Art Beat: 'Cheechakos' screening opens a window on Alaska's past

More people attended the screening of "The Cheechakos" on July 16 than lived in Anchorage when the movie was made here in 1923. Curiosity about the silent film, shown to live accompaniment by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, may have helped fill Atwood Concert Hall to near capacity, but the audience seemed highly entertained and pleased with what they saw.

The production values are very good, given the technology at the time it was made. The plot moves from one action scene to another, with a couple of pauses for jokes or sentiment, in a way that could have been the template for the "Indiana Jones" formula. The plot itself might, with a little tweaking and CGI effects, be box-office material right now.

A crusty misogynist (William Dills) teams up with a kid with an engineering degree (Albert Van Antwerp) to try their luck in the Gold Rush. When the ship taking them to Skagway blows up, they're stuck with a toddler whose father is dead and mother is missing. By the time they catch up with her mother (Gladys Johnston), somewhere over the Chilkoot Pass, she's taken up with a villainous gambler (Alexis B. Luce). She has reasons, but without investigating the circumstances fully, the miners undertake the responsibility of raising the baby themselves.

Fast forward. The miners have been successful, with a log mansion and grand piano on their claim. The little girl, now 16 (Eva Gordon), has decided that the dashing, pipe-smoking engineer is the man for her. But Mom and the gambler have popped up in a nearby boomtown and the gambler suspects the engineer may have it in for him. Characters wrestle with issues of desertion and conscience, keeping and revealing secrets, rejection and acceptance, winter storms, treacherous glaciers, lost dog teams, freezing to death and murder. Good stuff. The crowd applauded and cheered at the climax.

They also laughed at a few parts. Footage of a calving glacier drew guffaws for some reason. The miners' Indian housekeeper (unnamed in the credits) and the gambler's French henchman had stereotyped dialect in their speech frames. The former was made to look like she'd stepped off a reservation in upstate New York. And did she really need to use the word "papoose"?

Yet director/writer Lewis Moomaw also revealed some perhaps unintentional respect for both characters. The token Native leaps into action to save the life of a near-frozen musher. She shares hugs with non-Natives and sits down with them for dinner.

The film provided other glimpses to past realities that may seem foreign to us. The black smoke streaming for a half-mile behind a racing steamboat, for instance, reveals how messy travel by coal could be. And when someone sang in that era before recordings, when music was not the ubiquitous wallpaper of today, everyone stopped what they were doing and every face turned toward the singer like a room full of enchanted weather vanes.


The camera work shows the Chugach, Denali, Cantwell and Turnagain Arm areas looking much as they are today. One exciting dog sled chase scene must have been shot by putting cameras on sleds in front of or behind the subject. The focus is as clear in the long-distance panoramas as it is in the close-ups. The old-fashioned whiteface makeup and lipstick don't look natural, but neither does the eyeliner on contemporary Hollywooders.

Chris Beheim, an ASO clarinetist credited with making the event happen, gave a highly informative and well-attended pre-concert talk. He had prevailed on his brother, Eric, a musician working in California, to provide the score. Eric Beheim drew up a list from stock movie soundtrack bits of the era, all in public domain. When the first dog team scene was shown, for instance, we heard the symphony playing Emil von Reznicek's Overture to "Donna Diana," aka the theme for the "Sergeant Preston of the Mounties" radio show.

I'm told that the correct name for the film is "Chechahcos," the title put on it by the distributor after it was made. But the Alaska newspaper reports from the time -- and the ticket -- spelled it the normal way.

Paint that patrol car

Speaking of centennial events, the Anchorage Chamber Tent City Festival will take place this weekend on the Delaney Park Strip. The free party will include numerous demonstrations, displays, gold-panning, entertainment on two stages with music styles from hip-hop to folk to ragtime and Dixieland blues (Pamyua takes the stage at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday), a Tent City replica and re-enactment of the July 10, 1915 land auction that's often cited as the birth of Anchorage.

Charles Oakley will paint a "retired" Anchorage police cruiser over the two days. Oakley uses recycled paints, gathered from products taken to the landfill, separated out and, if usable, given away. The fast airbrush production is as much a performance as painting and is seen at the Alaska State Fair and other festival venues. But a car is a lot bigger than a canvas or piece of paper. Nonetheless, he tells me that he'll get most of the work done in the course of a few hours Saturday and finish up Sunday.

The Tent City Festival is scheduled for 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

The bear facts

Following last week's interview with artist Douglas Allen regarding the origins of the standing bear on Alaska license plates, I received a call from Pat Wellington, former Juneau chief of police and director of the Alaska State Troopers, now retired in Prineville, Oregon, after 70 years in Alaska. The original story attempted to get to the bottom of how the bear image was selected back in 1975, but state agencies responsible for licenses told me their "institutional memory" didn't go back that far and referred me to other agencies who referred me back to them. Few institutions care less about hanging on to history than the state of Alaska bureaucracy.

Wellington told me he was in the room when the decision was made. The Division of Motor Vehicles was located in the Department of Public Safety in those days, he said, and Commissioner Richard Burton decided to do something special for the nation's bicentennial.

"The supplier was 3M," Wellington confirmed. "They sent up about four or five samples, including the bear. The commissioner called us in and asked what we liked and the bear stood out." Burton used his authority to order it up and by 1976 Alaskan cars were sporting the new plate (mine didn't expire until 1982).

Wellington also noted that the choice had critics from the start. The late Sen. Bill Ray of Juneau saw it and said, "I don't like that chipmunk on there," Wellington recalled. "The next year he introduced a bill saying the license plate would be blue and gold with the motto "North to the future." The bill passed and the bear was banished until this spring.

There was some confusion about whether the design had come from a contest, as was at least one other license in the 1990s. That may have come from the fact that the "North to the future" motto was the product of a contest. Wellington said the winning submission came from Juneau radio announcer Dick Peters.

Anchorage Museum gets $150,000

The National Endowment for the Arts has given a $150,000 grant for the Anchorage Museum's Polar Lab program. The program consists of a series of exhibitions and public events involving "indigenous artist leaders and artists from throughout Alaska and beyond" and is intended to elicit "a provocative discussion of the North through artist and community engagement." The NEA funding will support art projects, an artist residency, the 2016 Polar Lab exhibition and a series of "curated conversations" with communities.

Penn and Teller to return

The comic prestidigitational pair of Penn and Teller will return to Anchorage for two shows in Atwood Concert Hall. The Anchorage Concert Association has added the act to its lineup with performances Nov. 6 and 7. Tickets are available with some pretty good discount packages at or by calling 272-1471.

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham was a longtime ADN reporter, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print. He retired from the ADN in 2017.