Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story regarding Tom Anderson and the sixth-grade musicals he directed at Soldotna Elementary School. This week focuses on the 18 years of the much-beloved musicals at the school. Next edition, June 12, will be about Anderson and his lasting impact on his students and community.
By Jenny Neyman
Sixth grade — a blur of emotions, energy, hormones, budding independence, self-consciousness and growth spurts. Brains won’t be fully formed for another 10-plus years. It’s a challenge for clear, detailed, long-lasting memories to form in that developmental soup. Usually what’s retained is a miasma of vague impressions and a few hazy recollections tinged with the awkwardness and uncertainty of early adolescence.
Not the case for the sixth-grade students of Soldotna Elementary from 1980 to 1998. For many of them, sixth grade was a landmark of their early schooling, a source of excitement, confidence, fun and achievement. Of long rehearsals working side by side with adults and fellow students, to create an elaborate musical production as a team that would be seen and raved about by the whole school, and other schools, and the community beyond that.
To this day — decades after the last sets were struck and the riotous applause died down — those musicals are still cemented into the memory banks.
“You don’t remember your elementary classroom stuff very well, except by events. So you remember field trips or whatever, and I think for Soldotna Elementary students for all these years, this was the event they remember. The sixth-grade musicals was the event,” said Gary Lindman, the music teacher at Soldotna Elementary for much of that time. “Those kids, even today, they remember all that. It had a huge impact — still — on their lives.”
Lineman arrived at SoEl in 1977. At that time the school was the biggest in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, with a village of portable classrooms orbiting the main building to contain the bursting-at-the seams enrollment into some sort of gravitational cohesion. Anything involving the entire student body was a logistical challenge befitting the exuberance — and, perhaps, lack of experience to know better — of a new teacher.
“My first Christmas program I had everybody in the school do it, every grade. And the fire marshal came and wanted to close us down because there were 500 kids in the gym and then there were all these parents wanting to come in too. I had no idea what I was doing,” Lindman said.
The next year, he split up his music productions into a Christmas show for the younger kids and a spring program for the fourth- through sixth-graders. But that didn’t quite work, either.
“Well the sixth-graders didn’t seem to fit in there. They were a little too old,” he said. “So I was thinking, what can we do with our sixth-graders that’s different than regular a concert? What do we do to keep these kids from going crazy for the last half of the year?”
He found receptive sounding boards and fellow out-of-the-box thinkers in some of his fellow teachers, particularly Tom Anderson. Anderson arrived in 1976 to teach third grade, also his first teaching assignment. Anderson loved theater as much as teaching, and was already finding ways to combine the two. Throughout his tenure as a classroom teacher he’d stage 1950s and ’60s-themed lip-syncing shows with his students, and would collaborate on an Alaska Museum unit, complete with building massive igloos and Dena’ina longhouses in the hallway as entrances to the classrooms.
“He was always doing shows with the kids. He liked performances, he liked events,” said Donna Rea, Anderson’s fellow third-grade teacher at the time. “But he also had strong discipline. A lot of times when somebody is very creative, things get very loosey-goosey. But the kids just really respected him.”
In 1980, Lindman and Anderson decided to stage a musical, “Jungle Book,” with just the sixth-graders as the students’ end-of-the-year production. Given their flair for the dramatic and free rein for creativity it was, indeed, quite the production.
“We didn’t ever do anything minimally, I guess, so if we were going to do something, we were going to really do it. It instantly turned into decorating the whole gym as a jungle. And it was a big hit, but we only did one performance and only like 300 people saw it. As we were ripping it down, everybody was going, ‘Shouldn’t we do this again?’” Lindman said.
Far from being deterred by the extra workload — after-school rehearsals, writing the script themselves, building a gym full of elaborate sets — they instead decided to reprise and even expand the musical. Thus, what would become an 18-year tradition was born. And as with actual labor, it was a heck of a lot of long hours of effort, but all done in love.
