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Molly Smith first finds 'Gold'

Perseverance Theatre founder looks back on her first production

Posted: Friday, December 12, 2003

Midway through rehearsals for the first production of "Pure Gold," almost 25 years ago, director and Perseverance Theatre founder Molly Smith was convinced the play would be a disaster.

"I had these great storytellers and I thought they were awful," said Smith, now the Artistic Director at ArenaStage, a not-for-profit American theater playhouse in Washington, D.C. "I didn't realize until we had completed the show and put it in front of an audience that they were terrific. What they were missing was that they were telling the same stories over and over again to me. Real storytellers need an audience."

"Pure Gold," the same "reader's theater" story with six new stars, returns for one showing at 7 p.m. today at Centennial Hall in honor of the 25th anniversary of Perseverance Theatre. After the show, Panhandle Crabgrass Revival Band will play a 21-and-over show. There will be a beer garden with 1978 prices, courtesy of Alaskan Brewing Co.

"One of the things that made Perseverance Theatre strong is the way it started, with a play about Juneau," Smith said. "It taught me a lot about resilience, community, perseverance, the spirit of adventure. It taught me that it's all right to be a character and, as a matter of fact, it's preferable for living a safe and normal life."

By Smith's account, the original "Pure Gold" was a success. Sixty people showed up for the premiere at McPhetres Hall. The audience grew to 75 and 100 for the next two shows. By the third week of production, the line for admission stretched down the block.

"What we had was this powerful chord with people who had come to Alaska and were searching for those Alaska icons," Smith said. "It ended up being a production where we felt like we were listening to our grandparents tell us a story about the way it was."

Smith moved to Juneau in 1968 and returned to town in 1979 when her then-husband, Bill Ray Jr., completed his stint at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. She directed "The Miracle Worker," a play about Helen Keller, at the Juneau-Douglas Little Theatre, and was looking for a play with which she could begin her own theater. Smith knew she wanted to direct a story with senior citizens.

"My sister, Bridget, and I were out walking in the woods and we started talking about finding something important that would start Perseverance," Smith said. "We were talking about how great it would be to go out and interview people who had lived in Alaska for years and years. What was it like in the past? What's enduring? What does that say about the energy of Alaska."

Smith combed Southeast, asking around to find out who were the best storytellers in the area. She compiled a list of 50 to 60 people and interviewed 35 for one to four hours. Smith and Susi Gregg Fowler compiled the composite stories into a reader's theater script. Smith cast six storytellers from the 35 interviewees: Les Parker, Bill Biggs, Bertha Goetz, Mamie Jensen, Cecelia Kunz and Mike Zamora.

The new cast includes Kai Augustine, Percy Martin, Tom Stewart, Pat Denny (co-stage manager for the show in 1979), George Rogers (who took over for Les Parker after the premiere) and Kay Smith (Molly Smith's mother).

Molly and Kay Smith borrowed $10,000 from Kitty Mullins - Kay Smith's mother - to renovate Mike Race's bar in Douglas into an 82-seat theater and begin Perseverance (then called Miracle Theatre) in 1979.

"We promised we would pay her back in a year and, if we didn't, we would take $50 a month and pay her back," Molly Smith said. "We paid her back, with interest, in less than a year."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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