Join host Kari Bovee, award-winning author of historical fiction as she shares stories of strong women of history combined with mysteries of the past.
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What does the Pantages Theater and the Klondike Gold Rush have in common? An American dancer and vaudeville star named Kathleen Rockwell.
She came from a well-to-do family in Junction City, Kansas, but her homelife was unstable and often fraught with tension, resulting in Kathleen developing an independent and rebellious spirit.
When she was a teenager, her parents tried to quell this rebelliousness by sending her to boarding school. She spent more time trying to figure out how to break the rules than study, and was soon expelled. By this time, her mother’s second marriage was on the rocks, so the two of them moved to New York.
Kathleen took a job as a chorus girl, and performed in various vaudeville houses. She then followed a job offer with a variety theater in Spokane, Washington, but soon heard rumors of a Klondike Gold Rush.
Rockwell settled in Dawson City, in 1900, where she joined the Savoy Theatrical Company. She developed the Flame Dance, an off-color number in which she wore a red sequined dress trailing 200 feet of chiffon that she twisted and turned into an illusion of flames. The act was a favorite of the miners and it launched her into Klondike fame. At the Savoy, she became known as Klondike Kate.
It was during this time she met Alexander Pantages, a struggling waiter and bartender. The love affair was intense and often tumultuous. They were crazy about each other, but fought over petty jealousies and money—mostly Kate’s money. Pantages borrowed considerable amounts of Kate’s cash to launch his career in Seattle as a theater manager. He thanked her by marrying someone else.
Rockwell headed to Brothers, Oregon with $3500 in cash, $3000 worth of jewelry, and trunks filled with dresses, gowns and hats to try her hand at homesteading 320 acres. She was one of a number of women who claimed their land by living on the claim for the required five years. This was shortly after women had earned the right to vote in Oregon. She was known to have worked the land, and her garden in vaudeville gowns and dance slippers.
While in Brothers, Kate would fall in love and marry twice. After the second marriage ended, she moved to Bend, Oregon where she would become a celebrity again, but this time, it was for her charity work. She worked hard to raise funds for her charitable causes and this time earned the nickname, Aunt Kate. She also trained young girls with their eye on Hollywood fame in voice and dance.
She ended up in Sweet Home, Oregon where she met and married William L. Van Duren, and lived out the rest of her days in a happy and loving relationship. She died in 1957.