“It was a big thing with sixth-graders,” said Bud Draper, a SoEl sixth-grade teacher involved in the musicals. “The fifth-graders would come up to you and say, ‘I can’t wait for next year. What show are we going to do?’”
To say the musicals grew and got more elaborate over the years is true, but creates the inaccurate impression that they were small to begin with. These were never what one might think of as a typical elementary-school production — some stand-and-deliver songs incorporating hand gestures and maybe a few dance steps, backdrops sketched on cardboard and construction-paper hats for costumes.
These were full-fledged, elaborately produced, no-detail-overlooked shows with all the elements of a Broadway production, just on a do-it-yourself budget.
The length of the entire gym would be decorated and utilized for the stage. There wasn’t the ability to pull a curtain for set changes, so a set for each location in the play was constructed separately — a house over here, a forest over there. Each rendered beautifully — a two-story castle in a grid of painted bricks for “Robin Hood,” a plush forest for “Jungle Book,” or the colorful explosion of Wonderland for Alice’s visit.
For a production of “Robin Hood,” the crew got Kenai Peninsula College art professor Boyd Shaffer, a naturalist painter who trained at the Sorbonne in France, to come paint the forest. This is a man who wrote articles for the Audubon Society and went on to sketch books of the flora and mycology of Southcentral Alaska. There are Broadway productions that don’t have that level of pedigree in their set crews.
“Even with the technology of the time, man, we did some really, really quality stuff. And productions that you don’t normally even see at the high-school level,” Draper said.
Draper particularly remembers the getup Anderson and Lindman built for him in “The Wizard of Oz,” for the scene where Dorothy and her compatriots are finally admitted into the terrifyingly “great and powerful” Oz’s chamber — before catching a glimpse of the real, unintimidating man behind the curtain.
“I was the wizard so they built this big model of a head out of Styrofoam and spray insulation-type stuff, and my hair went up about 10 feet tall. We had floodlights for eyes, and controls so the eyes would come on and off. And the mouth moved and smoke came out. And it had to spin around so the kids would see me working the mouth. Oh my gosh, we literally scared the little kids in the front row,” Draper said.
Sometimes the production elements alone were enough to elicit cheers from the audience. At one point in the first musical, “Jungle Book,” the sixth-graders tromped in as elephants, each ensconced in a marshmallowlike body and headpiece with giant, floppy ears and swinging trunks.
“When the elephants came in the whole crowd started applauding,” Lindman said.
Rae’s daughter was one of those elephants.
“She still talks about that,” Rae said. “They loved it.”
From the beginning the goal was to make the shows more than just a sixth-grade play. It was to give the students a more mature experience.
“There were no small roles. Even the minor roles, everybody understood that you had to do your job because it contributed to the success of the larger production, so everybody felt important in what they did,” Lindman said.
Part of imparting that sense of responsibility and maturity was to incorporate adults into the shows, enlisting other teachers, and even the principal, into the shows. In “Annie,” for instance, Annie and her fellow orphans were plays by sixth-graders, while Daddy Warbucks was played by Anderson, and the other grown-up characters were played by actual grown-ups.
“We wanted our kids to feel the camaraderie with adults and see them blow their lines and see them getting nervous and see them making props. The intent was to do it that way. We wanted to involve the whole staff as much as possible. We got the principal in miniparts, just to make the kids see we were working together as a team, and everybody’s on the same team,” Lindman said.
“We saw a different side of each other,” said RoseAnn Keating, a SoEl third-grade teacher. “The kids saw a different side of the teachers, and the teachers could see a different side of the kids. Sometimes those kids were problem kids in an ordinary situation, but when you put them in a musical, they shined. They had the humor, they had the presence, and it was like, ‘Wow, I never saw that.’ It was great both ways.”
Leading up to the shows, the cast would rehearse every night after school for four weeks or so. It was a big commitment for the students as well as the teachers in the cast. But being so practiced and performing alongside the adults took a lot of the fear out of the experience for the students.
Jenny Henry, who played Annie in one of the productions, remembers only being excited for the performances, unencumbered by stage fright.
