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In Anchorage cemetery, history gets personal

was written by Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media , 2019-09-07 02:16:27

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Todd Sherwood played journalist Cliff Cernick (1918-2003) in the August performance at the Anchorage cemetery. (Photo by Liz Ruskin / Alaska Public Media)

They brought their own lawn chairs, or sat on the grass in the middle of the cemetery. So many people came to the performance of “Stories at the Cemetery” in downtown Anchorage last month that organizers ran out of programs, and they’d brought 400.

You can find events like these in other cities, too, where actors recount the stories of local pioneers, historical figures and regular folk, usually at the character’s grave. But the Anchorage cemetery players face an added challenge: The city is barely a hundred years old, so its dead aren’t so long departed. Sometimes their relatives show up. And for them, it’s personal. 

Krista Schwarting portrayed Mary Weaver, who died in 1945.

“Not much is known about me until 1917 when I married my husband Robert,” Schwarting said from the stage. “We’re buried right over there. You can see the red flag.”

Linda Benson is on of the script writers for the cemetery stories, and she sometimes acts them out, too. Photo: Liz Ruskin

Three longtime researchers and writers of the cemetery stories sat on the sidelines. Bruce Kelly, Audrey Kelly and Linda Benson were in period costumes, but just for fun, because for once, they weren’t acting any of the parts.

“Sydney Lawrence is real popular here,” said Bruce Kelly, recalling some of their greatest hits from prior years. “And the first police chief that was murdered after six months on the job.”

Linda Benson said audiences love the stories about foul play.

“The murders are wonderful,” she said. “Because people are interested.”

“Speak for yourself,” Bruce joked.

Their dramas are history for most people, maybe entertainment. But they can strike a deep chord for a relative or friend who may be watching. Researcher and sometimes actor Audrey Kelly said it can be daunting.

“Linda (Benson) was doing a story, one of my favorite stories actually,” Audrey said. “And afterward people came up to her … and said ‘You’re my grandmother.’”

The June and July stories are performed graveside, and the audience members move from grave to grave in small groups. But Benson recalls one visitor who wouldn’t move.

“One woman stood there, probably through all 20 that I went through that day,” Benson said. “And after a while I went over and said, you know, ‘I’m not changing this. It’s the same story.”

Audrey Kelly is one of the organizers of “Stories at the Cemetery.” (Photo by Liz Ruskin / Alaska Public Media)

The woman explained that Benson was playing her godmother.

“And she wanted to be very sure that I did it correctly,” Benson said. “So yes, you never know what you run into.”

Actor Dick Reichman has been doing the cemetery shows for years. In July and August he played Frank Irick, whose Alaska story began in 1939.

“Hello beautiful. You got time for a drink?” the Irick monologue begins. “Why don’t we open up this nice bottle of bubbly. No worries: I’m a married man.”

Irick was a flamboyant hotel owner and card-player, who had, as Reichman played him, an eye for the ladies.

“See, that was my regular pick-up line,” Reichman said, in his Irick portrayal.

Wende Irick works as a stylist and image consultant in a little house a block from the cemetery. She watched when Reichman played her father in the July cemetery tour. In fact, she’d styled Reichman to look like her dad.

“I finished his hair that night and he put on the fedora, and he was standing outside between those poles. And I said ‘Oh my God: He’s Frank! How did this happen?’” Wende said. “And it really was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Wende was traveling in Thailand when her father died in 2007, and they had a complicated relationship, with lots of feuding. Watching Reichman perform as Frank at the cemetery, and seeing how audiences responded to him ⁠— Wende said it resolved something for her. 

“So I feel like I can go over there and visit him now, and there’s no more angst,” she said. “It’s just truly marveling in the great personality and human being that he was.”

Frank Irick also had a tidy ending in Reichman’s depiction of him.

“To my wives and my children and everybody else: I died happy playing cards with my pals,” Reichman’s Frank said. “May you die happy, too.”

That’s how the cemetery performances ended for the year ⁠— with a monologue that meant a lot for at least one man’s daughter.

Wende Irick says her father, Frank, was a complex man. Her picture shows him and his dog Bonnie. (Photo by Liz Ruskin / Alaska Public Media)

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