time to the Gold Rush. It lost its producers its $400,000 investment in Dawson.

When it did make it to Broadway, two years later, Foxy closed after 72 performances, though Lahr won a Tony Award for his part.

After Foxy, fare at the PG was all variations on the Gaslight Follies until that died from the same malady that now threatens its Frantic cousin in Whitehorse – being dropped from the Holland-America tour ticket options.

The PG gets to shine in its former glory now once a year when the Commissioner comes to town to celebrate the territory’s birthday. Provinces have Lieutenant Governors, after all. Territories have Commissioners.

On the second weekend in June the Commissioner sallies forth from the capital city to hold two events in the Yukon’s original capital.

The Commissioner’s Tea is jointly hosted by the IODE and Parks Canada on the lawn and spacious veranda of the original Commissioner’s Residence, which Parks now owns and has restored.

The Commissioner presides, and usually presents a number of awards and testimonials. The tea is a lot of fun, free, and well attended.

The evening brings on the gala affair at the Palace Grand, the event that is this year being called the 2011 Commissioner’s Klondike Ball. This one costs a bit to go to, because the Commissioner doesn’t have a budget and the Klondike Visitors Association needs to break even.

For myself, I’m not sure how many of these I have to attend to get the cost of my period suit (I go as a Gold Rush reporter) down to where it wouldn’t have been cheaper to keep renting an outfit.

What’s most spectacular about this event is the sight of all those suits and dresses posing for pictures outside the grand façade of the theatre. That’s the show we put on for all the locals and tourists, who come out in quite large numbers to capture the memory on flash cards.

This year is our new Commissioner Doug Phillips’ first Tea and Ball, though he has been to both previously as a Minister of Tourism and as the Yukon’s Administrator.

He’s probably dusting off his suit now, just as I am. I wish him well.

After 32 years teaching in rural Yukon schools, Dan Davidson retired from that profession but continues writing about life in Dawson City.

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