study guide - Canadiana Musical Theatre

About the Play
The Klondike Rag
This uproarious Ragtime musical tells the epic story of Canada’s world renowned
Klondike gold rush. When the news arrives of the great gold find, down-and-out vaudevillians set off on the grand adventure to Dawson City. After a sea journey to
Skagway, where they encounter the infamous Soapy Smith, they meet Sam Steele of
the N.W.M.P. at the Chilkoot Pass, and the great wild-west showman Arizona Charlie
Meadows in Dawson City. They even encounter the “Belle of the Yukon” herself:
Klondike Kate. Sort of.
Though they don’t find the gold they seek, they do discover riches of another kind:
friendship, adventure, and the resourcefulness to overcome huge obstacles.
During the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson
City, Mr. Desnoyers “tickled the ivories” as “The Rag-Time Kid”. During that same
summer, he accompanied a quartet of tap-dancers at Diamond Tooth Gerties. These
experiences inspired the creation of this musical. For the performance, Mr. Desnoyers
is wearing the top hat of Fran Dowie, arguably B.C.’s best known vaudevillian whose
star is on the sidewalk beside Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre. The late Mr. Dowie
presented vaudeville shows in Dawson City and Barkerville for nearly 25 years.
The Flim-Flam Brothers
The Klondike Rag features The Flim-Flam Brothers, the greatest vaudeville act the
world has never known. From the community halls of Horsefly, B.C. to the outlying
mining shacks of Chicken, Alaska, the Flim-Flams shared the stage with strong men,
contortionists, and occasional livestock. The Brothers certainly made their mark in
show business history, but alas, using invisible ink. Perhaps this is why history failed
them but they also failed history, and math as well.
Thrust onto the stage at an early age when their parents found a stagecoach that
would take them, the Flim-Flams spent their career searching for a venue that could
accomodate their unique approach to performing. They never quite found that
venue. Their signature corny songs, pathetic patter, and tendency to argue onstage
helped distinguish them from other more professional, successful, and polished song
and dance teams, but this strong identity also worked against them as theatre owners
tired of cleaning the vegetables that inevitably littered the stage after shows.
The Flim-Flams may have lacked talent, inspiration, or even common sense, but they
more than made up for it with foolhardiness, tenacity and artlessness.
The Klondike Rag
Table of Contents
Historical Impact, Stories of the Grand Adventure
The Original Discovery, Dawson City, Chilkoot Pass
Skagway, Soapy Smith
The N.W.M.P., Sam Steele
Ragtime, Scott Joplin
Palace Grande Theatre, Klondike Kate
Suggested Activities
Writing Projects
About the Canadiana Musical Theatre Company
MANDATE: to create and perform musical theatre pieces drawn from pivotal events
in Canadian history that nurture a passion and love for Canadian heritage
Trekking across Western Canada, the Canadiana Musical Theatre Company has
performed over two thousand shows for students, teachers, and parents. From
Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, to Winnipeg, Manitoba, musicians and actors
take on various roles of key figures from the past; acting, singing, and dancing
the stories that changed the course of history. Previous shows include The
Birth of B.C., The Birth of the C.P.R., and The Blackfoot and the Redcoats.
Written by three-time Jessie Nominee, Allen Desnoyers, these plays bring history to life for students and teachers alike.
P.O. Box 39050 , Point Grey R.P.O. Vancouver B.C. V6R 4P1
ph: 604 940-2979 fax: 604 648 9260
Historical Impact
When the treasure ship Excelsior sailed into San Francisco bay in July of 1897 with 2
tons of Yukon gold, mass hysteria erupted. The telegraph relayed the news instantaneously across the globe igniting the imaginations of a hundred thousand souls who
set out on the quest across sea, land, mountains, lakes and rivers to pursue the
dream of untold riches. Born during a great worldwide depression in the 1890’s, the
Klondike Gold Rush was a pivotal event that brought a young Canada to the immediate attention of the world as never before.
Of the tens of thousands who actually made it to Dawson City, only a handful found
fortunes. But along a one mile stretch of the gold diggings on Bonanza Creek, there
were 30 claims that each brought in over a million dollars worth of gold.
