Art Beat: Barrymore's stolen totem found in Hawaii

Mike Dunham
Black Violin: Wil B (left), Kev Marcus and DJTK
Photo courtesy Alaska Junior Theater
The book "Hollywood's Hellfire Club" includes this photo of actor John Barrymore (Ieft) and an unidentified man with the totem pole Barrymore is said to have swiped from a Tlingit village site in Alaska.
Photo courtesy Steve Langdon
Claus Naske in his office on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus
Photo by Stephen Nowers
Joe McGinniss sits on the deck of his rental house on Lake Lucille in Wasilla in 2010.
Bob Hallinen
Maeva Ordaz on her way to winning Poetry Out Loud in Juneau
Photo by Seanna O'Sullivan Photography

When Black Violin first came to Anchorage some years back, they put on a terrific display of multi-discipline musicality, shifting from classical licks to pop pulse in a program that was both elegant and exciting. I wasn't the only one who thought so. They sold out Atwood Concert Hall.

They're back in town this week, doing a number of short programs for school kids, then presenting a public concert at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, again in Atwood, courtesy of Alaska Junior Theater. Expect anything from Pachelbel to hip-hop -- maybe both at the same time. And they may add a little conversation to the fiddling, talking about how music helped them make positive choices.

This is a concert we can heartily recommend for people who don't think they like Bach or who don't think they like funk, and particularly for families with children who won't have many chances to catch this kind of live energy and expert talent. Tickets are $16.50-$36 at

Want more fancy fiddling? The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra will present a concerto for electric violin by Kenji Bunch at its next concert, March 29, with soloist Tracy Silverman.

Totem tale

The theft of a totem pole from Alaska is hardly surprising; plucking the treasured carvings from their sites and shipping them to far-off collectors or museums was something of an industry in the last century. It remains shocking nonetheless.

One of these purloined poles, swiped from a deserted village site in 1931, wound up in the hands of actor John Barrymore. He displayed it at his estate as something like the ultimate tourist trinket -- except that it was 29 feet tall and he never paid the owners for it, or even asked if he could, uh, borrow it.

Barrymore was not one to bow to convention -- like not taking things that belonged to other people. The book "Hollywood's Hellfire Club: The Misadventures of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn and the Bundy Drive Boys" by Gregory William Mank with Charles Heard and Bill Nelson (Feral House, 2008) chronicles the wild egomania, misanthropy and "boozy bravado" of movie stars in the 1930s and '40s. "They made the Rat Pack look like Cub Scouts," reads a blurb for the book, which tells of an unhappy occupational disease of performers that continues to this day among people with far less talent than the celebrities of yore.

Among the numerous photos in the book is one of Barrymore posing next to a very handsome Tlingit totem pole.

UAA professor Steve Langdon will recount the fascinating history of the so-called "Kooteeya" totem at 5 p.m. on Wednesday at the UAA Campus Bookstore: how Barrymore came into possession of it, how it wound up at the home of Vincent Price and how, just last month, Langdon tracked it down to a Honolulu museum.

The talk is free.

Poetic champions

Maeva Ordaz, a student at West Anchorage High School, won the Alaska State Poetry Out Loud competition on March 11. Competing with reciters from around the state at the 360 North TV studio in Juneau, Ordaz impressed the judges with her interpretations of "Zacuanpapalotls" by Brenda Cárdenas, "Baudelaire" by Delmore Schwartz and "Ode" by Arthur O'Shaughnessy.

Second place went to Rafael Sales, from Thunder Mountain High School in Juneau. Homer High School student John Sarmiento took third place.

You can see the competition online at

Facts and factiness

The deaths of two prominent chroniclers of Alaska took place this month. University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Claus-Michael Naske died on March 5 in Fairbanks. Author Joe McGinniss died in Massachusetts on March 11.

I had the opportunity to speak with both of them as part of this job and the obligation to evaluate their books. Naske's magna opera "Alaska: A History" and "A History of Alaska Statehood" remain in use by college students. He wrote important biographies of Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett. His lighter texts in pictorial histories of the state found a popular audience and his invaluable "Paving Alaska's Trails: The Work of the Alaska Road Commission" sorted out impenetrable bureaucratic records in a way that will benefit scholars for decades to come. In every instance when I sought his help in chasing down either a historic detail or larger trend, he'd get back to me rapidly.

Naske's writing style could be ploddingly ponderous, but it was invariably accurate and usually carefully sourced. In a few instances I quizzed him over what I considered to be inadequately attributed statements that didn't conform to my memory. In the cases where he didn't have the answer on the tip of his tongue or couldn't quickly explain what he meant, he would thoughtfully consider the objection, clearing the deck of preconceptions to re-evaluate the matter from scratch, so to speak. Often as not, the upshot was to send me back to my sources to find out whether I'd misremembered something.

McGinniss was something of the opposite. He used the literary language of Mickey Spillane to report crime, culture and politics. His conversation in person was fast, funny and delivered with karate-chop confidence. The punchy tone was surely a factor in the popularity of his books, some of which were best-sellers.

But in the case of his two books about Alaska, "Going to Extremes" (1980) and "The Rogue: Searching For The Real Sarah Palin" (2011), I had the feeling that he was playing fast and loose with data. People, prices, sights that I knew something about felt stretched, distorted, perhaps made up. Where Naske looked at history writing as a blank board on which one should record only things that could be confirmed, McGinnis approached it as a novel, with the ending and message predetermined, the purpose of the first 300 pages not to gather facts but to shape the story. Outside critics slammed his use of unnamed sources and his agenda-based perspective.

Be that as it may, the writing of each of these men, in very different ways, preserves aspects of Alaska reality -- the facts and the mood, at least the mood of some people -- that will inform the curious long after my obituary is written.

UAA tackles Yale over sports spending

The Bear Tooth Theatrepub sold out last year when the UAA Seawolf debaters went jaw to jaw with the Harvard debate team. For their upcoming meeting with the Yale Debate Association, UAA is moving the event to the East High School auditorium. The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 20, and $10 advance tickets are available at They'll be $15 at the door.

The motion for consideration will be: "No public funds should go to support competitive athletics in public education." Neither side knows whether they'll be defending or opposing the statement until just before the event. It was suggested by an article in The Atlantic magazine by Amanda Ripley last October and presents some timely resonance with perennial legislative discussions of school funding, effectiveness and choice underway in Juneau and the editorial pages of the Daily News.

The formidable Yale team includes Sam Ward-Packard of Wisconsin, the reigning U.S. national champion in British Parliamentary debate, and Sesenu Woldemariam of Texas, the first African-American debater ever to reach the finals of the North American Championships or the quarterfinals of the World Championships.

Ward-Packard told us the British style has an even tighter timetable than what the teams will be doing in Alaska. Participants don't even get the topic until 15 minutes before the debate. He also said debate has taught him "to think on multiple levels ... and to look for unquestioned premises, as they are often the weakest part of an argument."

Seawolves coach Steve Johnson told me that it was hoped that the larger venue would accommodate the crowd. "We made some people mad last time when they couldn't get in," he said.

But we had to lament that beer would not be available for the audience at the high school. It raises the possibility of a new game based on the success of "Drunken History" -- "Drunken Forensics," a form of which is presently practiced by many local experts starting nightly at 5 p.m.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.