New play celebrates pioneers' love for each other and Alaska

October 10, 2009 

The lore of Alaska teems with tough guys, gritty miners, mighty hunters, brash bush pilots, bullies, bandits, roughnecks, whalers, warriors, card sharps and shamans.

But few of these bravos had as much long-term impact on Anchorage as the quiet, cautious, bespectacled druggist and his chic lady love who are the subject of a new play -- Zachary Joshua Loussac and Ada Nova Harper.

"The Courtship of Zack and Ada," by P. Shane Mitchell, which opened Friday, is one of a series of historical dramas commissioned by Cyrano's in honor of the 50th year of Alaska Statehood. The play is billed as a romantic comedy mixed with issues and characters involved in the process that led to Alaska becoming a state.

It's rich source material. Loussac, a Russian Jew who escaped to America one step ahead of the Czar's secret police, arrived in Alaska in the early years of the last century.

He rattled around camps and boom towns from the Bering Sea to Juneau before starting the first drug store in Anchorage in 1916.

For the next 23 years, he struggled to keep his businesses open in an up-and-down economy.

He slowly acquired property, including parcels in downtown Anchorage and an interest in Matanuska coal mines.

A good shot, the soft-spoken bachelor was popular with his hunting buddies, though they found it odd that he always brought magazines and books with him to read while hunkered down in a duck blind.

When World War II brought an eruption of commercial activity to town, he sold his businesses and put up the Loussac-Sogn Building, one of the most modern structures in the territory. The upstairs had deluxe apartments. The first floor offered up-scale commercial space.

It was just the kind of place that Harper, a widow with a young son, was looking for when she arrived in Anchorage.

Harper's shop on D Street sold stylish clothing to the women who had followed the rush of men into the last frontier and hankered for the fashions they saw in Redbook and McCall's magazines.

After getting out of the pharmacy business, Loussac threw himself to charity work. Everyone in town knew he was the man to go to when you needed to raise funds or sell war bonds. He once quipped that he particularly enjoyed getting money "when it is hard to get."

In October 1946, he created the Loussac Foundation, to promote "cultural, scientific or educational activities in the Anchorage area."

He felt that cultivating the arts would help the territory get past its reputation as a haven for brawling drunks and lawbreakers -- a reputation that might prevent Alaska from attaining statehood.

He's said to have given half his wealth to the foundation, which has since funded projects as diverse as presenting community theater and recording Alaska Native music. In her history of Anchorage, Evangeline Atwood called it "the most generous gesture ever made by a living Alaskan toward his fellow Alaskans."

Loussac himself declared, "Everything that I earned came from here and I want it used here."

In 1947 he was elected to the first of his two terms as mayor of Anchorage.

The post included no salary, not even a desk. Loussac took it on because he believed that service to the community meant more than just giving money.

A GROWING CITY

The post-war city was going through an explosive period of growth, lurching from a hamlet of outhouses and dirt roads toward the more cosmopolitan chaos of today. "The city was bursting its britches," wrote the Anchorage Times in an article about Loussac's tenure.

Mayor Loussac found a place in City Hall where he could keep regular hours. He called in the heads of departments and from them heard a litany of urgent needs.

Police were leaving the force for jobs on base; the jail was full and there was no place to put quarantined prisoners; the fire chief pleaded for more hydrants and house numbers so that firemen could find addresses; the city's trucks, snowplows and other vehicles had no place to park and were left along Fifth Avenue; water lines were leaking, electric power sporadic, garbage collection near collapse.

"The telephone superintendent said he was tired of telling people they couldn't have telephones," wrote the Times. The phone system, which relied on switchboard operators, was carrying twice as many calls as it was designed for.

The dapper, cigar-chomping mayor pushed for millions of dollars in bond issues to upgrade power, water, sewage and put in paved streets. He set up the city's first dial telephone service. He brought in water from the Chugach Mountains.

He championed the destruction of slot machines and alerted federal agents to businesses he thought were cheating on their taxes.

He pleaded, without success, for a sales tax. "Quit pandering to the labor vote, you will have a sales tax," he railed at legislators. When the issue failed at the ballot box, he blamed "little, petty larceny politicians."

MAYOR MARRIES

In 1949, the citizenry was stunned by the news that their mayor had, at age 66, married Harper in a quiet ceremony.

The two shared a love of books and art. They traveled, Ada recording their adventures with a home movie camera. But recreation was never an excuse for casual dress. Even in Hawaii, she wore a full length coat and hat and Zack kept with his double-breasted suit and tie.

It was important to keep up appearances, especially since much of the business that now occupied Zack involved convincing the powers that be that Alaska was ready to become a state.

It was a stance that earned him friends like Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening and Times publisher Bob Atwood.

It also drew the ire of opponents. Loussac's fellow coal magnate, Austin "Cap" Lathrop, for instance, was adamant that statehood would bring expenses and a tax burden that Alaskans would not be able to bear.

Ultimately neither Lathrop nor Loussac were on the scene for the final showdown.

Lathrop was killed in an accident in 1950. And in 1952, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, Loussac announced he was moving to live out the rest of his life in Seattle. After all, he joked, he'd only come to Alaska to get rich quick then get out.

The Loussacs were far from done with Anchorage, however.

They made so many trips back that Ada suggested the airlines should give them special "commuter tickets." She put her energies into helping create an art museum for the city. Zack's pet project was a library.

FUNDING FOR LIBRARYThe Loussac Foundation gave upwards of $500,000 to build the original Z.J. Loussac Library, which opened in 1955.

Revenues from his rental properties were later used to pay off bonds issued to upgrade the facility.

Alaska said thanks in 1962. William Egan, the state's first governor, declared July 13 "Loussac Day."

The couple returned for a giant 80th birthday party for Zack. President John Kennedy sent his salutations.

Zack died in Seattle in 1965. He requested that his cremated remains be disposed "without undue ceremony or ostentation."

After a series of bequests to family members, his will gives "All of my (Sydney) Laurence and Eustace P. Ziegler paintings unto the city of Anchorage, Alaska.... with the request that all such paintings be hung and displayed at appropriate locations in the building known as the Loussac Public Library."

Some can still be seen in the hallway next to the Ann Stevens Reading Room at the current library, which retained its benefactor's name when it moved to the present building at 36th and Denali in 1986.

The dress shop where Zack and Ada first met figures in the new play -- and not just as part of the script.

After Ada's death, her son, the late actor Jerry Harper, transformed the space into Cyrano's Off-Center Playhouse, where Mitchell's play now is being performed.

The refreshment counter is just about where she would have boxed purchases for her customers.

Ada died in 1980. Her ashes are buried next to Zack's at Angelus Memorial Park. Their final resting place is marked only by two simple bronze plaques -- without undue ostentation.


Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.


How do you spell "Zack?"

In his will, Loussac gave his first name as "Zachary." In other sources published in his lifetime we find the following spellings:

Zach

Zack

Zac

Zachariah

Z.J.

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service