Pantages theatres (Vancouver)
The tentacles of the Klondike gold rush reached across the world like some gigantic primaeval octopus leaving in their wake both success and failure for…
He joined the gold rush in 1898, along with tens of thousands of others would be Klondike millionaires. Though he staked no ground and found no gold, he became one of the wealthiest and most controversial characters of his time.
Alexander Pantages was a tiny man, standing just five-six, and weighing a mere 140 pounds. Not the sort of fellow you'd expect to see labouring on the diggings on the Klondike creeks, except that he had once been a welterweight prize-fighter.
He left Seattle in the spring of 1898, on board one of the many so-called "boats" heading up the Inside Passage, with a thousand dollars in his pocket. When he arrived in Skagway, the Greek-born American immigrant had just twenty-five cents in his pocket. It was an expensive lesson in the art of gambling that he never forgot.
Tending bar and waiting tables at the Pullen House, he managed to scrape up enough money to make the journey to Dawson City by signing on as a boat builder with a group of real prospectors. In Dawson, he discovered that mining was not for him.
He dropped his dream of digging for gold and focused instead on extracting it from the men who had already found it. The best place for that was in the saloons, and the sign over Charlie Cole's Saloon that read, "Wanted, One Expert Mixologist. Salary $45 per day", drew his undivided attention.
Big money. But in the Klondike, bartenders had to be good....and fast. Pantages learned this quickly and he soon became an expert, not only at mixing drinks but in pressing his thumb on the bar to pick up grains of gold dropped by miners as they weighed out their nuggets as payment for drinks.
Entertainment went hand in hand with Klondike booze and Pantages soon discovered the financial possibilities of merriment. He knew that since alcohol was pretty much the same in any saloon, men would patronize the one that offered the most amusement.
He suggested that Charlie Cole turn his bar into a real theatre complete with a real band. Cole did, and Pantages became a waiter in Charlie Cole's dance hall, where he teamed up with Klondike Kate to mine the miners of their hard-earned gold. Often, he'd clean the bar mats after a night's work, and shake out more than few dollars worth of nuggets.
Eventually, the pair had enough cash to open a small movie theatre called the Orpheum on Front Street, which still stands to this day.
By 1902, he had saved enough money, and learned enough about the movie business, to leave the Klondike. When gold was found in the dark sands along the beach at Nome, Pantages rushed there with a group described as "the liveliest, speediest, swiftest and most sporting Dawsonites".
He spent the first winter working in another bar. Finally, he found a theatre in financial trouble. Though the costs of operation were outlandish, Pantages was sure the reason for the failure was bad management. He talked some entertainers into staking him, and took over management of the enterprise. Again the gamble paid off.
However, the rush petered out before Pantages could make much money showing pictures in Nome. What he gained was a grubstake and confidence that he knew what people wanted. In 1902, he sold the Orpheum Theatre in Nome and sailed for Seattle. He rented a store on Second Street, fitted it out with hard benches, bought a movie projector and some film, hire a vaudeville act, and opened the Crystal Theatre, the first of a vast chain of movie houses that would make the little entrepreneur millions.
By the end of the First World War, Pantages owned a substantial motion-picture circuit and he kept adding to it. At the zenith of his operation in 1926, he owned thirty playhouses and had controlling interest in forty-two others. In 1929 just before the stock-market crash brought an end to vaudeville, Pantages sold his motion picture chain to Radio Keith Orpheum (RKO) for 24 million dollars.
Alexander Pantages led a fabulous life, but he had his share of trouble. Klondike Kate Rockwell sued him for breach of promise. The suit was later dropped. He was also charged with rape, but the charge was dropped when it became apparent it was all part of the nasty business of who-would-control-what in the budding movie-chain business.
Nevertheless, the former Klondike waiter also had a fair share of luck. At one time, his estimated wealth was fifty million dollars ... far more than anyone who had earned a fortune mining for gold in the Klondike.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.