Guests in costume at the Commissioner Angélique Bernard’s Ball in June
“The Palace Grand was rebuilt in 1962,” said superintendent Travis Weber of Klondike National Historic Sites (KNHS). That made the systems in the building 55 years old by 2016, when the current renovation project began its two-year run, and it was time to replace many of them, as well as do some work on the foundation. When “Arizona” Charlie Meadows built his Palace Grand Theatre, in 1899, it probably never occurred to him that some version of the place would still exist in 2018.
The 1962 rebuild was inspired by Stratford, Ontario, guru Tom Patterson, to be the base for a northern annual theatre festival, and was launched with a money-losing run of Foxy (a Klondike remodelled version of Ben Jonson’s Volpone).
Once reality set in, it became the home of the less ambitious Gaslight Follies—a mixture of vaudeville and melodrama. The show was never a big money-maker, but it was worth running as long as the tour bus crowd booked tickets as part of their cruise ship program. It ended in 2003 and the building was seriously underused except for tours and some KNHS programming until 2013.
The ambitious “Live at the Palace Grand” show in 2013 and 2014 was financed by federal CanNor dollars as part of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in’s economic development plan, an attempt to reboot summer programming. It ran for two seasons, with both local and imported programming.
The Friends of the Palace Grand organization spun off of the Klondike Institute of Art & Culture (KIAC) and took on the task of devising a new plan during the years that KNHS had the building shut down for repairs.
“Heating systems and electrical systems were in need of repairs, so that was a big piece of the work,” Weber said, “as well as air conditioning and a fire-suppression system.”
He added that most of the work is inside the walls, though there are some things visible to the casual eye. There is new work in the foyer; the stage has new backdrops and equipment; and the sound system has been improved.
“We’re excited that it’s being used again by the community,” he said, listing a few of the events that had already been booked: the Klondike Placer Miners’ Association dinner, the Robert Service School commencement exercises and social evening.
KIAC brought in a concert by Petunia and the Vipers, and here was an evening of public readings and music during the Dawson Daily News Print & Publishing Festival in late May and early June.
Subsequent to this interview, the Friends group put on four performances of their new program, “Cabin of Curiosities.” Just the week this is being written, the Klondike Visitors Association and KNHS sponsored a live showing of the CTV television program, The Amazing Race Canada, which was filmed here in the late spring and had also used the Palace Grand as a venue in the show.
By the time this sees print, the Dawson City Music Festival will have staged their festival pre-show with Madame Gandhi (live in concert with the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers & DASH) and used the Palace Grand as one of its venues between July 20 and 22.
All during the summer, KNHS does daily tours of this impressive building, and Sunday to Thursday it stages its own Greatest Klondiker Contest, with staff taking on the personas of Gold Rush characters and vying for audience approval.The Palace Grand project will have cost just about over $6 million when it is totally completed. There’s still some replacement of wallpaper to be done, and a Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB) evaluation proved the that above-ground oil tanks had created some contaminated ground that would need to be mitigated, but none of that will affect the summer usage.
“All of these investments [across Canada], including the ones in Dawson City, are helping to maintain these buildings,” Weber said. “They’re also helping with tourism and local initiatives.”