I first heard about Gillian when I landed in Dawson City Yukon as the piano player at Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Casino. I was young and learning the ropes of how to play for dancers and fiddle players and blues shouters and comedy bits. From the first day I arrived I began to hear people reference Gillian Campbell as being “THE Leading Lady”.
Backstage at the Palace Grand Theatre, there was a sister-show called “Perils Before Schwine” written by Jim Murdock with music by Buck Evans. The boss (Lyall Murdoch) gave me a tour of the backstage one day and I saw Gillian’s name on the dressing room walls (along with dozens and dozens of other signatures from over the years). It was here that Lyall told me about how Gillian was already a big star when the Follies first hired her. They offered her a job and she liked the idea, but her manager was against it because the money wasn’t good enough. At the time the company was fairly new and didn’t have the resources to make her a better offer. Gillian talked her manager into it because she had two young boys that she was raising, and the vaudeville season in the Yukon offered her the opportunity to stay in one place and be a family for the summer – which as any touring musician soon realities – is a gift.
The following year (1981) I was hired as the musical director for the Frantic Follies Vaudeville Revue in Whitehorse Yukon. We worked six nights a week, Mondays were dark. There were two shows a night for a good part of the season and that is when I began to learn about the craft of being on stage. The ability to do a show at 7:00 – and then run the same show again at 9:15 every night was a gift. You could try something and if it didn’t work (you didn’t get a laugh) you could tweak it and try again next show. It was the best training ground anyone could ever hope for. Which is probably why I stayed with the show for 38 years until it closed in 2016.
The only catch with the show was, it was seasonal, so we had to find work in the off season (Mid-Sept until May 15 when the rehearsals started again).
I found off-season work with the cruise lines and began playing piano onboard the Exploration Cruise Lines. There was a steady stream of headliners that came onboard the ship for 2-4 weeks at a time. Many of the acts that came through knew about and mentioned Gillian Campbell. It became clear that Gillian Campbell was the “industry standard” when it came to performers.
Sometime in the mid-80s I got a chance to see her in action. She was performing floor shows at the Westmark Hotel in Skagway for a season. I took our Monday dark nights and drove down to Skagway on a couple of occasions to see her perform live.
Her show started with a great band number – her bands have always been top-notch, so it was a big fast exciting opener – then the piano player introduced her and from the second she hit the stage, it was obvious she was the real deal. Gillian grabbed the crowd by the scruff of the neck and kept us all in her grasp until the final note. Laughing, singing, and even shedding a sentimental tear for a short moment – only to be brought back to the joyful present where you ended up batting balloons around the room while singing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”.
The ability to take an entire room and guide them through an hour long journey that allows you to forget the outside world and be present in the musical embrace of Gillian Campbell is masterful vaudeville. That is the goal of every vaudevillian and watching Gillian do this is a joy – and a lesson.
Gillian and I crossed paths over the years and I got to know her but I didn’t have the honor of playing for her until my old college friend Bill Costin asked me to sub for him for a week long engagement. Bill is a masterful show pianist. I can’t think of a more capable guy for that gig – and playing for Gillian Campbell is not just any gig. You have to be on every second – if you loose your concentration for a moment and miss a cue and she will gently and nicely remind you at the first opportunity. And playing for someone like Gillian Campbell, well, you just strive to get it “right”.
I was out of my element, but I hung on and got through a week of shows as Gillian’s accompanist, thanks to the stellar musicians she had in the band (who guided me through all the arrangements). The reward I got was to study this amazing entertainer in action. It was like going to vaudeville university and taking a class on crowd control.
As the years went by I became a producer and director of vaudeville shows and I hired Gillian Campbell to headline whenever I could, and along with the other talented members of those casts, we were able to create some wonderful vaudeville shows.
The exciting news is, Gillian will be coming to Winnipeg to be a part of the Prairie Vaudeville Revue on November 9, 2019. This will be a show that is created as part of the Home Routes/Chemin Chez Nous Cranky Festival that runs from November 8-10th. Our revue will be on the 9th and it’s starting to look like quite a line-up.
I’m tremendously excited about putting Gillian Campbell and Howard Swan in the same show. Legends, both of them.
If you want to hear an interview we did with Gillian and her second husband Edward, and Howard Swan, you can get it here: