Can You Do the Cancan, Kate?

During the 1890s, the United States was a melting pot of entertainment – and vaudeville became the perfect vehicle to showcase this wealth of diversity. From New York to Victoria, B.C., vaudeville reigned supreme as the most popular entertainment in every city and many small towns.

The key to vaudeville’s success was that it allowed audiences to sample a wide variety of short acts that included everything from juggling, animal acts, comedy, serious drama, opera, contortionists, musical virtuosos, Irish jigs, and of course the “authentic French cancan” as it was often billed.

By the 1890s the cancan was a feature of every vaudeville show large enough to employ a chorus line.

One of the defining moments that was to shape Yukon history happened in 1892 when the young Kathleen Eloise Rockwell saw the advertisement in a New York newspaper which read:

Chorus Girl Wanted

No experience necessary

The job was in a Coney Island theatre and she auditioned and got it, thus setting in motion the amazing career of Klondike Kate.

Another young dancer who was destined for the Yukon spotlight was Cad Wilson, who was learning the ropes as a vaudeville dancer at the Madison Square Garden Theatre in 1892. Both of these chorus girls were to become huge stars during the Klondike Gold Rush, but for now they were in the chorus.

In 1893 the Chicago World’s Fair had a profound impact on North America in a wide variety of ways. Over 27 million people went to see an amazing array of machinery, technology, art and culture.. The Fair created a great deal of employment for musicians who played in the makeshift saloons that haunted the outskirts of the fairgrounds. It was here that a new music could be heard called “ragtime,” so named for its infectious syncopated (ragged) beat.

From the beginning, cancan dancers loved the ragtime beat and the two became connected from this period forward. Even today, over a century later, the image of a ragtime pianist gussied up with a derby hat, striped shirt and arm-bands, only seems completed when there is a chorus girl or two in the picture.

In our next instalment, the cancan, ragtime, Cad Wilson and Kathleen Rockwell arrive in Dawson City, Yukon – the “Paris of the North.”

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