Editor’s note: Today we offer the first of a three-part series examining the early history of the performing arts on the central Kenai Peninsula. This week we look at the earliest attempts to entertain the masses. In part two, we’ll look at the establishment of the Kenai Performers and its connection to the Peninsula Dancers and Pier One Theatre in Homer. In part three, we’ll take a look at what many believe is the most important stage play in the history of peninsula performing arts, “The Ballad of Kenai.”
By Clark Fair
The very idea of the nuns being pregnant was not a point that anyone involved in the event wished to publicize. After all, the show had to go on.
It was the late 1950s in Kenai, and the Homemakers Club was presenting a farce called “Seven Nuns at Las Vegas” by playwright Natalie E. White. At least two of the homemakers portraying nuns onstage — Clarice Kipp and Rose Navarre — were “in the family way,” a state unbecoming of women of a chaste religious order. Therefore, to keep the audience happy, they kept the nuns’ secret a secret.
Such were the tactics undertaken at times to keep the public — and themselves — entertained in a time when entertainment via the performing arts could be hard to come by. According to Kipp, even the club’s “passable rendition” of the play was met with great enthusiasm.
In the 1950s, there were a few other attempts at performance art: The Ninilchik Players, according to Jean Brockel, put on at least three plays in such venues as the Ninilchik American Legion Hall, the Clam Gulch Quonset-hut community center, George Denison’s Soldotna Theatre, and at least one location in Homer. Among the melodramas performed were Robert St. Clair’s “Tiger House” and Henry Robert Symonds’ “The Night Owl.”
In the mid-1960s, another south peninsula group of thespians, the Cohoe Characters, also flared briefly into life, performing two to three plays in 1964-65 before fading away. Some of the stars of these shows were Charlie and Freda Lewis and Roy Baldwin.
“I can remember going to Clam Gulch (in the ’60s) for a melodrama,” Brockel said. “Roy Baldwin was the sheriff, and it was at the Clam Gulch Center, and they had a big barrel stove at the back. And it’d be hotter ’n hell, and as you worked more toward the front seats to sit down for the play, it was colder and colder and colder.
“You had to be careful of where you sat. You’d either be too hot at the back and you couldn’t see, or you could see just fine, except your feet would freeze off if you got too close to the front.”
Still, the audience was grateful for the show.
“Everybody just hee-hawed and laughed and had a great time,” recalled Brockel. “And afterwards, we had coffee and cookies, and sat down and chatted and visited for however long, and then got in our cars and drove home. That was a whole evening. That was what you did, and there were people from that area that you didn’t otherwise see because they didn’t come to town all that often.”
Other than these occasional performances, most folks back then, Brockel said, settled for the shows put on by their children in area schools. When she first came to Kenai in 1956 to teach music at the Kenai School, she was told in no uncertain terms that she would be putting on a holiday program just prior to the December break.
“I had to do the kids’ Christmas program,” Brockel said. “And that came down from (Principal George) Fabricius: ‘You will —’ That was the word, not ‘Would you try?’ or something like that. ‘You will have a Christmas program. Everyone in town comes to the school.’”
And Fabricius was right. If there was a show, an audience filled the gymnasium or whatever venue was available.
Still, many adults craved more mature fare.
Consequently, by the mid-1960s, a little more variety began to creep into the diet of the performing-arts consumer. In 1963, Gail McDowell (formerly Smith) formed the Soldotna Players and directed two stage dramas, in 1964 and 1965.
McDowell, who had been an active thespian in high school and done some play productions in Anchorage, “missed the theater” and decided to bring her vision of the stage to her peninsula home. Her directorial debut came in the 1964 production of Ayn Rand’s “Night of January 16th,” a courtroom drama starring McDowell herself, Charlie Lewis, Don Thomas, Ted Grainge and Lance Petersen as Flint, the prosecuting attorney.
For each night’s performance, the jury was selected from members of the audience. The jury remained onstage for the entire performance and was allowed to decide the fate of the defendant — McDowell, in this case, who played a woman accused of killing her husband.
Smith was pleased that the jury found her “not guilty” each time.
The next performance was John Van Druten’s romantic comedy, “Bell, Book and Candle,” again starring McDowell, this time with Jerry Holly.
“These local people did an amazing job,” McDowell said.
Afterward, however, “Players got too busy with personal lives,” she said, and the Soldotna Players disappeared from the scene.
Fortunately for those who loved a good show, much more was on the horizon, partly because of the skill and energy of the individuals responsible for the creation of the Kenai Fine Arts Festival in 1967, but mostly due to the gifted dance arrangements of Jean McMaster, and the writing and directing of her talented son, Lance Petersen.
According to McMaster’s entry in “Once Upon the Kenai,” she left a thriving dance-instruction business, called Master Dance Studio, in Chicago in 1944 to move with her infant son, Lance, to Anchorage to be near her husband, who was working on a wartime construction project. In 1954, she moved with her mother, Lance and her new infant son, Kim, to Kenai.
About a year later, she bought the old two-story Kenai Bible Chapel building, moved it just north of town and created living quarters in the upstairs and a new Master Dance Studio in the downstairs. From that moment on, she began to influence the course of performing arts on the Kenai Peninsula, eventually becoming a lynchpin member of the Peninsula Dancers, Kenai Performers and Pier One Theatre.
Brockel refers to “Genesis” to sum up McMaster’s influence on peninsula performing arts.
“You kind of have to look at it like the Bible. ‘Before this, there was… .’ Before anything, there was Jean McMaster. If you really start analyzing it and figuring out what was going on, that’s what was going on. Before anything else, there was Jean.”
McMaster taught dance classes to individuals of all ages and abilities, and she collaborated with such groups as the Homemakers Club. In the mid-1950s, members of the Homemakers decided to put together a minstrel show and they asked McMaster to teach them a can-can dance for part of the performance.
McMaster also remembered helping with a number called “Love and Marriage,” which she referred to as a big hit. It wasn’t perfect, but the show was such a success, said former Homemaker Peggy Arness, that, “It demanded a repeat performance.”
During the show, McMaster’s son, Lance, was supposed to be the record-changer, but as the program began, there was only silence.
“We waited for the music — and waited, and waited,” McMaster wrote. “He had changed the record all right, but the cord had become unplugged and nothing was happening.”
Eventually, the problem was solved, and the show went on, just as it had with those pesky pregnant nuns.