Richard Beneville, a raging alcoholic when he arrived in Nome back in 1988, made a surprising turn there. In a place famous for rough-and-tumble bars, he got sober 26 long years ago.
Now he's Nome's new mayor and maybe its biggest promoter, drawing on his New York acting chops, years in Nome tourism and an outsized personality.
He's theatrical and quirky, bald, slight — and enthusiastic about all things Nome. Years ago during his drinking days he made up a Broadway personal history that then stuck, a bit of creative fiction that he now regrets. He's a gay man in a macho place where, nonetheless, "that doesn't make any difference to people," Beneville said. "I am Richard first and everything else second."
Beneville recognizes the lure of old Nome and Front Street but also sees wild-land beauty and deep Alaska Native culture, a healthy arts scene and the promise of the new in a proposed deepwater port. This summer for the first time, a big, luxury cruise ship is coming through on a trip through the Northwest Passage.
Alaska, and Nome in particular, "is live and let live as long as you don't get into people's stuff," said Bob Hafner, a gold miner, Nome Chamber of Commerce president and long-time friend of Beneville. "He's pretty bizarre, but great people."
When Beneville retired last May from his school district job, a Nome Nugget story described him as "one of Nome's best-known and most beloved residents." Five months later, the go-to guy was elected mayor, a $75-a-month gig that he has jumped into full force.
"We like our color in our gold pans but we also like our color in our people, I guess. And he's colorful," Hafner said.
With Iditarod sled dog teams racing toward Nome, this is a month for Beneville to relish. He's seen 27 finishes but this year's ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage was his first. It was there he spotted ever-popular DeeDee Jonrowe, a three-time runner up.
"I can't wait to see you in Nome!" Beneville told her with a hug as a photographer filmed and a crowd watched. If Jonrowe won, he assured her, "Alaska will come unglued."
Later, as the streets emptied out and the photographers moved on, he walked over to Anchorage crews cleaning up the start area. He told them he was the mayor of Nome, praised them for their work and hugged them too.
Beneville, now 71, said he'll stand under Nome's famed Burled Arch to greet each finisher for as long as he can hold up.
Like your style
Before the advent of telephone dialing, an operator's assistance at the "central exchange" was required for calling another number. Beneville adopted the line "Hello Central!" for almost everything.
Show tourists a spectacular view and it's an appreciative "Helloooo Central!" Spot schoolchildren running across a slippery street and he warns "don't run on the ice or you'll break your … Hello Central!" When he had a cable magazine-style television show in Nome, he named it for his shtick.
He started tap dancing when he was 6 years old and set his mind to a career on stage. He danced and sang, did summer stock and off-Broadway plays. Even now he'll belt out show tunes unbidden.
When he was new to Alaska, he began exaggerating his experience, telling people he was the understudy for Joel Grey's creepy emcee role in "Cabaret" and played the iconic but small role of the Fiddler in "Fiddler on the Roof" on Broadway.
"I had a career in New York, had done well, was on Broadway and all that," Beneville said in a recent interview with Alaska Dispatch News. "But, simply put, I drank it away."
He never was part of "Cabaret" or "Fiddler" on Broadway, though he performed both musicals in less prestigious venues such as summer stock, he said later. He figures he first embellished his story more than 30 years ago. Maybe he was trying to gain credibility as a performer, as a newcomer, he said. Maybe he wasn't thinking at all. He was drinking and a different person.
Why tell the truth now?
"It's something that's been in the back of my head for a very long time. I am by nature not a deceitful person and it has bothered me," he said.
At any rate, a theater life that took him 15 years to build was wrecked in maybe three. Family and friends staged an intervention.
"The next thing I know I'm on an airplane with a one-way ticket to Anchorage," Beneville said. His brother, Bert, ran Merrill Lynch's office in town and introduced him to Allan Gallant, a former New Yorker who was then head of the Alaska Commercial Co.
"Beneville, I like your style," Gallant told him, then offered him a job.
So in 1982, he landed in Barrow, the first of two Alaska Bush communities to embrace him and visa versa.
"It is the people of the far North that really saved my life," he told an audience during a summer tour a few years back.
He stepped off the plane in Barrow on a minus-40-degree day in his camel-hair wraparound coat, three-piece suit, tie and fedora. "What the hell is that?" the locals must have thought.
At the AC store, he soon managed the appliance department when he remembered his grandmother's words from years before.
"You know, Dick, one of these days with your gift of gab, you are going to end up selling freezers to the Eskimos," she told him, handing him another of his favorite story lines.
Barrow was damp and he flew in Scotch for sipping, vodka for martinis and beer for his friends. He sobered up for a while after a stint in Seattle's Schick Shadel Hospital, where he went through "aversion therapy" in which "they fill you full of alcohol and the next day they make you sick to your stomach." But he had more healing to do.
In 1988, he was ready for new sights and moved to Nome. Within weeks, he was drinking a case of beer a day.
Then he walked into an AA meeting "the way a first grader might go to the first day of school."
"The Inupiat people of Alaska, the Eskimo people of Alaska, set a tone that ultimately allowed me to sober up," Beneville said. He met people whose suffering went back for generations, whose culture was under stress. Where he was loud, they were quiet and stoic. Yet as drinkers, they weren't so different.
"They in a way adapted to me and that allowed me to see myself as I was," Beneville said.
He stopped drinking and became director of Nome community schools, touching the lives of elementary students from kindergarten to sixth grade.
"Where teachers would give them As and Fs, I would give them basketball and youth wrestling and tap dancing and acting class, Inupiat language class and lots of weird science," Beneville said.
Through the Nome Arts Council, Beneville has helped put on 30 plays and musicals. He cast an Irish nurse to star as Helen Keller, and the head of the juvenile center — now Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams — to star in "Bye Bye Birdie." In the schools, his production of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" became a rite of passage over 20 years of performances, said Shawn Arnold, superintendent of Nome Public Schools.
"These experiences are often life changing for people," Beneville said.
Were not that
He started and still runs Nome Discovery Tours and takes tourists bird watching, shows off wild musk oxen that also eat his petunias, visits the village of Teller and goes on summer driving tours.
He wants visitors to experience the tundra, "to get down on their hands and knees, smell it, feel the texture of it, see the beauty of it."
Nome shouldn't be drawn as a caricature full of people stumbling in the streets or lost in the mind-fog of bars, he said.
"We're not that," he said.
As mayor, he is trying to present a richer image to outsiders — of wildlife, of theater and art, of Alaska Native culture adjusting to a warmer planet, of Nome's best self.
During the Gold Rush, when the population was much bigger, Nome had 75 bars and two churches, a lingering image of a rip-roaring frontier town that masks the sadness behind many drinkers' faces, he said. Now there's about the same number of each. Nome also is preparing for marijuana sales but that will come about slowly and carefully, said Beneville, who smokes weed sometimes.
"We are looking at expanding our port to greet the world, not to get them drunk," Beneville said.
Friends talk about his love for Nome, the way he puts smiles on people's faces, his good works over many years. He jokes about his big ego.
"My grandmother would say, 'You are a horse's ass but you have a nice personality.'"