The Cancan Arrives at the Klondike Gold Rush

On November 28, 1891, the New York Sun dedicated a full page to the cancan. Titled “Eccentric Paris Dance,” the article highlights Paris cancan stars of the day who describe intricate cancan dance moves.

After the two decades of being attacked in the press by misogynist newspaper editors and pious moral reformers, the Sun article treats the cancan with respect as a dance form. It was about time. After all, by the 1890s the cancan was over 60 years old. To put that in context today, it was similar to the way we view the Charleston of the roaring ’20s.

By the time Kate Rockwell and Cad Wilson struck out on their dancing careers – which ultimately lead them to the Klondike – the cancan was a well established part of North American vaudeville.

The song “Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay” was made an international hit by Lottie Collins, who danced a cancan with increasing vigour in each chorus.

Bromo-Seltzer launched an ad campaign using Lottie Collins to show customers what happened once you took their cure – you sang and danced the cancan!

In France the cancan was enjoying a grand renaissance; becoming a symbol of national pride, independence and empowerment. Many well known artists portrayed the cancan and its stars in their work, Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec being the most famous and prolific.

When word of the Klondike Gold Rush began to leak out, entertainers were among the first responders to the welcome news. In 1897 The Klondike Gazoot, a light-hearted publication, featured an article and illustration about the Parisian cancan star, Miss Maude Van de Graff who arrived in Dawson City to perform at Casey’s Dance Hall and Cancan Parlour.

The cancan announced its arrival in the Yukon in other ways as well. Nellie Cashman arrived in Dawson and opened the Can Can Restaurant, one of the town’s earliest businesses.

In the book Entertainment in the Old West, Jeremy Agnew gives us a glimpse at an early Dawson show:

“In Dawson, they opened the Savoy saloon and dance hall. The building, lit by oil lamps and heated by pot-bellied stoves, soon became the liveliest spot in town. The band, which consisted primarily of trumpets and violins played lively melodies while the chorus line danced the naughty, high-kicking cancan. More sedate entertainment was provided by a male barbershop quartet.”

In 1899 the American Mutoscope Company made a silent movie short entitled “Can-Can in the Klondike,” announcing to the world that the Klondike Gold Rush was here, and so was the cancan!

Having graduated from chorus girl to singing star, Cad Wilson arrived in Dawson and left after one season, loaded with gold nuggets, jewellery, money and fame.

Kate Rockwell arrived as featured singer/dancer with the Savoy Theatre Company. The show was the largest vaudeville show in Yukon history with over 170 members in the company. The company had recently purchased The Palace Grand Theatre and renamed it “The Savoy Theatre.” Rockwell described the show to biographer Ellis Lucia:

“The band cut loose with some lively marches, right off the showboats and from the variety halls of the East. The curtain went up on the gaily bedecked and smiling chorus line, in flouncy skirts, spangled shirtwaists, pert hats, and carrying bright parasols. The audience, jammed against the walls in Standing Room Only, cheered and whistled. Eyes sparkling, full of yeasty zest, the girls unleashed a peppy round of songs and dances of the ragtime craze… and finally the naughty, high-kicking French Can-Can excitement reaching a rowdy pitch as the girls squealed shrilly and peeled off fancy garters, tossing them into the audience where sourdoughs of the bald-headed row punched and shoved each other trying to retrieve them.”

Of course, Kate Rockwell arrived in Dawson as a rising star, and left the Yukon years later as the world renowned Klondike Kate. Long after she had left the Yukon and retired to Bend, Oregon, Klondike Kate maintained a deep respect for her career as a dancer in vaudeville.

Lucia described the celebrity she enjoyed through her twilight years:

“Many visitors were young people in their teens; the high-school set found her (Kate) most entertaining, especially when she got wound up about her days in the Yukon and in vaudeville, which was usually climaxed by Kate’s doing a buck and wing about the parlour. She chaperoned many high-school dances and parties, and once when some girls were getting together an act for a hospital-benefit show, she taught them the can-can and presented one of them with a pair of garters she had worn on the Dawson stages.”

As the saying goes, “Once a cancan girl – always a cancan girl.”

In our next and final article in the series, we will look at the legacy the cancan has left in the Yukon.

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