Alexander Pantages is important in the show business history of Vancouver because he built two theatres here that were part of his vaudeville empire, and because of his influence on the careers of two men who were important in the Orpheum’s story: Marcus Priteca and Tony Heinsbergen. Pantages had no connection with the Orpheum himself.
Pantages’ life story reads like an adventure novel. He was a sailor, a laborer on an early and abortive French attempt to build a Panama Canal, a Klondike prospector, a guide, a bartender, saloon co-owner, boxer (short—about five feet six—but husky, he fought as a welterweight at 144 pounds), entrepreneur and showman. He could speak six languages but read and write in none of them.
He was born Pericles Pantages in 1876 on the Greek island of Andros, but started calling himself Alexander after being told the story of Alexander the Great. He ran away from home at age nine, and worked at many jobs—often at sea—and in several countries. The Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s lured the young Pantages, as it did thousands of others, to Skagway, Alaska. Seattle historian Murray Morgan has written: “When he reached Skagway, a boomtown where coffee cost a dollar a cup and ham and eggs five dollars a plate, he had twenty-five cents in his pocket. He stopped worrying about getting rich and started worrying about getting food. He took the first job offered, as a waiter.”
Pantages realized very quickly that, for him, moiling for gold in the fields wouldn’t be as much fun or as lucrative as getting it directly from other gold seekers. His showbiz career started when he persuaded the owner of a Skagway saloon where he worked to put on small entertainment events for the prospectors. A little later, around 1901, in Dawson, Pantages borrowed money from a dancer, Kate Rockwell, known as “Klondike Kate,” to run a theatre where music and variety acts helped to separate the prospectors from their pokes. Tickets were $12.50.