Stardust falls on sleepy Skagway

Actors, crew filming 'The Big White' are dragging residents out of the 'winter doldrums'

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

When the kidarazzi rise in Skagway, you know it's something big.

For the better part of the last two weeks, a touch of Hollywood has graced the tip of Lynn Canal as Academy Award-winning stars Robin Williams and Holly Hunter - along with dozens of other actors and crew members - have stayed in Skagway while shooting a movie north of town, across the Canadian border.

The stars have created a buzz around town. While allowing the cast and crew to work on the movie, titled "The Big White," residents have taken advantage of chance encounters on the street, in bars or in stores to talk with celebrities.

And many schoolchildren have been roaming the compact town on their bikes to go stargazing during daylight hours; one observer called them the "kidarazzi."

"They have brought a lot of energy to town," resident Karla Ray said of the movie crew. Ray owns the Klothes Rush, Broadway Video and the Kone Kompany with her husband, Duff. "They've knocked us out of our winter doldrums."

It seems every local has a tale to tell about a brush with fame, and residents and visitors alike have found much to enjoy in each other's company.

"They've sort of dispelled most people's impression of Hollywood folk," said Janilyn Heger, owner of the Alaskan Sojourn Hostel. "They're very casual, very nice people."

Heger - whose home is near where the stars are staying - spotted Williams walking in town and asked him to sign her unique guestbook - lines of clothespins hanging in the entryway. Heger said the star was very gracious, and signed a pin.

Blaine Mero, owner of the Now & Then Shop, said the actor/comedian dropped by and riffed on some antique signs on display. Williams has given impromptu performances at other businesses, too.

Hunter stopped in at Broadway Video to rent a movie and found a line at the counter. But clerk Garrett Hunt said the actress did not demand any special accommodations.

"(She) was like, 'Let these people go ahead; I'm not in a hurry,'" he said.

Hunter paid the same rental fee as everyone else - but employees did not make her leave a credit card number as deposit. She signed the store's copies of her movies, like "The Piano" and "Raising Arizona."

"They're famous and rich, but still so humble," Hunt said. "They're nicer than most people I've met."

Skagway tourism director Buckwheat Donahue - who has dealt with many film crews in the past - said this one stands out.

"They make a lot of requests, but they always say 'Please,' 'Thank you,'" Donahue said. "A lot of production companies don't do that."

As the guests have brought an infusion of energy to town, they have also pumped a lot of money into businesses.

"Everyone is feeling blessed by it," said Heger, who - though not putting up film workers at her hostel - has nonetheless benefited by accommodating other visitors unable to find hotel rooms. "April is usually that last, eking-by month before we have some revenue coming in (from summer tourism)."

The Westmark Inn opened a month early for the crew, and other hotels and restaurants have seen an increase in business.

"We won't know for months exactly what kind of a boost it's been, but we are expecting at least 1,300 room-nights out of them for the month of April," Donahue said. "Usually we only get a couple hundred."

Collin Friesen, who wrote the movie, is from Canada but is currently living in Los Angeles. He called Skagway "the friendliest town I've ever been to in my life."

"The people have been absolutely terrific," he said. "Everyone has been excited, but they're letting us do our stuff."

The cast and crew had to deal with some technical problems - few of their cell phones work in Skagway, and there were some problems accessing the Internet - but the town left a good impression.

"I don't think I could live here, but there is something nice about spending time in a place like this," Friesen said. "People are nice to you, even though you can't do anything for them."

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