A frigid wind blew hard past the weather-beaten exterior of the Palace Garden Theatre in Dawson City, Alaska. It was the spring of 1900, and gleeful patrons were tucked warmly inside, waiting for the “Flame of the Yukon” to take the stage.
A fiery, red-headed beauty glided out before the crowd, her violent eyes smiling. The men went wild with applause. The music began, and the entertainer swayed with the beat, placing a gloved hand to her breast and a fingertip to her lips and then, stretching her arm out, beckoning her admirers. The elaborate red-sequin dress she was wearing was form-fitting, and the long black cape that draped over her shoulders clung to her alabaster skin.
The piano player accelerated his playing, and Kate gyrated gracefully in and out of the shadow of the colored lights that flickered across the stage. After a moment, with a slight movement of her hand, she dropped the cape off her shoulders and it fell to the floor. The glittering diamonds and rhinestones around her neck sparkled and shined. Ever so seductively, she picked up a nearby cane adorned with more than 200 yards of red chiffon and began leaping, while twirling the fabric-covered walking stick. Around and around she fluttered, the chiffon trailing wildly about her like flames from a fire, the material finally settling over her outstretched body. The audience erupted in a thunderous ovation. She was showered with nuggets and pouches filled with gold dust. This dance would make her famous.
Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell came to the Klondike in April 1900. She attracted a following wherever she performed across Alaska. Kate was born in Junction City, Kansas, on October 4, 1876, to parents of Scottish-Irish descent. Her love for music and dancing began when she was a toddler. The piano and scratchy gramophone had an intoxicating effect on her. Her wealthy stepfather provided the gifted child with the education she needed to hone her natural talents. She was trained in French, voice and instrumental music at the Osage Mission in Kansas.
Kate’s parents eventually moved to Spokane, Washington, leaving their daughter behind to complete her studies. She visited her family during the summer months when Spokane was abuzz with entertainment opportunities. Inspired by performances by traveling troupes of vaudevillians who sang and danced their way across the Northwest, she dreamed about joining the troubadours and of someday being a New York stage actress.
Kate moved to New York with her parents in the late 1800s and found work as a chorus girl in one of the city’s many theatres. She enjoyed her time on the stage and quickly became addicted to the nightlife of the big city. In time, Kate took her act on the road. She traveled across the Great Plains states, working her way back and forth across the country. She stood out among the other singers and dancers by always holding her head up high and smiling proudly for the appreciative audiences.
Kate returned to Washington when a girlfriend told her that dancers were needed at a theatre in Spokane. An astute theatre manager in town offered the entertainer a contract and reimbursed her for all travel expenses, but the theatre where she signed to perform was nothing more than a minuscule stage in the back of a saloon. Kate was required to work the bar between acts for percentage of the profits from the beer she sold. She threatened to leave right away, but the manager reminded her of the signed contract in his pocket. Kate had no choice but to stay.
Her pleasing personality and beautiful face helped sell a lot of beer. Soon Kate was rolling in money. Enticed by further financial gain, she ended up staying longer than she’d planned. Once the contract was up, Kate traveled to Seattle to perform at the People’s Theatre.
Not long after she arrived in Seattle, the Savoy Theatre in British Columbia invited her to join its vaudeville troupe. She was promised great pay and the opportunity to introduce two new song-and-dance routines each week. This was the break for which she’d been waiting. She signed with the company, leaving the People’s Theatre after only two weeks.
Then Kate came down with a serious case of gold fever. A gold rush had hit Alaska Territory, and Kate was eager to get in on the quest for riches. There was a demand for entertainers in the mining towns across the Yukon, and Kate believed she could earn a fortune filling that need. She sailed for Skagway, Alaska, aboard a crowded supply vessel with her singing and dancing partner, Gertie Jackson. The two had developed an act they were sure would attract large audiences.
The women found the conditions in Skagway less than hospitable. The streets unpaved, buildings that housed businesses were little more than shacks, and crime was rampant. Gertie abandoned the act shortly after the duo found work. She hated Skagway and headed back for “civilization” aboard the next steamer.
Kate stayed in Alaska, determined to make her way across the territory to the mining camps where the richest gold strikes were being made. She earned money to continue her journey by working at saloons and makeshift theatres, perfecting her “buck and wing” (tap) dancing. She did an average of twenty shows a day and after a year and a half raised more than $20,000 – enough money to fund her own string of theatres. Miners in Whitehorse, Alaska, were so captivated by her singing, dancing, and kindness to the down and out that they memorialized her by writing her name with champagne corks on the ceiling of a hotel in town.
In the spring of 1900, the Savoy Theatre ensemble again invited Kate to join. The company was passing through Whitehorse on its way to a playhouse in Dawson and felt she would be the perfect addition to the show. The Savoy was the largest burlesque and musical troupe ever to invade the Klondike. It was made up predominantly of pretty girls who danced, sang, acted, juggled, and did magic tricks. The troupe was welcomed with great fanfare when it arrived in Dawson. The formerly empty theatre was quickly transformed into the liveliest spot in town.
