A golden silver anniversary

Perseverance Theatre celebrates 25 years with a reprise of its first show, built around pioneer tales

Posted: Thursday, December 11, 2003

Twenty-five years ago, Molly Smith and her then-husband, Bill Ray Jr., returned to Juneau from Annapolis, Md., where Ray had just completed a stint in the U.S. Navy.

Smith had a theater degree and wanted to direct, but didn't know what to do for her first play. She decided to interview 35 Juneau old-timers to get a sense of what the area was like before 1935. Susi Gregg Fowler wove those interviews into a script, and the result was "Pure Gold" - the first play at Perseverance Theatre.

The scripts - tales of fishing, mining, fire, bears and basketball - was half-acted, half-told by six pioneers sitting in chairs. The story is back this year. "Pure Gold," with six new pioneers, plays at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 at Centennial Hall to commemorate 25 years of Perseverance Theatre.

"I remember when I sat in the audience and heard it for the first time, it was a way of making the history of the place and the people who made the place mine," said co-director Terry Cramer. "It was a way of learning about what made Juneau what it is, and the experiences that shape who we are now."

The initial production starred Bill Biggs, Bertha Goetz, Mamie Jensen, Cecelia Kunz, Les Parker and Mike Zamora. Of the original six pioneers, Kunz, now in her early 90s, is the lone cast member still alive. She will be the honored guest Friday evening.

The new cast includes Kai Augustine, Pat Denny, Percy Martin, George Rogers, Kay Smith and Tom Stewart.

"It's got a lot of color of what Juneau was like back in the old days," said Augustine, who plays Zamora. "I'm an immigrant, like Mike Zamora, and I can relate to a little of what he went through. This is one way for me to give back to the country. It's something that a lot of kids should know about."

"It's fun. It's not so demanding," said Stewart, 84 (85 in three weeks), who plays Biggs. "We don't have the labor memorization or the fine technique of acting because we're reading from a script. But it's well-timed. I wouldn't have undertaken it if I had to memorize, because my memory system doesn't work that well at 85."

Martin, 66, plays the role of Kunz, her mother-in-law. Martin, a Tlingit of the Kaagwaantaan clan (Eagle's Nest House), has never been in a play before.

"The other actors are professionals, and so that makes me work harder," Martin said. "I've tried to seriously learn the lines. I've handwritten it and typed it on my computer. I try to read it every day. (Sunday) I went to practice, and someone said, 'Wow, you're doing well.' That was a compliment."

Denny and Jack Cannon were the co-stage managers for the original production of Pure Gold. Denny, 75, is now playing Mamie Jensen.

"It just doesn't seem like it was 25 years ago," Denny said. "I learned a lot 25 years ago in listening to the roles. And of course, I knew a lot of the people, and I learned some of the history then."

"We had some really good sound effects for the first show," she said. "We had this old siren from the Douglas mine and we could run that. We did the show in McPhetres hall, and the actors would come upstairs from the basement, Bill Biggs would huff and puff, and we had to plan things so he had to be up there in time. Old performers, you have to take care of them."

In the initial production, Rogers, 85, was a stand-in for Parker, who only could attend opening night. Rogers played Parker in the 10th anniversary and is back as Parker this year.

"I was not a pioneer," Rogers said of his role in the first production. "I was a youngster; I was in my 60s. We came up in '45, and we'd been here long enough to know the place."

"We could do another one now, based on when we first came to Juneau," Rogers said.

Smith, Molly's mother, is now playing the role of Goetz. Smith helped manage the behind-the-scenes work of the original production. Kitty Mullins, Kay's mother and Molly's grandmother, played Goetz in the summer productions of "Pure Gold" in 1980.

"Reader's theater is really different," Kay Smith said. "You have to be able to make it interesting because you're not moving around. You don't have a lot of props with the production."

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