Alaska Folk Festival: A labor of love

Posted: Monday, April 05, 2010

Amidst the toe-tapping, jamming and dancing during this week's annual Alaska Folk Festival held at Centennial Hall, it's easy to overlook the behind-the-scene work that makes it all possible.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

"It is a lot of work, but it is worth it," said Centennial Hall event supervisor Darren Peterson. "I oversee all the events that come into the facility, and I'm a little ragged today."

Just like the musicians performing at this year's event, now in its 36th year, staff and volunteers also are busy fine-tuning things, from folding T-shirts to running speaker wire.

Peterson spent most of Saturday morning and afternoon helping Discovery Southeast set up for its annual dinner and auction. That night and early Sunday morning he transitioned the 400-seat fundraiser into the 920-seat Folk Festival venue.

"I've put 1,200 in here at one time," Peterson said of Centennial Hall. "Shoe-horned them in here."

About 10,000 people will visit the main stage through the course of the folk festival week, which begins tonight. More than 140 musicians will grace the main stage before it's all over.

"Everybody gets their 15 minutes of fame," festival president Greg McLaughlin said. "People come from all over the state to perform and to watch. A lot of people come on opening night just to see what we have done with the backdrop, what we have set up and what is different this year."

Former festival president Michael Sakarias was in charge of coordinating sound crews, and this year brought in Washington State chief sound engineer Warren Argo. Even with top-notch talent, the coordinators still have to plan for the unexpected, he said.

"It's like anything when you are dealing with humans and reality," Sakarias said. "Schedules slip and you run behind. It's a huge community event and is amazing how it all comes together."

Local Studio A performer Steve Wilde brought old Nashville buddy Mark Alton out of retirement to help with the sound system. The two worked together with artists John Pryne and Martina McBride.

Thunder Mountain High School's drawing and fine arts classes created this year's backdrop.

"We've been working on this all quarter," TMHS fine arts teacher Sarah Conarro said. "It was a big learning experience for (the students) to do something collaboratively and make sure it had some kind of cohesive elements to it."

The classes chose a theme of local wildlife. Design elements include halibut, rockfish, crab, jellyfish, salmon, and wolves. An interpretation of mountains, clouds, and waves crown the top. Interestingly, of the 90 students only five have ever been to the festival.

McLaughlin described the festival as a reunion, or sorts.

The Alaska Folk Festival is about "seeing old friends, jamming till all hours of the morning," McLaughlin said. "Hotels are packed, people will be jamming in the halls of hotels. If the weather is good, people will be jamming on the streets. It is just a lot of fun."

• Contact Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or

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