Kate won over the rowdy audiences, filled with merchants, gamblers, and sourdoughs, with her tearful ballads and quick-stepping dance moves, sealing her fame as “Klondike Kate.” She had many suitors, but her heart settled on a waiter named Alexander Pantages who worked at the theatre. Alexander was a handsome, Greek man with thick, black hair. He was attentive to and protective of Kate, and she was captivated by his good looks and charming accent. He had come to Alaska seeking a fortune in gold.
Alexander dreamed of owning a chain of playhouses – a dream he had in common with Kate. She was the undisputed queen of the dance-hall girls and capable of making big money. He made plans to capitalize on her talents and affection for him.
The couple moved in together when Alexander was fired from the Savoy for skimping on the drinks. He promised to marry Kate as soon as he found other employment. In the meantime, Kate supported Alexander in high fashion. Her act became even more popular, especially when she added a fast-paced, roller-skating routine. She never failed to fill the Savoy with people and enchant her audience with throaty songs sung in tearful seriousness. Kate was earning more money than any other entertainer in Alaska.
She and Alexander opened a theatre of their own, calling the place the Orpheum. Kate produced and directed her own stage show, and the Orpheum quickly became the hottest spot in Dawson. Within a couple of months, Alexander as manager and Kate as entertainer were bringing in $8,000 per week.
Alexander and Kate were a professional success, but their personal relationship began to falter. He had postponed their marriage several times, and Kate was growing impatient. He told Kate that he wanted to put off their wedding until they had acquired more theatres and attained a more comfortable lifestyle.
The pair took Kate’s variety act to Nome (where more gold was being found) and then to San Francisco. They bought theatres in each location. They registered at various hotels as husband and wife. Finally, they decided to settle in Seattle. Alexander returned to Dawson to take care of their business affairs while Kate traveled to Washington alone.
While passing through Vancouver, British Columbia, Kate purchased a quaint nickelodeon that included a biograph machine for showing moving pictures. The new form of entertainment, along with her own vaudevillian act, appealed to patrons, and in no time the theatre was turning a profit. At first Alexander was furious at Kate for buying the nickelodeon; he thought the biograph was a passing oddity. He changed his mind, however, when he saw how much money the business was making. He bought a second movie house in Seattle called the Crystal Theatre, beginning the largest, most memorable chain in American entertainment history.
In the fall of 1903, Alexander booked his star, Klondike Kate, at a theatre in Texas. She was a huge hit. Alexander rewarded her hard work by sending a lovely, seventeen-year-old violinist named Lois Mendenhall he had discovered to share the variety show stage in Galveston with Kate.
Kate took the dark-eyed beauty under her wing, helping her with her act and looking out for her well-being. Little did Kate know the impact this young woman would have on her life.
After more than a year of performing in Texas, Kate returned to Seattle. Alexander had put the money she’d sent home to good use, expanding their business holdings to include theatres in Portland, Tacoma, and Spokane. While Kate was performing at a Spokane theatre, she received the heartbreaking news that Alexander had married someone else – none other than young Lois Mendenhall.
Kate was devastated and temporarily gave up the stage. She sank into a deep depression, growing weak from lack of nourishment and sleep. She stopped caring about her appearance and started drinking heavily. One of Kate’s friends from her chorus-girl days helped snap her out of her despair long enough to take Alexander to court.
On May 26, 1905, a little more than two months after the marriage, Kate filed a $25,000 breach-of-promise lawsuit against Alexander. Alexander denied that he’d ever known her. Kate’s fans were outraged. A front page article in the Seattle Times carried the headline: “Uses Her Money, Then Jilts the Girl.”
Once all the testimony was heard, the court dismissed the case against Alexander and rejected any financial claim Kate had. The judge ruled that there wasn’t enough physical evidence to prove Alexander had consented to marry Kate or that he had used her money in his business. Kate left the courtroom a shattered and demoralized woman. She would never be the same again.
Almost a year after Kate was jilted, she returned to the stage, teaming up with comedian Arthur Searles. They performed skits and song-and-dance routines on the vaudeville circuit. Unfortunately, audiences were more interested in silent movies by this time. Kate was eventually forced to retire from show business, trading in the spotlight for a small farm in Bend, Oregon. She married twice; one union ended with her husband’s death, and the other ended in divorce. She kept busy tending to her homestead, and she periodically traveled to Dawson and Seattle to visit family and friends.
While her entertainment career had stalled, Alexander’s was reaching its peak. His chain of show-houses had spread all over the West. “Going to the Pantages” (Alexander’s last name) was a common expression for going to the theatre.
On February 21, 1957, Kate Rockwell died peacefully in her sleep. She was eighty years old. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered over the Central Oregon desert. Prominent magazines like Time and Newsweek ran articles about her passing. The Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Oregon, conceded that she would never be forgotten and predicted that her story would grow as memories of the Alaska Gold Rush faded into distant history.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit chrisenss.com for more information on her books.