Showtime in SE Alaska

William David Gross was determined to be the man who brought movies to the region

Posted: Friday, December 20, 2002

It's the holiday season and along with the shopping, caroling, mistletoe smooching and all the other traditions that have been passed on for generations, Americans go to the movies.

Boasting big blockbusters and eagerly awaited sequels, movie houses across the nation fill up during the last two weeks of December - even in Southeast Alaska. It's no big deal for modern Juneauites to drive to the nearest cinema to catch the latest flick. But for the Gross family, bringing movies to Alaska's Panhandle is a century-old tradition.

From silent movies that were shown in camps throughout Southeast to "talkies" that were projected on big screens in theaters to the computer-generated films of today, William David Gross (known as Dave) was determined to be the man who brought movies to this part of Alaska.

Despite countless business failures, logistical obstacles and the lack of a formal education, Gross not only succeeded, he built a company that has "legs," a movie industry term that describes a film that continues to be a box office success long after its initial release.

The story begins in 1897, when Gross - a tailor by trade and not quite 18 years old, headed north from Seattle to find his fortune in Alaska. But unlike his other companions that sailed with him, finding gold was not his goal. His plan was to sell ready-made clothing and other goods to the gold-seekers. From Dyea to Dawson to Fairbanks, Gross bought and sold goods and businesses - including saloons - for the next several years.

In 1909, one year after marrying Hansine Campen - a dancer and reportedly a shrewd businessperson in her own right - the couple capitalized on the nickelodeon craze that was sweeping over the states and started showing movies in their Fairbanks theater. Due to the poor quality of the films, the novelty soon wore off and the theater failed, as did Gross' attempts to bring the movies to men in nearby mining camps.

Undeterred, Gross and his wife went to Nome with a chronophone - a machine that was one of the film industry's earliest efforts to introduce talking characters into silent movies. The chronophone and Gross' business endeavors in the Interior were unsuccessful, and the couple turned their attention to Southeast Alaska in 1910.

At first, Gross traveled from town to town with his hand-held projector, movie screen and a small stock of films. After several months of traveling the Inside Passage, Gross decided to set up a permanent theater in Ketchikan in 1911. He lost all the equipment for the business when the ship transporting the movie house chairs, projector and films from Seattle ran aground near the entrance of Seymour Narrows. But Gross continued his Ketchikan venture by partnering with a local businessman and leasing a building to show his films.

Later that year, they opened theaters in Sitka, Skagway and Haines, and one year later bought the Juneau Grand Theatre and the Lyric Theater in Douglas. Along with owning and operating movie houses, Gross distributed films to other movie concerns in Alaska and is known to have filmed the initial meeting of the first Alaska Territorial Legislature, held in 1913.

As his business grew, so did his family. In 1916, Gross and Hansine adopted the first of five children, Zalmain, who would take over the business and pass it on to his son, William David Gross II. Only a few months after Zalmain joined the family, Gross opened his largest theater to date - the Juneau Coliseum, a structure that held 750 seats and a Kimball organ that supplied music to the still-silent movies. Several years later, the couple opened the Ketchikan Coliseum - a new structure that reportedly housed the largest pipe organ in Alaska.

The business was taking root finally, and over the next 10 years Gross weathered World War I and the deadly Spanish Influenza, an epidemic that spread throughout the nation and that required the closure of all public gathering places for several weeks at a time.

By the 1920s, Gross had established movie theaters in every major town in Southeast, including Wrangell and Petersburg. Before the roaring '20s came to a close, he introduced the region to talkies - movies that contained music and dialogue - by installing Movietone and Vitaphone equipment in his theaters.

Over the next several decades, Gross' business expanded and contracted depending on the financial climate, which included the Depression, World War II and Alaska's change from a territory to the 49th state.

In 1962, at the age of 82, the man who was known as Alaska's Movie Man died in Seattle.

Zalmain, and then his son, William David Gross II - known as Dave just like his grandfather - took over the family business.

The next several decades brought many changes to the film industry, including the movie multiplex - usually owned by huge corporations - and the demise of many privately owned movie houses. But despite some lean times, Gross' company, now known as Gross-Alaska, survived.

Today, William David Gross' great-granddaughter, Dorain Gross, runs the 105- year-old family business. It owns and operates movie theaters in Juneau and Ketchikan, a video store in Haines, and owns property in several Southeast communities.

A pioneer in her own right, Dorain Gross is one of the few female executives running a privately owned movie chain in the country and the only one to do so in Alaska. So, even in the 21st century, William David Gross' legacy lives on through his family and the movies - now shown in Technicolor and digitally enhanced sound.

Joan Pardes is a free-lance writer in Juneau.

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