The extremely poor and the extremely rich mingled side by side on a patch of frozen
swamp that was Dawson City. At the height of the rush, more than thirty thousand
people survived the trek to Dawson only to find that most of the claims were already
staked. Still, they were witnesses to an exciting and unforgettable spectacle as people
found fortunes overnight and gambled them away just as quickly.
During this era, Ragtime music was becoming all the rage thanks to composers like
Scott Joplin. Ragtime flowed out of the newly formed dance halls at Dawson City,
where colorful characters with names like Swiftwater Bill, Diamond Tooth Gertie, and
Calamity Jane strode larger than life.
The Klondike Gold Rush was just the kind of romantic adventure that begged to be
immortalized in poems, stories, stage, and screen.
Stories of the grand adventure
Journalists wrote fascinating eye-witness accounts of the great gold rush for magazines back home. Among them was Tappen Adney who wrote eyewitness accounts for
Harper’s magazine throughout 1898 and eventually published “The Klondike
Stampede” a book about his experiences, .
Authors like Jack London and Robert Service, who both lived in Dawson City, published imaginative tellings of Northern adventures.
The story would eventually be
told in a 1925 film by the great comic master himself, Charlie Chaplin in “The Gold
Rush”. James Mitchener wrote a fictional account of the gold rush in a book called
“Journey”, and Canada’s favorite historian, Pierre Berton, wrote his own account of the
gold rush and of Dawson City, the town where he spent his childhood.
In late 1950’s Mr. Berton made a documentary with the National Film Board called
“City of Gold” that was nominated for an Academy Award.
The Klondike Rag - Pg 1
The Original Discovery
On August 16, 1896 Yukon-area Natives Skookum Jim Mason and Tagish Charlie,
along with George Carmack found gold in Rabbit Creek,near the confluence of the
Yukon and Klondike rivers. The creek was promptly renamed Bonanza Creek, and
many of the locals started staking claims. Gold was literally found all over the place,
and most of these early stakeholders (who became known as the "Klondike Kings")
became wealthy. It is estimated that over one billion dollars worth of gold was found,
adjusted to late 20th century standards.
Since the Yukon was so remote, word of this find spread relatively slowly for almost a
Dawson City
Though fortunes were to be found in the ground, it’s said that more fortunes were
made in Dawson by entrepreneurs selling goods and services to the miners. From
saloons and supply outfits, to hotels and restaurants, there were many opportunities to
extract gold from miners. Many women found their riches running dance halls and
scores of entertainers travelled to the north to demonstrate their skill before a “rewarding” audience.
With the influx of the 30,000 who made it to Dawson, the city temporarily became the
largest city north of San Francisco and west of Winnipeg. This “Paris of the North”
was no longer a tent city, but a bona-fide city, with more amenities than one might
imagine. Dawson had fire hydrants on the streets, telephone service, running water
and steam heat. and was the first city in western Canada to have electric lights. On
sale in Dawson’s streets were French champagnes, oysters, the latest Paris fashions,
porcelain, parasols, lacquer work and imported delicacies.
The growth of Dawson was largely responsible for the creation of the Yukon Territory
as a new Canadian Province on June 13, 1898.
Chilkoot Pass
Perhaps the most famous image of all to
illustrate the harships of the journey to
Klondike was the image of miners climbing a
thirty-five degree slope. This was the
Chiilkoot Pass where they carried, in
stages, 2000 pounds of supplies. Without
the supplies which were a year’s provision,
the mounties wouldn’t let the would-be miner
across the border. During one harsh winter,
an avalanche buried the “tent-city” at the
bottom of the slope, burying and killing
seven miners.
The Klondike Rag - Pg. 2
If a fortune-seeker was lucky to survive the open ocean trek north, he had to forge
through through a mountain pass that separated Alaska on the U.S. side from the
Yukon on the Canadian side. Alaska had two places to dock: Dyea and Skagway. If
his ship docked at Dyea Harbour with its endless tidal flats, a miner faced the prospect
of sudden tidal surges that would submerge and carry away all of his 2000 pounds of
provisions before he was able to carry them to safety. The other alternative was docking at Skagway.
