Stepping into the ballroom of an Oakdale prom hall on a recent evening was like entering a time-warp mashup of a Gold Rush-era boomtown and a modern drag club.
Onstage, eight curvaceous women, clad in the ruffled gowns and feathered headpieces popular in Victorian saloons, harmonized standards and gave suggestive winks to the crowd. As the ivories wrapped up a ditty about "old St. Paul," the troupe transitioned into Meghan Trainor's current body-positive hit "All About That Bass."
"Yeah, it's pretty clear I ain't no size 2," sang the women, each of whom in recent years won a pageant contingent on criteria that had nothing to do with swimsuit fit.
These are the Klondike Kates, a local club of female performers who take on the role of a saloon songbird for the St. Paul Winter Carnival. Bringing a dose of cleavage to the carnival, Kate's role is that of an emissary between the winter-favoring royal court and the fiery Vulcans who have come to eradicate the cold. Her Wild West persona is more than a bit out of place among kings and princes (although one prince, of the West Wind, does dress as a cowboy). And yet, the mistress of sass and merriment, fun and frivolity is as much a symbol of Minnesota winter as a hot toddy.
For the women who play her, Klondike Kate is more than a role. It's a way of life.
"I feel like I finally joined the family," said Shelley Brown, 55, who just won the title of Klondike Kate for 2015 after trying out for four consecutive years.
"You need sisters," said Shar Salisbury, Klondike Kate 1997. Salisbury recently lost her brother, and at a gathering of Kate alumnae, the group stopped for a moment to join her in prayer. "It was very special. These relationships go very deep. It's been a really big part of my life."
The character is inspired by the real-life "Queen of the Yukon," Kathleen Rockwell, a Kansas-born entertainer who comforted miners in the unforgiving northern frontier during the turn of the last century.
To outsiders, the modern-day Klondike Kate may seem like a funny, even hokey form of old-timey entertainment, with the fashion sense of Gypsy Rose Lee, the "come-up-and-see-me-sometime" innuendo of Mae West and the voice of Ethel Merman. But behind the scenes, Klondike Kates are a devoted group of women of a certain age, many of whom have dedicated years of their lives to spreading joy with a wink and a song.
Each January, "wannabes" compete for the title, and the winner spends the next 12 months making appearances at parades statewide and in festivals as widespread as Winnipeg and Florida. Kates are hired to perform at parties and private events, and often volunteer to bring some hubba-hubba to the otherwise tame halls of nursing homes.
Inside the sisterhood
Klondike Kates profess a bond that lasts forever: "Once a Kate, always a Kate." In reality, winners are expected to devote at least five years to the organization by performing at as many events as possible. After that, many stay involved. There are eight alumnae who still perform and 19 former Kates still active in the organization. Kates occasionally come out of "retirement" to do a show every now and again.
"I want people to feel like they can come back anytime," said Judy Nelson, 50, Klondike Kate 2000 and coordinator for the group. "It's like going back to your high school."
But there are also challenges of being in a group with that many headstrong leading ladies.
"They always say you can't choose your family," teased Peggy Sweeney Junkin, Klondike Kate 2012. "The relationship takes a lot of work, and anything that comes too easily is not worth having."
Despite occasional squabbles, Klondike Kates manage seamlessly to direct and choreograph several full-length shows each year, including Arctic Sizzle, a cabaret and luncheon on Friday.
They leave their mark. "Kate droppings" are what they call the feathers left behind onstage after a performance.
Though famous for her adventurous life in the Yukon, Klondike Kate today is oddly part of the fabric of St. Paul. Her local connection is mysterious; some believe the real Rockwell could have been a performer at one of the Winter Carnival's early casinos.
The fictional character first appeared during the carnival in 1971, when the St. Paul Jaycees launched a concurrent pageant inspired by the Gold Rush entertainer. In the 1990s, a group of former winners banded together to make Klondike Kate an official part of the carnival, establishing the Royal Order of Klondike Kates and getting her story written into the legend. Now, people can't imagine the city without her larger-than-life va-va-voom.
Brown, this year's Klondike Kate, said she thinks of the character as a "festive, upbeat ambassador for the city."
Lois Laurie, 69, was born and raised in St. Paul and always loved her city. She eventually moved to Eagan, but "every time I would go across the Mississippi River, I would see downtown St. Paul and I would say, 'Someday I'm going to represent this city and be really proud of it.' " She became Klondike Kate in 1993. She doesn't perform anymore, but she hasn't missed a contest in 25 years.
Kathy Rustin, who just completed her reign as Klondike Kate 2014, first heard about the group on the news, and began competing two years before she won.
She made close to 400 appearances on the nursing home/hospital/parade circuit in the past year.
"It's exhausting, but it's not, because you get so much energy from the people you interact with," said Rustin, 52.
One of her favorite memories was kissing an old man on the cheek before a parade. When she passed him in the procession later, he gave her a big wave and pointed to the spot where she left lipstick marks. The next day, his daughter posted on Facebook that it was his best day all year.
"How do you not want to get up the next day and put on that costume?" she said. "I'm a changed person because of that."
Other Kates, too, will say being Klondike Kate has transformed them.
The 'spiritual' side of Kate
Sweeney Junkin, the 2012 Kate, said there were unforgettable "spiritual aspects" to her tenure.
She once sang to a man with Alzheimer's who hadn't spoken in weeks. When she started to sing, he sang along. Another time, she sang to a man with a brain injury, and picked his favorite song without knowing it. His wife was in tears.
"To me, that's very spirit-filled," she said.
Being Klondike Kate "changes your life immensely," said Liz Manbeck, 70, Klondike Kate 1992.
"Where else can a girl that is built like we are — and with the big and bold personality that we have — where else can we go and be looked upon as if we're royalty?" Manbeck said. "The costume is revered, the children love us, the adults love us. It's just a marvelous feeling."
Although Kate's flamboyant side was a departure for Rustin, who is actually pretty shy, parts of the character's personality started to bleed into her real life. She once catcalled her office mascot, 3M's kilt-clad Scotty McTape, when she saw him in the skyway.
"I said, 'Woo-hoo, Scotty, love those legs!' I could practically feel him blush through the costume, and I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, what did I say?' That was Kate, not Kathy."
Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853