How does a reclusive, gold-mining couple living in the Southeast Alaska wilderness become close friends with one of Hollywood’s powerhouse couples in the 1930s?
That was a question Juneau filmmaker Joel Bennett pondered for decades and finally addressed in his first play, “Dreaming Glacier Bay,” set to have its world premiere at Perseverance Theatre this October.
The playwright’s fascination with how the lives of homesteaders Joe and Muz Ibach intersected with those of actors John Barrymore and Dolores Costello Barrymore began shortly after his arrival to Alaska in the late 1960s. Within the first couple years, he visited friends who owned the Ibachs’ old homestead on Lemesurier Island, which sits at the mouth of Glacier Bay. Much of the places’s original layout remains intact, Bennett said, with one room set aside with the Ibachs’ memorabilia, amongst it gifts from John and Dolores, pictures, and a trunk full of the Ibachs’ correspondence.
“(The correspondence) just didn’t have a lot to say about why, what were the reasons that these four people came together there,” Bennett said. Over the past several decades, he visited his friends on Lemesurier —they now own the Ibach’s homestead — about 10 different times, he said. “The more I got interested in the puzzle … the more I dug into it.”
Through research and interviews of people who knew the Ibachs, Bennett pieced together as much of the couples’ intertwining story as he could. At one point he even got to tour the Infanta, the yacht on which John Barrymore sailed to Alaska, now known as the Thea Foss and anchored in Seattle. Bennett didn’t know how his research would culminate, whether into a documentary or book, but eventually he decided it lent itself well to the stage.
“For some reason, because there was only limited characters, only the two couples, it seemed to me more appropriate for the stage, especially because the homestead out there is very intimate, a small space,” he said, the cabin being one of the primary scene locations. “The world (the Ibachs) looked out on was big but their inner world was small. So I could picture the Barrymores in there with them. I was imagining: what did they talk about? Why did John keep coming back?”
Not every question got an answer. At some point you’ve got to stop researching and begin writing, Bennett said. He imagined what the Ibachs sounded like based on letters and how other Alaska pioneers talked at the time. He formulated a plausible reason for his decades-long question of why the Barrymores, John in particular, were drawn back to the Ibachs.
Certain aspects of these two different couple’s lives in Alaska are well documented, but they serve only as a backdrop for the question Bennett explores in the play. When not filming, Barrymore wished to escape the world of Hollywood, and in 1929, commissioned the yacht. He sailed it south to Chile and north to Alaska, Bennett said. The Barrymores made several trips to Alaska over a stretch of years, dropping by for extended visits with the Ibachs. Notably in 1931, John shot a bear so his wife Dolores could eat the heart, which he had heard would give him a son; Dolores gave birth to John Drew Barrymore the next year, Bennett said. Barrymore also notoriously stole a Tlingit totem pole from Prince of Wales island, taking it to his estate bordering on the Beverly Hills. He suffered a string of bad luck afterwards in the form of multiple divorces, bankruptcy and a dependency on alcohol that continued to drag his personal and professional life down, reported the New Yorker.
The Ibachs were fascinating in their own right, as well. Joe and Muz married in Cordova, Bennett said. They farmed foxes for a time before trying their hand at mining for gold in Glacier Bay. Around the time the couple made their claims, the area became a National Monument, making gold mining in Glacier Bay illegal. The Ibachs still covertly mined their claims while their novelist friend Rex Beach lobbied the U.S. government to reverse its decision.
The play mentions those stories only in passing. Instead, it focuses on the human drama of what brought the two couples together, with particular interest to the ties between John Barrymore and Muz Ibach. Bennett postulates — based on circumstantial evidence — that the two knew each other previously in New York City.
But the connection between the two wasn’t entirely what brought the two couples together, he believes. John also took a liking to Joe, which wasn’t surprising. People gravitated towards the Ibachs, Bennett said.
“They had this amazing allure … They were a couple that you definitely went out of your way to stop and see. When I interviewed people in Juneau, elderly people who remembered them, they all said the same thing: that they were beautiful people, friendly, a lot of laughter, a lot of (positivity) in addition to their pioneer self-sufficiency,” he said of the Ibachs, who lived as the sole residents of Lemesurier Island. Short of the need for occasional medical care, all the couple needed was on the island; at one point, they didn’t leave the place for a nearby town for seven years.
The couple came across as authentic, honest people, which was important for Barrymore, who had a hard time trusting people in Hollywood, not knowing if they liked his stardom or him, Bennett said. The Ibachs didn’t follow the movies and didn’t know much about John Barrymore the actor, so when he interacted with them, he could be John Barrymore the person.
Also, John was drawn to people who didn’t live in the limelight, and often interacted with the people he met on the sailing trips he took when he wasn’t filming. Even on movie sets, he’d chat with the cameramen, not coming off as unapproachable or aloof, Bennett said. He said he believes John wanted to be an ordinary person. With the Ibachs, he could be.
“I know a lot of people come to Alaska and their past is one thing, but now they have a new life,” Bennett said, which went for the Barrymores as well as the Ibachs.
The play runs from Tuesday, Oct. 24-Saturday, Nov. 18 at Perseverance Theatre. For times and tickets, go to ptalaska.org or call (907) 463-8497. The Capital City Weekly will have a review of the play in its next issue.
• Clara Miller is the Capital City Weekly’s staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.