After years of neglect, Dawson City in the early sixties had the classic look of a rundown ghost town. However, plans were underway to spruce up the most famous gold rush town in the world.
In 1962, the federal government began an effort to restore some of the old gold rush buildings and turn Dawson City into a tourist mecca. The centerpiece of this effort was the Palace Grand Theatre built by Arizona Charlie Meadows at the turn of the century. Meadows was a veteran of the Wild West Shows, having worked with Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill’s wild west shows in the United States. On his way to the Klondike, Meadows picked up loose change by shooting spots off a deck of cards. He also carried with him a portable bar, selling booze to stampeders at various camps along the way.
To build the Palace Grand, Meadows used lumber from two steamboats he had bought. By the spring of 1899, the theatre opened and featured a stage play called 'Camille'. Charlie Meadows would also stage wild west shows of sorts at his Grande Theatre. But it didn’t last long. For all intents and purposes, the gold rush ended in the fall of ’99, just two years after it began.
For years the Palace Grand stood as a run down reminder of those glorious gold rush days at the turn of century. Then, in June of 1962, the restored Palace Grande opened with a sparkling ceremony which included the opening of a new Broadway play called FOXY. The star of this light-hearted musical comedy was Bert Lahr, who had gained world-wide fame as the cowardly lion in the famous movie 'The Wizard of Oz'.
The staging of a Broadway play in Dawson City took considerable cheek and money. The play itself didn’t achieve critical acclaim and the timing of such an elaborate stage show was questionable. Dawson City didn’t have the facilities to support much tourist business. It would be many years before the town would be fully restored. Yet with the renovated Palace Grand came the determination to put the spirit of the Klondike Gold Rush back into the Klondike.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
It all began in 1959 when the Minister of Indian Affairs, Alvin Hamilton, invited Tom Patterson to visit Dawson City. Then, the gold rush town was a crumbling shadow of its former self.
Yukoners wanted to change that and the feds agreed. Patterson, an impresario who had created the wildly successful Stratford Shakespearean festival, saw the tourist opportunities in the Klondike and recommended a series of measures to bring culture to the Klondike.
Thus began the expansion of Dawson from a ghost town to a tourist mecca. But it would take a long time and oodles of money before any result would be apparent. The federal project to refurbish the town included moving the SS Keno from Whitehorse to Dawson and rebuilding the Palace Grand Theatre.
The Gold Rush Festival Committee was formed to manage local organization of the Festival. The first Dawson City Festival was held in the summer of 1962 and lasted six weeks. The focal piece was a Broadway play. By every measure of the day, the festival was a major flop.
Still, in the summer of '62, a cast of characters, including Bert Lahr, who had become famous around the world for his portrayal of the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz, descended on Dawson. The play was called "Foxy", and featured all the trite gold rush stuff one could imagine. Greed, grit, gold, girls and great expectations. Music and lyrics were written by the famous songwriter Johnny Mercer, who penned the academy award-winning songs Moon River and That Old Black Magic.
The play ran for seven weeks in the summer of 1962, usually to a nearly empty house, and its producers lost their $400,000 investment. In late 1963, producer David Merrick decided to revive it. The on-Broadway production opened on February 16, 1964, at the Ziegfeld Theatre, where it ran for seventy-two performances.
Foxy's failure was due less to critical reaction, which for the most part was favorable, and more to Merrick's lack of interest in the project. Lahr won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Broadway Musical that year. Foxy was one of Broadway's more obscure flops. It was also one of the few Broadway plays whose soundtrack was never recorded until an off-Broadway revival troupe made a CD in 2000, so hardly anyone not in Dawson in 1962 has heard the music.
Foxy didn't put Dawson City on the tourism map. It wasn't because the idea was wrong. It was the timing. Few tourists wanted to drive on highways of mud or dust or take an airplane to reach Dawson City, a town that didn't have any facilities to look after visitors.
But for the glorious summer of 1962, the Klondike hills were alive with the sound of Broadway music.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin