Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Live Ghosts Tell Their Human Stories At Anchorage Museum [Cemetery]

Who was that man, I used to wonder, when I saw a name on a building, or a statue.  Or wandering through a cemetery trying to imagine that all of the people named on the graves were people who'd had whole lives - fears, joys, good times, bad.

Dick Reichman as Joseph Reno
So I really had to go to the Anchorage cemetery tour, where actors tell the stories of the people lying below the ground.  The program thanks Cemetery Players Acting Group, Cyrano's Theatre Company, Anchorage Community Theatre, and the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery staff.

I first came upon the grave of Joseph Reno (1884 - 1942), whose ghost resembled greatly the Anchorage actor Dick Reichman.   Reno was a businessman, whose bars drew in the paychecks of men who'd come to Alaska to make their fortune.

Reno/Reichman complained at the end that he'd died during WW II, not a good time for Italians in the US, so his name was not on his gravestone.

Sunday evening was perfect weather for the large crowd as we walked around the cemetery to the ten sites marked with flags, where an actor would tell his or her story near where they were buried.  Except in one case.  Rachel Gregory told the story of her husband, Jess Wickersham (1883 - 1924), whom she shot to death with the gun he'd given her, as she explained, as an apology after the previous time he'd beaten her.  She'd already decided that she couldn't continue taking his drunken beatings (had he been drinking at one of Reno's bars?) any more, so she pulled out the gun and shot him.  The judge, seeing her bruises, sent her home and she married a neighbor who'd been kind to her and had helped her on that fatal night.

A few years earlier, John Sturgus (1861 - 1921), Anchorage's first police chief, was shot one night in
the alley behind the Anchorage Hotel if I remember Bruce Kelly's accounting right.  He said he'd taken the job, because year round jobs were scarce, but the bar owners and gambling folks, seemed to have it in for him.  (Did Joseph Reno have anything to do with this one?  I'm only coming up with these questions now and they didn't hint at them Sunday night.)

Frank Hoffman (1871 - 1937) ghosted by Ron Holmstrom, was also a lawman - a US marshall, who was known for his charm and, if the stories were accurate, would probably be a good trainer for police forces around the country.  He rarely had a gun.  Instead he was polite and talked his suspects into jail, where he fed them well.

Wanda Gelles, whose spirit was channelled by Sara Baird, was the first bank robbery victim in Alaska, while working at Elmer Rasmusson's bank.   (I know, these red flags makes it look like a golf course rather than a cemetery.)

My fantasy was coming true, as these ghosts told their stories at their gravesites.  But there was one name on the list I really wanted to see - Lidia Selkregg (1920 - 1999).  She and I arrived at the School of Business and Public Administration (the name back then) at the same time and we connected instantly.  I knew her well and admired her greatly.

But I was in for a disappointment.  The story itself was fine, and the look was reasonably close, but how it was worded and presented were all wrong.  Audrey Kelly had to imagine Lidia, I guess, and did her own take based solely on the words she was given.  She spoke in calm, well modulated sentences.  But Lidia was never calm or well modulated.  She talked 150 Italian accented words a minute and those words didn't always quite fit together right, one bumping into another as she used 50 words where a native speaker might have used 20 to get the same point across.  But then Lidia was getting three or four or five points across at the same time.  It was more like she was juggling words and breathlessly trying to make sure none of them hit the ground.  And always with a loving smile and sparkling eyes.

It made me wonder how close the other ghosts were to what their real selves sounded like.  The old timers, well, who knows?  But for those who passed away more recently, there are still lots of folks in town who would know.  I know the cemetery folks did research on the lives of the folks highlighted, but did they talk to people about how they spoke?

But I'd like to think that David Haynes got Judge Ralph Moody (1913 - 1997) right, because he was so good.  He told the story of moving from a poor Alabama family to being a judge in Alaska.  And how his own poor background didn't give him any extra sympathy for poor folks.  And how he enforced his dress code - coats and ties gentleman - and how one attorney got to court and had forgotten his tie.  He took a shoelace and put it round his neck like a bolo tie.  Moody said at the end of the tie he asked the attorney about the tie and then fined him for coming to court without shoelaces.

There were ten seances Sunday, these were just a few.  These same graves will reveal their secrets again in August, though I'm having trouble pinning down the exact date.  Here's the Facebook page.  Oh, the tour is free!  But you can (and should) leave a donation.

The Municipal website gives a history of the cemetery.  Here's a short excerpt:
"The Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, located between 6th and 9th Avenues and Fairbanks and Cordova Streets in downtown Anchorage, Alaska was originally established as the Cemetery Reserve by President Woodrow Wilson in Executive Order 2242 of August 31, 1915, coincident with the federal survey of the original Anchorage Townsite. Then with Executive Order 2836 of April 10, 1918, President Wilson directed that burial land be made available, without charge, to the public. 
He also ordered that the Cemetery Reserve of the Anchorage Townsite be subdivided to sell up to half of the cemetery land to qualified religious and fraternal organizations. Because of these two provisions, free burial land for the public, and up to 50 percent of the land could be (and now is) owned by private religious and fraternal groups, the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery is one of the most unusual cemeteries in the nation. .  ."

[July 12, 2016 9pm:  I can't believe I put museum instead of cemetery in the title.  Face is very red.]

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