By Tara Borin
Photos by Manu Keggenhoff
A Northern Star
Gillian Campbell got her big break in Dawson City 50 years ago.
Dawson City left its mark on Gillian Campbell in more than one way. That’s where, in 1967, the entertainer and single mother landed the first major role of her career in the Gaslight Follies, a cabaret-style show that ran for 40 years at the Palace Grand Theatre. She played Klondike Kate, a well-known character from the Klondike Gold Rush.
Campbell also met the love of her life in Dawson, even if she didn’t know it then. Edward Thompson, a bank manager, was at the airport the day she arrived, helping transport costumes and props for the new production.
“I saw Gillian get off the plane with these two little babies under her arms,” he says. “I looked at [my friend] and said, ‘I think she’s going to be the best of the bunch.’”
Over the course of that summer, Thompson would sometimes ask Gillian to dance at the Westminster Hotel to a band playing Irish folk music.
“I didn’t realize [a band member] was sweet on her, so we’d be dancing along and then the beat would change,” he recalls. “They’d do that every time we got going again. A couple of days later, I realized they were doing that on purpose,” he laughs.
It wasn’t easy, and I often wonder how I did it. We lived off cheese spread and toast. I did the show, cooked two meals a day for the cast, and looked after my boys.”
Campbell with and her two sons and husband Edward Thompson.
But Campbell was too busy for romance. She and her two young sons shared the “flophouse,” a performer’s residence near the theatre, with the rest of the cast.
“It wasn’t easy, and I often wonder how I did it,” recalls Campbell. “We lived off cheese spread and toast. I did the show, cooked two meals a day for the cast, and looked after my boys.” She went straight home after every show. “The show is my life, that’s my party, when I’m onstage.”
And it’s always a party when Campbell is onstage. Dressed in one of her many elegant gowns, she captivates audiences with song, dance, and her signature risqué humour. “Vaudeville has always been my thing; I love audience participation,” she says. Gillian is well-known for making her way through the crowd, drawing hapless men into the fun.
“I’m never vulgar. I’m never offensive. If I pick someone from the audience, I always go up to the wife afterwards and say, ‘Thank you so much. You’ve trained him so well.’”
After getting her start in Dawson City, Campbell spent the following year appearing as Klondike Kate in Barkerville, B.C., another gold-rush town, before returning north, in 1969. She would continue entertaining Yukon audiences with the Gaslight Follies in Dawson and, later, the Frantic Follies, a Whitehorse-based revue. She’s even stepped in as Diamond Tooth Gertie from time to time in the show at Dawson’s gambling hall and, for many years, was the headlining act for the Yukon Rendezvous winter carnival, performing to sold-out crowds.
It wasn’t until several years after their initial meeting in Dawson City that Campbell’s and Thompson’s paths crossed again. This time, Campbell was performing at the Pacific National Exhibition, in Edmonton, and Thompson, who had left his bank job to become a horse trainer, was working at a track right next to the fairgrounds. They continued bumping into each other in various places until he asked her out for dinner.
“He never tried to clip my wings,” Campbell says of the loving partnership that blossomed after their first date together. “He’s always been very supportive [of my career].”
One of the iconic gowns Campbell donated to the MacBride Museum.
Although Campbell went on to dazzle audiences all over the world, the place where her career took off holds a special place in her heart. “Everywhere I go, I’m always talking about how fabulous the Yukon is.”
She’s returned north many times over the years, often with her adult sons, who perform with her as a drummer and bass player. She fondly recalls being joined onstage at Diamond Tooth Gerties by the Snowshoe Shufflers, a local dance group who cancan in long underwear and traditional-style snowshoes. More recently, she appeared on the Commissioner of Yukon’s Facebook page, reading a children’s story during one of the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Campbell has called Vancouver home for 55 years, but her legacy lives on at the MacBride Museum, in Whitehorse, where she donated 24 of her one-of-a-kind outfits designed by her long-time friend, the late costumer Ray Buchanan. The show-stopping piece: an iconic gown of yellow velvet with chiffon bell sleeves, decorated with intricate beadwork and a trim of yellow and orange feathers around the bottom.
After more than 50 years in show business, Campbell, 84, is still booking shows.
“I can still get my leg up and over,” she says with a laugh. Campbell even recruited Thompson into one of her shticks—they’ve been performing as Santa and Mrs. Claus for 30 years. Thompson had no experience in show business, but Campbell says, “A lot of me has rubbed off on him.”
Dawson City brought these two together many years ago, but a strong partnership kept them together. And as Thompson puts it, “It’s been one continuous round of pleasure ever since.”