Toronto
4 min

Head over heels

Car crash sparks tribute to pioneering women

CAN-CAN WOMAN. Cathy Elliott has gone from playing characters lik Diamond Tooth Gertie in a Dawson City revue, to writing a musical about the life of Gertie and other amazing Yukon ladies. Credit: Kelly Clipperton

Cathy Elliott’s guardian angel moves in mysterious ways.



Elliott wrote and composed her forthcoming musical Fireweeds: Women Of The Yukon because she’d been hit by a truck who’s driver was blinded by the glare of the September sun in the Yukon; Elliott was playing a character named Diamond Tooth Gertie in a Klondike-style casino revue show in Dawson City; she got the gig on the recommendation of a homesick friend from the Yukon who worked with Elliott on a school touring production in Ontario; her friend called the producer to tell him about Elliott, just catching him before he was out the door to hire someone else.



But the angel had intervened even earlier than that.



She first appeared when Elliott was 13, “a shy oddball kid with no friends,” of mixed Acadian, M’ik Maq and Irish heritage, who had been moved around the world by her adventuresome parents. An older girl at school took notice of her one day and handed Elliott a guitar, taught her the basics and then “just kind of disappeared,” says Elliott. ” I didn’t really ever know who she was or why she chose me.”



She was hooked. Previously, as a music student, she was considered so lazy that a teacher assigned her the triangle, hoping that following along to play one or two notes per song would force Elliott to learn to read music. No more; Elliott had finally found her instrument.

“I wrote a lot of songs about peace and love and sang at folk masses,” Elliott says. “I thought I was Joni Mitchell.”



She kept playing her music, learned graphic design and, finally, entered Ryerson Polytechnic University’s theatre program, a mature student at 26. She was “rescued” shortly thereafter, recruited by Peter Hinton and Ellen-Ray Hennessy to join Theatrebond, a company of Ryerson alumnae who put her in three shows, including a Bertoldt Brecht revue called Das Schlectes Ballroom And Best Friends, a short musical that Elliott composed.



The rest is typical writer-actor-musician history: lots of roles in regional and touring productions, school shows, a sideline doing some prop-building work, a gig playing Sister Mary Amnesia in Nunsense.

Fireweeds, a two act musical revue that Elliott both wrote and composed, opens next week, as the inaugural production of Burning Passions Theatre, a company dedicated to showcasing work by women. Almost 10 years in the making, Elliott says Fireweeds, which celebrates historical and contemporary women of the Yukon, “explores the question: How does a woman survive in a place that’s out to kill her?”



Elliott became fascinated with the Yukon during the year she spent in Dawson City in the late 1980s. “You’ve never seen so many great people crammed into one place. They really are larger than life and so talented and generous to a fault. And boy can they drink!”

Headlining as Diamond Tooth Gertie – complete with can-can girls – at Gertie’s Casino, performing Mae West-style schtick and singing jazz standards for gamblers and tourists, Elliott grew obsessed with “all those brave women who left their families and their comforts to go the Yukon during the Gold Rush. Some went to make a living but some just went for the adventure of it.”



Her own character was based on real-life Klondike-era proprietress. “I’m told the original Gertie was ‘an entertainer,’ though I’m not quite sure how she entertained,” Elliot says.



“Diamond” was added to her name when she beat a man at poker and used her winnings to buy the jewel for a space in her teeth. She did it so that every time she smiled at him, he’d be reminded that she was the better card player.



Another favourite of Elliott’s is Belinda Mulroney. A washerwoman on a boat taking prospectors to the Yukon, Mulroney began to buy and trade small goods, like soap and tools. The more remote and the further north they got, the more valuable Mulroney’s goods became. By the time she landed, she had enough to invest in a mine and a restaurant. Eventually she founded the town of Grand Forks and built the fanciest hotel in Dawson City.



“Then she made a horrible mistake,” says Elliott. “She got married.” Her husband was a bum. She lost all her money covering his various frauds and debts. Broke, but still full of gumption, Mulroney started out all over again in Fairbanks, Alaska. She and her sister established a bank.



“Remember, this was long before women could even vote,” Elliott says. Mulroney made a second fortune; once rich again, she retired to a castle she had built for herself.



Enchanting as the stories are, the idea of turning the lives of Yukon women into a musical didn’t strike Elliott until she was hit by that truck while riding her bike to work. The driver was a cashier at the casino and Elliot remembers hearing her scream, “Oh my god! I’ve killed Gertie!” as Elliott bounced off the hood.



She was up five days later to finish the run with a ruptured disk, a concussion, a broken nose and a black eye. “You should have seen the make-up they used on me to cover it all up!”



She returned to Toronto to recover. “I went from Dawson City to Yonge and Dundas. I was injured. I was shell-shocked. And I started to write.”



In the 10 years since, the musical has gone through a series of rewrites and a 1992 performance of an earlier version of the script. Elliott kept reworking the material.



“I really had the time to perfect it, to make it work.” But when she started shopping the script around, “everyone was in their gritty urban drama period. No one wanted my musical.”



Just as she was about to pack the script away and move on to something else, she got a call from director Laurel Smith, who remembered the piece from an earlier incarnation.



Smith is directing the current production, which stars Julain Molnar, Jill Hayman and Ann Bisch, with Jeannie Wise on the piano and Jon Pilatke on the fiddle; the musical director is Noreen Waibel.



“I’m so pleased with the production,” Elliott says. “Burning Passion have been so great – I’ve even got to work as assistant director. There’s been a proper rehearsal period, with plenty of time to make it ready, to make sure it’s really polished when we open. And we’re going to be above the [musical] production of Outrageous [which opens two weeks later]. That theatre is going to be loud!”



Making her home with her girlfriend on a 10-acre farm outside of Barrie, Elliott is already at work on a new musical based on George Eliot’s Silas Marner. She predicts that it may also take a 10-year cycle. “I spent a year just doing the synopsis, mapping out the structure of the musical. It’s a tough craft. It takes hard work.”

She laughs. “That sounds a little sick, doesn’t it? But it’s true. Writing musical theatre is a sickness.”



Fireweeds: Women Of The Yukon.

$18-$23.

Mon-Sat; 8pm. Wed; 1pm. Sat; 2pm.

Thu, Sep 14-Oct 7.

Canadian Stage (upstairs).

26 Berkeley St.

(416) 368-3110.