Back in the day at the Armory

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2008

At Sean Tracey's CD release party on Feb. 28, the music was fun, uplifting and homegrown - much like Sean himself. The event was held at the new Juneau Arts & Culture Center, formerly called the Armory.

As I sat watching the show at a small round table with a tablecloth and candle, I remembered some of the shows I'd seen there over the years.

The building was built in the 1960s and belonged to the Alaska Army National Guard until recently, when the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council took it over.

Early on, it was used for high school dances, basketball games and even as an emergency morgue after a jet crash in the early '70s.

The Armory also was the venue for many, many concerts and cultural events over the years. Until Centennial Hall opened in 1983, it was the primary location for events requiring a large, open hall.

There were square dances, carnivals, workshops, aerobics classes, Native crafts shows and pow-wows from the Lower 48.

My first performance there was a funky little concert in 1977 that was put on by a local arts group. The stage was in the corner with a few folding metal chairs and people sitting around dressed in ragged jeans, long hair and bandanas. I sang Joni Mitchell songs and my earliest originals.

In 1980, the Alaska Folk Festival moved its main-stage performances to the Armory. That year, John Palmes, Steve Nelson and I started off our set with traditional folk songs that segued into a punk version of "The Ballad of Jed Clampet," with costume and instrument changes to heighten the mood. (We were later admonished for breaking the folk tradition.)

Zydeco legend Queen Ida made the roof fly off during her 1982 show, sponsored by local concert promoter John Ingalls. People danced and sweated and jumped around in a way we weren't used to doing in Juneau.

Also in that year, the Persuasions, a New York-based a cappella group, performed a concert for an anti-capital move show.

Ingalls, who promoted countless shows around Juneau in the 1980s, once put out a call to the community to bring quilts to decorate the walls of the Armory for a folk festival event. The quilts had the effect of making the room homey, but also helped deaden the echoy sound of the hall.

T. Terry Harvey, with his band, The Surftones, recalled one show that featured pyrotechnics courtesy of Ingalls. The idea was to use coffee cans, gunpowder, batteries and wire to make fire rise up from the stage. Harvey said the explosions were timed so that during a crescendo in the music the flames would shoot up in the air. It worked, but they went all the way to the ceiling, curling there and turning into a black cloud of smoke, nearly filling the hall and effectively ending the show.

"It was a little out of control. But it worked, and we had fire!" Harvey told me.

I'm glad the tradition carries on. Kudos to the arts council for keeping the performing arts alive in Juneau.

• Teri Tibbett is a writer and musician living in Juneau. She can be reached at www.tibbett.com.



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