In this day and age, very few people have heard of Kitty Rockwell or Alexander Pantages, but in their day they made quite an impact. Some people are born to make a mark, and when two such types cross paths, it can be epic. Fasten your seatbelts.
Kathleen “Kitty” Rockwell was born in Kansas in 1876. A child of divorce, she then lived with her mother in Spokane, Washington; Valparaiso, Chile; and New York City. It was in New York that she started working in vaudeville. She eventually made her way to the Yukon, following the men of the Klondike Gold Rush. Dancing for the miners, she sometimes earned as much as $750 a night, which is a tidy sum even by today’s standards. They called her Klondike Kate, the Belle of the Yukon.
Alexander Pantages was born in Greece in 1867. When he was 9 years old, he went on a trip with his father to Cairo, where he ran away and then went to sea for two years, working as a deck hand. Never failing to seize upon any opportunity that came his way, he also helped dig the Panama Canal. He made his way to America in the early 1880’s. In 1897 he, too, went to the Yukon, where he worked as a waiter and a janitor.
That’s where these two icons collided. Kitty fell in love. They also went into business together, operating a vaudeville theater. Apparently their relationship was passionate, stormy, and full of jealousy on both sides.
Pantages borrowed a huge sum of money from Rockwell to start a theater empire that would eventually comprise 84 venues across Canada and the Western half of the US. (You’ve probably heard of the Pantages Theaters, especially the one in Hollywood that hosted the Academy Awards from 1949 through 1959. A lot of famous people have walked the red carpets of this palatial, Art Deco theater.)
But before his empire got started thanks to Kitty’s nest egg, she followed him to Washington State, in the belief that they’d be getting married. She then discovered that he’d secretly married someone else 4 days previously. She sued him for breech of promise to no avail, and she never saw her money again.
While Pantages enjoyed the fruits of his business, Rockwell fell on hard times. She bought a house in Seattle and took her vaudeville show on the road. But it was all too much for her and she had to retire after an emotional collapse. She then sold her house in Seattle and lived on a homestead claim for 7 years. She remained in Oregon for the rest of her life, and was well known in Bend for her support of various charities. She married several times and died in her sleep in 1957.
But here’s where it gets even more interesting. Before their deaths, Rockwell and Pantages crossed paths one last time. It was in a courthouse hallway in 1929. Pantages was on trial for rape. He was accused of raping a 17 year old girl who had auditioned for him. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.) Rockwell had been called to testify against him by the prosecution, but she never did. He was found guilty, did several months in jail, and then was acquitted on retrial. The scandal ruined him financially, and he died in 1936.
What I want to know is, what did Rockwell say to him in that hallway? I bet it was quite colorful. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.