Story & Photos
by Dan Davidson
The Palace Grand Theatre and Gillian Campbell go together like peanut butter and jam, or to choose a simile more in line with the Klondike Kate era tunes she favours, like a horse and carriage.Small wonder. After some years of doing small time stuff, talent shows and advertising stints in England (yes, she comes by that accent naturally) and Canada, Campbell got her big break when impresario Fran Dowie picked her to headline as Klondike Kate in Dawson City in 1967. Coincidentally, she lived that summer in the building that is now Klondike Kate’s Restaurant.
Her role as Kate took her to the Frantic Follies in Whitehorse and then back to Dawson again, where she played that other famous chanteuse, Diamond Tooth Gertie, at the casino.
She did summer gigs in the Yukon until 1976 when she found the dislocation of the tourist season life was getting in the way of her sons’ education, but she’s always been ready to come back for more limited engagements, including many performances at the Sourdough Rendezvous, and her recent two shows at the Palace Grand were her second Dawson engagement this year.
Her travelling show here is Klondike Kate “lite” in a sense, since her entire show features a bigger band and a cast of dancers. The two person version of Motherlode features her eldest son, Richard, on drums and vocals, and Bill Costin (formerly of the Gaslight Follies) on piano.
Richard and Bill provide musical interludes while Gillian changes costumes in the middle of each act of her show. Richard favours old fifties rockers and Bill (admitting he once wanted to be Billy Joel) offered up “Piano Man” and a song of his own that he wrote here some years ago.
Gillian (she’s too personal for the last name conventions of journalism) enters in a blaze of colour in four different outfits, only one of which is actually safe for the audience, since it keeps her from wandering off the stage and finding ways to “interact” with (mostly) the men in some way.
Audience participation includes singing along with her at the microphone as she wanders the hall, being coaxed onto the stage to dance (costumed or in street clothes), recite tongue twisters, or become part of a larger sketch involving red long johns and a dancing partner.
Hubby Edward (“He’s my second husband, who’s much better than my first.”) gazes fondly from the ground floor and springs to assist her when it is time to prowl the ground floor.
He’s another gift from Dawson, where they first met when he was a bank manger here. Some time after she left her abusive first husband, she met Edward again in Vancouver and it wasn’t too long before they got together.
In her time she’s played Barkerville, Skagway, Edmonton, cruise ships, and all the big hotels on the lower mainland as well as putting on shows for visiting royalty.
Gillian has been performing for 46 years now, and remains coy about her age. Back in 2005 I had the nerve to ask her and her response was “I’m as old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.”
For the audience, it’s not really a question. When she swirls onto the stage, all feather boas, sequins, plunging necklines, slit skirts and enormous hats, the audience acceptance is immediate.
We’re in another, kinder time, where double entendres were merely verbal fun, and every flirtation didn’t have to lead to a climax. The songs are all of another century now, as are the jokes and the body language.
It all comes to an end with bags of balloons tossed at the audience, who are expected to keep them in the air while Gillian concludes the show with “I’m forever blowing bubbles.”
There’s just no way you don’t leave the show feeling good after batting balloons around for 10 minutes.
The two nights of the Klondike Kate show were the last two evenings of this summer’s Live at the Palace Grand series produced by the Dawson City Arts Society as a result of regional economic development planning identified in the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Final Agreement, with funding by CanNor and the Yukon Government.