In the first couple of years of the gold rush, the city of Skagway was the type of frontier
town seen in western movies. It had makeshift buildings with false fronts, gambling
halls, saloons, dance halls and bandits.
Mounted police officer Sam Steele described it as follows:
“Might was right; murder, robbery, and petty theft were common occurrences.
Shots were exchanged on the streets in broad daylight. At night the crash of
bands, shouts of “Murder!”, cries for help, mingled with the cracked voices of
the singers in the variety halls; and the wily “box rushers” (variety actresses)
cheated the tenderfeet... in the White Pass above the town the shell game
expert plied his trade, and occasionally some poor fellow was found lying life less on his sled where he had sat down to rest, the powder marks on his back
and his pockets inside out. Neither law nor order prevailed, honest persons had
no protection from the gang of rascals who plied their nefarious trade."
Soapy Smith
Very soon after Skagway’s beginnings, Jefferson
Randolph “Soapy” Smith arrived at the tent city. He
quickly set himself up in business with the proprietor of a
local saloon and set out to take over the camp's underworld. Calling himself, “The boss of this merry-go-round”,
he surrounded himself with a gang of bandits who were
veterans from other gold rushes. The miners were in
such a hurry to get onto the trail that the job of the con
man was all too easy. And all the while his men
fleeced the victims, Soapy Smith presented himself with
an aura of respectability, dressing up as the marshall of
the parade during fourth of July celebrations or doling
out generous gifts to the poor.
Presenting himself as a “businessman” and the ruler of
Skagway while taking advantage of the innocent, Soapy Smith presents a striking contrast to his Canadian counterpart Sam Steele - a strong man of another kind who dealt
with miners in a distinctively firm but fair manner.
The Klondike Rag - Pg. 3
The N.W.M.P.
In 1894 the N.W.M.P., which had established small posts in the Yukon, were the first to
alert the Canadian government to the strike at Bonanza Creek near Dawson City.
Since the boundary line with Alaska was still in dispute, and fearing the kind of outbreak of lawlessness that accompanied the California Gold Rush decades before, the
Canadian government determined to avoid mayhem. The N.W.M.P. were ordered to
establish border posts at the peaks of both the White and Chilkoot passes. Log cabins
were erected at the top of each pass to serve as a customhouse and officers’ quarters.
The Mounties collected custom duties, confiscated handguns, and arrested men who
mistreated their pack animals.
Sam Steele
Superintendent Sam Steele was determined to
keep Soapy Smith and his type of corruption
out of Canadian territory. No stranger to
action, he had helped rid the west of whisky
traders, policed the construction of the
Canadian Pacific Railway, and averted war
between natives and white settlers in British
Steele arrived in mid-February “to maintain
order on the Canadian side of the trail of ’98.”
No guns were allowed into Canada, so while
disorder and violence ruled supreme at
Skagway Soapy Smith’s gang of hoodlums
and desperadoes were met at the border by
Winchester rifles and Canadian law.
But even while he ruled with an iron fist,
Steele was known to write personal letters to
the families of those who died in the territory
and to lend his own money to men down on
their luck. Unlike Soapy Smith, he helped the
disadvantaged rather than taking advantage of them.
In September of 1998, he visited Dawson city. Mostly American in population,
Dawson’s saloons and gambling dens operated freely, some run by members of Soapy
Smith’s old gang. With a force of only 13 men, Steele cleaned up the town dealing
swiftly with those who disturbed the public order, and even fined people who chopped
wood on Sunday, the Lord’s day.
When Steele tried to leave quietly in September 1899, the prospectors, gamblers, ragtime piano-players, and dancehall girls of Dawson poured down to the wharf to give
Steele "such an ovation and send-off as no man has ever received from the Klondike
gold-seekers," in the words of a local newspaper. They cheered Sam Steele until his
steamboat was out of sight.
The Klondike Rag - Pg. 4
Ragtime is a form of syncopated march-like music that came into being in the 1890’s
and was popular until the 1920’s. Usually played on
piano, it is characterized by a regular Oom Pah Oom
Pah pattern of bass notes and chords played by the left
hand while the right hand plays syncopated or offbeat
It’s evolution was gradual and drew from other styles of
music, notably “The Cakewalk”. You can hear strong
similarities to Ragtime music in “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” by
Debussy, though it was written a continent away.
The most famous ragtime piece of all is “The Maple Leaf
Rag” by Scott Joplin which was published in 1899 and
may well have been played in Dawson City, perhaps by
“The Ragtime Kid”, who was known to have played the
saloons during the gold rush.
Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin was the most sophisticated and tasteful ragtime composer of the Ragtime era. As a person, he was intelligent, well-mannered and wellspoken. He was extremely quiet, serious and modest, referring to himself as “King of Ragtime
Writers,” perhaps because he knew of other more
adept piano players.
Born about mid-1867 into a musical family, Scott
played violin, piano and sang as he grew up. Later
he joined or formed various quartets and other
musical groups and travelled around the midwest to
By 1898 Joplin had sold six pieces for the piano, of
which one, Original Rags was a ragtime piece. In
1899, Joplin sold his most famous piece, Maple
Leaf Rag to a music publisher John Stark & Son. By 1909, approximately a half-million
copies had been sold, a rate that was to continue for the next two decades.
After moving to St. Louis in 1901, Joplin collaborated with Scott Hayden on Sunflower
Slow Drag and also published his own pieces: Peacherine Rag, and The Easy
Winners. Elite Syncopations, The Entertainer, and The Ragtime Dance were published
in 1902, and in 1907, after Joplin moved to New York City, he published Pine Apple
Rag, Solace, and Euphonic Sounds. These are just a few of many other ragtime jewels from his prodigious output.
The Klondike Rag - Pg. 5
Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini, the Marx Brothers, Judy
Garland, Fred Astaire, Edger Bergen & Charlie
McCarthy – the list is endless, but their common roots
were Vaudeville (or in the case of Chaplin, Music Hall,
the English counterpart upon which vaudeville was
THE popular entertainment during the latter half of the
19th century, it reached its pinnacle during the Ragtime
era before being gradually replaced by silent movies,
talkies, radio and finally, television where Ed Sullivan
broadcast the final echoes of that beloved phenomenon.
At its best, it was popular entertainment for the masses
that relied on any combination of wit, daring, ingenuity,
dexterity, originality, novelty, showmanship, musicianship, or one upmanship. Dancers, acrobats, comedy
singers, mimics, dramatic actors, storytellers, mimes,
magicians, strong men, ventriloquists, clowns and animal acts – upwards of 35 performers on a bill switched
acts in rapid succession.
Charles Chaplin
Performers were met with great affection by loyal audiences returning year after year to see wellloved routines often tailored for particular towns or cities. Appealing to people of all classes and
cultures, vaudevillians forged a unique relationship with their audience. The sheer variety of
entertainers guaranteed that “if you didn’t like this act, you’ll love the next one!” Taking their work
seriously, but never taking themselves too seriously, their goal was to delight, move, amuse, or
enlighten their audience with a childlike playfulness and infinite creativity.
During the Klondike Gold Rush, various entertainers arrived to entertain the throngs of miners,
but the largest of all was the Savoy Theatrical Company. Before heading North, the company
assembled for rehearsals at the new Savoy Theatre that had opened the year before on
Victoria’s Government street,: 173 dancers, singers, actors, actresses, jugglers, comedians,
backup people, and a huge ragtime orchestra. They landed at the Dawson wharf in the Spring of
1900, arriving on the first river boat after the ice broke on the Yukon River.
They first performed at the Palace Grande Theatre which Arizona Charlie Meadows described as
the largest vaudeville house west of Chicago. Their promotional material read:
The Savoy Theatrical Company Proudly Presents a Refined and Moral Entertainment Consisting
of Amazing and Edifying Offerings in Thrilling Scenes from Our Astounding Repertoire,
Interpreted by Matchless Artists of Our Internationally Acclaimed Company. Thrills and Fun For
All. Elevating and Entertaining. Gentlemen, Please Be Seated!
The Klondike Rag - Pg. 6
The Palace Grand Theatre
There were many dance halls, casinos and saloons in
Dawson City when wild west showman Arizona Charlie
Meadows decided to build his own theatre to try to tap
into the flowing riches. However, none could boast of
being built from the remains of two steamships! With
grand style, the theatre boasted three floors of boxed
seats; the highest viewing spots reserved for the
wealthiest patrons. Dancers, singers, storytellers, and
sharp-shooters graced its stages including Arizona
Charlie Meadows himself who could shoot a coin from
between his wife’s fingers until she quit after he accidentally nicked her finger with a stray bullet.
