November 09, 2014

Canada's Klondike characters shoot to fame


David Ellis

BACK in the days of Canada's Klondike gold rush, few could match the flamboyance of Arizona Charlie Meadows who, when audiences seemed bored in his Grand Opera House in Dawson City, would put on impromptu performances with a 6-gun – shooting cigarettes out of his wife's lips or glass balls from between her thumb and forefinger a stage-width's away.

It was a great way of bringing instant life back to the audience, until one night he shot off one of his wife's fingertips, at which time she declared enough was enough.

The Grand Opera was but one of Arizona Charlie's business ventures that ranged from spectacularly rewarding to disastrous – and quite often the latter, as his background had been trick-riding, bull-roping and sharp-shooting in Wild West shows alongside the likes of Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley, not commerce.

In the early 1890s he also brought a Wild West troupe to Australia to perform with a circus here; the circus went broke, but Charlie honoured his troupe's commitments.

Standing over 2m tall, Arizona Charlie Meadows was your minds-eye Wild West showman, having chest-length hair that flowed from under a broad-brimmed hat, a voluminous moustache, and forever sporting a trademark red bandana and fringed buckskin jacket.

When gold was discovered in the Klondike in the 1890s, Charlie headed off with his wife Mae and a dozen mates on a trek from San Francisco to Skagway… taking with them 200 burros (small donkeys) loaded-up with food and building supplies for a planned get-rich-quick scheme on the new goldfields.

It proved one of his Great Disasters: along the way a glacier 'calved' and swept away most of his burros and their loads, at another point humans and animals alike almost froze to death after being trapped in snow, and finally his remaining California warm-weather burros simply died of the cold; Arizona Charlie, his wife and backers gave up on reaching Skagway, and eventually stumbled into what was to become Dawson City in December 1897.

There, he quickly invested in a number of gold claims that had been staked-out by others who didn't have the money for equipment to develop them; it gave him quick reward, and getting back his investment – and more – he decided the town needed a newspaper.

So he launched the Klondike News that he filled with paid advertisements… and 'feel good' stories that many folks with shadier backgrounds paid to have appear in print as a reflection of their newly-acquired 'civic status.' It earned Arizona Charlie US$50,000 (over US$1m in today's terms,) and he never even gave thought to a second edition.

Charlie put much of the money into building his Grand Opera House that was a combination of palatial European theatre and flashy American music hall. But because of its design, patrons had to access performances by first running the gauntlet of his saloon in the foyer, and which a local journal criticised as "patronised by boisterous men spitting, smoking, swearing, drinking and gambling… a not at-all comfortable environment for civilised theatre-going ladies to have to pass through."

And when unable to find appropriate concert-style seats for his Opera House, Charlie Meadows provided his audience with 500 high-backed kitchen chairs; uncomfortable as they were, his First Night audience in July 1899 paid up US$12,000 (in today's terms around US$286,000.)

Realising he needed more than opera, Arizona Charlie put on concerts and theatrical shows as well, and appeared on stage nightly as a combo MC and Wild West showman, introducing such bizarre alternatives as dancing bears, performing dogs, acrobats, knife-throwers, tumblers, magicians and doing some trick-shooting himself.

But when the local gold boom crashed and the population fell from 16,000 in 1898 to just hundreds in 1901, Arizona Charlie sold his Opera House for a mere one-third its original cost.

It then faced a mixed future under names including The Savoy, The Auditorium, Nugget Dance Hall and today the Palace Grand Theatre. It is now owned by Parks Canada – after having been knocked-down in dilapidated condition some years ago and rebuilt with renovated original materials – and offers a variety of shows, performances and historic theatre tours (see

FOOTNOTE: Arizona Charlie Meadows died back in his namesake home-State in1932 while operating on his own varicose veins with a pocket knife.



[] CANADA'S Dawson City, stepping off point to the 1890s Yukon gold rush; although called a City, it is today a town of little over 1000 residents. (YukonInfo)

[] BUILT on a mudflat, Dawson City in the gold rush could be a hell-hole. (WikiPedia)

[] ARIZONA Charlie Meadows, flamboyant Wild West showman who had his share of business ups and downs. (Yukon News)

[] THE Palace Grand Theatre today after being demolished and rebuilt to original plans using renovated original materials. (YukonInfo)

[] CAMP of gold rush hopefuls waiting to move out by ferry closer to the gold fields. (WikiMedia.)

[] LONG walk to the top: hopeful miners form an unbroken line over the snow-covered mountains from Dawson City to the gold fields. (Canadian National Archives)

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