The annual open house at the Governor's Mansion has become both a special occasion and a familiar ritual for Juneau residents.
Asked if he was thrilled or just used to being in the executive residence during the Christmas season, 10-year-old Stephen Young said: "It's a thrill and I get used to it."
Asked what he thought of Gov. Tony Knowles, Stephen's 7-year-old brother Alan said: "He looks pretty much the same as last year."
The relaxed feel of the three-hour open house Thursday showed that capital city residents are at home with Alaska's first family. Stephen and Alan's mother, Joy, praised Knowles for "feeling comfortable enough to do this."
This year's open house set two benchmarks. The 3,204 attendees were the most ever, by more than a thousand people, said executive residence manager Karen Newton.
And this was the first time the event has been offered statewide as a Web cast. Up to 60 people could view the event at one time on the Internet, and viewership was at or near maximum throughout the event, suggesting that hundreds of people logged on for a few minutes, Newton said.
Several commissioners of state departments including a uniformed Maj. Gen. Phil Oates of military and veterans affairs served cookies and cider outside the mansion as the line of visitors worked its way inside.
Guests shook the hands of the governor and First Lady Susan Knowles, sometimes exchanging up to a minute of pleasantries, before moving on to a mountain of baked goods in the dining room -- 11,750 cookies, 1,440 slices of bread, 10,350 pieces of candy and 1,680 tartlets. Food also was used as decoration in the conservatory, with a holiday gingerbread display that featured replicas of Merchants Wharf and the mansion itself.
Guests heard music in the ballroom by the brass ensemble, choral ensemble and instrumental ensemble from Juneau-Douglas High School, Juneau Christian School Carolers, the Alaska Youth Choir, Glacier Valley Baptist Messengers, Celebration Ringers, Juneau Jubilee and the only non-local group Top Cover, an eight-member jazz unit that is part of the Anchorage-based U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific.
Visitors also were entertained by first dog Shadow, a black Labrador who charmed one little girl by circling her a few times, gently removing a cookie from her hand and champing it down, and then licking her face in appreciation. mong the guests were several immigrants who are learning English through the Even Start Family Learning Center. Wei Zhang from China said it was her first time to the mansion during 10 years in Juneau.
"It's our field trip to meet the governor and shake hands and see the beautiful decorations and enjoy life in Juneau," said program coordinator Bridget Smith. "The governor had come to our program a couple of years ago and he read 'The Velveteen Rabbit' to us, which is his favorite book. And he did it beautifully. We all cried."
The intense media presence at the beginning of the open house was a highlight for some people, including the Valley Chapel "elves," who helped with emptying bowls and trash cans.
"It's really fun to do it," said head elf Ruth Ann Mattson, 10. "So far, we've got two TV stations interviewing us."
"I know he thought it went wonderfully," Newton, the governor's aide, said this morning. But she said that after shaking 3,204 hands, Knowles summarized the experience with one word: "Whew."
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