A larger than life impresario, he made a striking host in
his buckskin jacket as he introduced popular performers like Klondike Kate.
Klondike Kate
Like many others who came to the Klondike hoping to escape impoverishing conditions, Kate Rockwell joined the Savoy theatrical company that rehearsed in Victoria,
B.C. on her way to the Yukon.
When she first came to Dawson City she
was just another actress until she adopted
the name “Klondike Kate” and created her
famous flame dance. For this dance she
came on stage wearing an elaborate dress
covered in red sequins and an enormous
cape. She took off the cape revealing a
cane that was attached to more than 200
yards of red chiffon. She began leaping and
twirling with the chiffon until she looked like
fire dancing around. At the end she would
dramatically drop to the floor. The miners
loved it throwing gold and gold dust after
her performances.
Named "The Flame of the Yukon" and “The
Belle of the Yukon”, Klondike Kate traveled
all over, doing her dancing routines. She boasted later of wearing $1500 Paris gowns
and bracelets of purest gold. It was said she mesmerized the men she entertained.
The Klondike Rag - Pg. 7
Suggested activities
1. Choose a Yukon inspired poem by Robert Service and read it to the class.
2. Listen to Ragtime music by Scott Joplin. Can you hear the “Oom-pah” bass with the
melody syncopated above it?
3. You’re a miner interested in traveling to the Klondike to mine for gold— plan the trip,
estimate costs, make lists of what you’ll bring, and set a calendar date to leave and arrive.
4. Read “The Call of the Wild” or “White Fang” by Jack London.
5. Watch the N.F.B. documentary “City of Gold” narrated by Pierre Berton.
6. Read “Journey” by James Mitchener
7. Dress up as a real or invented character from the goldrush: ie. Polar Pete, Calamity
Jane, Soapy Smith etc.
8. Discuss what you’d do with your riches if you found gold in the Yukon.
Suggested activities - Younger grades
1. Color in the front page of this study guide.
2. Many of the people in the Klondike had colorful nicknames like Diamond Tooth
Gertie, Klondike Kate, or the Evaporated Kid. If you had a nickname at Dawson City
what would it be?
3. Describe your favourite part of the presentation and create a picture.
4. Watch the silent movie “The Gold Rush” by Charlie Chaplin
5. Listen to Ragtime music or dance along!
The Klondike Rag - Pg. 8
Writing Projects
1. The excitement of the Klondike was created by the promise of wealth that went along with a gold
discovery. The Klondike gave people a chance, or so they thought, to get rich. Why did/do people
want to get rich? Why was this such an attractive option in 1898? Why did everyone think it would
work? And who did get rich? How was money really made? Who failed to get rich, and why? How
did individuals deal with both excitement and disappointment?
2. Create a diary describing the journey to the Klondike. Include descriptions of the weather, the
people, the hardships (ie. wild animals or charlatans like Soapy Smith) , and the dreams of what
you’d do with the gold if you found it. End your diary with either the discovery of gold, or the failure
to find it and the decision to return home. How do your friends respond to you when you finally
3. There were many dangerous parts of the journey North. From travelling on the sea, to facing
desperados in Skagway, to scaling mountains, to encountering avalanches, to building a raft that
might capsize on Lake Bennett or the Yukon river, or simply starving to death, which one do you
think would be the hardest challenge? Why?
4. Many famous people wrote about the Klondike in imaginative ways: poems, stories and songs.
Create your own imaginative work about the Klondike Gold Rush
5. Imagine you are a journalist reporting on the impact a boatload of 2 tons of gold would have on
the people who witness it. Describe the crowd, the miners who have struck it rich, and what this
discovery will do to the people who find out about it.
6. Research and describe the technique for digging gold out of the ground.
7. Write an imaginary letter to someone back home describing Dawson City - the hotels, the mud,
the people, the theatres, and how you’re spending your days.
The Klondike Rag - Pg. 9