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Free-Spirited ‘Klondike Kate’ Mined Life to Its Fullest

Times Staff Writer

She made her fortune dancing and singing in the Klondike’s gold-rush saloons, and she spent it all staking her lover in a business that helped make his name -- Pantages -- synonymous with entertainment.

“Klondike Kate” Rockwell was headline news, off and on, for 50 years. She inspired a book, a play and a movie -- all telling and retelling the story of the red-haired New York chorus beauty who mined enough from gold miners’ pouches to amass her own fortune.

She spent it all on Alexander Pantages, her lover and partner who rose from Klondike bartender to theater owner. But once he was a success he dumped her.

Kate was born Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell in 1876 to Scottish-Irish parents in Kansas. Her parents divorced in 1881. Her mother married a judge and they moved to Spokane, Wash.

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Kate’s zest for life, and even her generous spirit, often got her into trouble. She played hooky to go fishing. She opened the family home to townspeople left homeless by a fire, running up huge bills to feed them -- in her parents’ absence. She was kicked out of boarding school for dancing and singing in class.

“It wasn’t that I was bad,” Kate said later. “I was just imaginative and full of life and the excitement of living.”

She barely waited until she turned 20 to head for New York and a stage career, earning $18 a week. She met celebrities like Diamond Jim Brady and her role model, actress Lillian Russell, who gave her advice about show biz. She went dancing in New York’s Gilded Age hot spots with songwriter Paul Dresser, creator of “On the Banks of the Wabash.”

In 1899, three years after the Klondike gold strike, Kate heard that dance-hall girls were getting $1,000 a night to perform for the wild-spending gamblers, con men and “old sourdoughs” of the Yukon. Off she went, determined to become, in her words, the “Belle of the Yukon.”

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At the Savory Saloon in Dawson, she worked long days, dancing and singing for men who tossed gold nuggets at her feet as she belted out spicy ballads such as “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” and “Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey.”

The rumored $1,000 a night wasn’t far wrong. Kate earned $750 a night, one drink, one song, one dance at a time. She received 25% of every drink she sold, 50 cents a dance and $7.50 for every bottle of champagne she uncorked. “I’m not trying to put over the idea that we were vestal virgins,” she said in an interview in the 1940s. “Far from it. We fell head over heels in love and we made mistakes. But primarily we were vendors of laughter and music to men who were starved for beauty and gaiety.”

The first man Kate was drawn to was the bartender, Greek immigrant and savvy businessman Alexander Pantages, 24. “He had the only cleanshaven face in the whole place,” she recalled.

Pantages arrived in Dawson a few months after Kate did -- and immediately made money. News-starved miners bid against one another for his week-old newspaper, offering $5 and $10. Instead, he charged a buck a head to 350 miners who listened to someone else read the paper aloud. (Pantages didn’t learn to read or write until he was middle-aged.)

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Kate still earned more than 10 times as much each night as Pantages. When the pair joined forces, it was with her money and his genius for entertainment. They opened the Orpheum, drawing big vaudeville acts and selling out the house at $12.50 a seat. Pantages parlayed their earnings into more theaters.

When the gold boom went bust, the twosome headed for Seattle, where they opened nickelodeons, the new hand-cranked novelty “flickers,” along with vaudeville acts with Kate as a star. But in 1904 Pantages jilted Kate, then 28, to wed 18-year-old Lois Mendenhall, a violinist in one of Kate’s shows.

Hurt and embittered, Kate sued Pantages for breach of contract. Using hotel registers and love letters, she bared their torrid affair in the Seattle courts. Reporters sent her story around the nation. She claimed that on his promise of marriage, she had financed his enterprises, enabling him to rise from rags to riches in five years. She demanded $25,000 but settled out of court for $5,000.

Thereafter, Kate supported herself on the vaudeville circuit. Pantages forged a chain of 80 movie theaters from coast to coast, and moved his wife and children to Los Angeles.

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During the teens, Kate settled in Bend, Ore., where she sponsored prison reforms, adoptions and feeding the homeless. She visited hospitals, where she held the hands of “old sourdoughs” and nursed the sick during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Some say she settled in Bend to be near a son she supposedly bore, Pantages’ child. Rumor was that she gave him up for adoption while they were still together. Kate denied it, saying the baby she gave up belonged to a dance-hall girl who had died. (But once in a while she slipped and mentioned her “son.”)

“The child was one of Kate’s most carefully guarded secrets,” gossip columnist Louella Parsons wrote in 1942.

Kate remained conflicted about the man she’d loved. In 1923, when she was hard up, she came to Los Angeles and mustered the nerve to knock on the door of Pantages’ Vermont Avenue mansion.

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A servant ushered her into the kitchen. “I thought up until then he was the one man in all the world who would not fail me ... ,” she said later. “He gave me $6.” She refused it and walked out.

In 1929, Pantages was in a tough spot of his own. No sooner had he sold his empire to RKO for a reported $24 million than he found himself accused of raping a 17-year-old dancer in his private office at the Pantages theater on Hill Street.

Pantages went on trial in Los Angeles, and prosecutors subpoenaed Kate from Oregon to testify. As she waited outside court, reporters pounced. Kate, who still relished an audience, told of her old love for him, posed for photographers and dabbed her dry eyes with a handkerchief.

In the end, Kate never took the stand because the character witness whose testimony she was to balance never showed up. Later, she said, “I never testified against him because win or lose, a sourdough never squeals.”

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On the day the stock market crashed, triggering the Great Depression, Pantages was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison. He appealed, remaining free on bail.

In 1931, he ran into more legal troubles in San Diego. Accused of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, he went on trial. Jurors failed to reach a verdict; the case was dismissed.

Pantages’ appeal of his L.A. conviction eventually proved successful; he won a new trial and was acquitted. He died in 1936, still a rich man despite all his legal bills.

In 1933, Kate married a Swedish miner who had been in love with her for more than three decades. She was 57; her husband, John Matson, was 70.

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The couple lived separately, he near his Yukon gold mine, she in Oregon. They got together only once a year. In between, he wrote her beautiful love letters, and she wrote him poetry.

Kate was invited back to Los Angeles in 1943 for the filming of “Klondike Kate,” starring Ann Savage. Kate would later say it was “entirely fictional” and “I don’t recognize anything in it that happened to me.”

She captivated the Brown Derby in Hollywood by hiking her skirt above the knee and extricating tobacco and cigarette papers from her garter. She rolled herself a smoke with one hand, then taught the trick to the film’s starlets.

Kate played to an audience wherever she found one. Angelenos were curious about the woman newspapers called a “shady lady,” the former mistress of one of Hollywood’s richest men. Society people invited her into their homes, where she enlivened parties with tall tales and sometimes off-color jokes.

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But after a few months of hobnobbing with the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant, she returned to the Pacific Northwest, where Oregonians welcomed her back.

In 1948, two years after Matson died alone in his cabin, Kate, 72, went to the altar again. This time it was with a Bend accountant about her age named William Van Duren.

Van Duren’s eyesight had failed the year before, and Kate raised money to pay for surgery. When she came up short, she petitioned the county to cover the rest, promising that he’d “work it off” when his eyesight returned. The county did, and Van Duren kept his end of the bargain.

Oregonians nicknamed her “Aunt Kate”; she was a fixture at parades, pioneer pageants and grand openings. Her last big audience was in 1954, when she appeared on TV in “The Groucho Marx Show.” She died three years later in her sleep, at age 80.

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Kate lived by a practical philosophy: “I believe it’s better to be interested in what’s coming around the corner, good or bad, than it is to moan about the present. I see so many persons in worse condition than I am. I feel that I am lucky and happy. And then, there’s nothing like laughing your way through the world.”


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