“It was very comfortable and easy. I don’t remember being self-conscious or scared at all,” she said. “And I don’t know if it’s that we practiced so much so it felt like it was just another practice, or if it was the adults that made it that easy. I don’t ever remember being nervous. I think all of the kids were very excited about it. That was the highlight of the sixth-grade year.”
The kids and the adults had the same responsibilities on-stage, the same need to learn and rehearse their lines, and the same chance to make a mistake or do a great job. Everyone bought in and played along. Even former SoEl principal Leonard Olson, whose professional demeanor didn’t often tend toward humor. Still, he gamely submitted to the script Lindman and Anderson wrote for him in “Robin Hood.”
“Tom and Gary wrote in a part where Leonard was King Richard going on a crusade,” Draper said. “Occasionally, Leonard would climb up this ladder on top of the set and be looking over the top of the caste. And he’d say, ‘Is it my turn yet?’ And everybody would look up there and say, ‘No Leonard.’ And he’d say ‘Oh,’ and look disappointed then climb back down.”
Anderson and Lindman wrote all the scripts together, using the well-known songs from the stage plays and movies, but condensing hours-long scripts into something that could be performed in under an hour so as not to tax the attention spans of the youngest audience members. But it wasn’t just a matter of cutting and editing. They added their own flourishes, as well. Some was subtle humor — jabs at the social or political topics of the day that only the adults would get. Other material owed to Anderson’s broad sense of humor, often manifested in eye-roll-worthy puns and slapstick comedy. Anderson made good use of the cowardly lion in “Oz,” for instance, playing off the concept of scaring the pants off someone with the line, “I’m not even wearing pants!”
As much fun as the musicals were for the students, the adults had arguably an even better time.
“They had probably more fun than the kids did,” Henry said. “They always just totally hammed it up, and loved doing it. They all fed off each other and they were hysterical. Despite the long practice periods and all the work, they were notorious for ad libbing, but it only would be between the adults, they wouldn’t do that to the kids. But I don’t think any show was the same because they really just enjoyed it and took liberties and there were different jokes every time.”
The antics, or, really, the entire involved productions in general, wouldn’t have flown without the support of the administration, which Draper said they were lucky to have. Times and education were different then, with more freedom for creativity and less focus on high-stakes testing, he said.
“The focus now is just academics. It doesn’t give you the flexibility to incorporate the artistic side of things. We had the support of the administration to do this — everybody, from school administration everybody up to the head shed. They knew what we were doing and supported it and recognized the competence with which it was being done. I don’t think we would have had the support if it wasn’t done so professionally,” Draper said.
The shows became increasingly popular, in the school community and beyond, to the point where they couldn’t cram more audience members in the gym, so they started adding more shows to accommodate everyone who wanted to see them. And it was everyone who wanted, far beyond just parents and people directly connected to the school.
“The concept to the community was how many people want to go to an elementary performance that your kids aren’t in? It took us several years but we were selling 300 tickets a night for three nights,” Lindman said. “We got a following that knew it wasn’t going to be a kiddie show you had to suffer through.”
“The feeling was just electric and the word got out, ‘Did you go to Soldotna Elementary’s latest production? You need to go see it.’ Well, somebody convinced them to go and at the end they were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, that was unbelievable,’” Draper said.
Other schools in the district would bus their students to SoEl for matinee performances and community performances in the evenings would sell out, every seat in the bleachers and the 10 rows of chairs set up on the floor in front.
“You’d get in that gym and felt like you were in a live performance on Broadway,” Keating said.
But as with any show, even SoEl’s plays lacking an actual curtain, the metaphorical curtain must fall. The progression of time begat staff changes and retirements of the key musical directors at the school. Lindman moved on to Soldotna High School in 1988, leaving Anderson as the director. Anderson changed from third grade to teaching PE in 1987 but continued with the musical until his retirement in 1998, by which point many of the founders and main supporters of the musical tradition had also retired. After 18 years, including productions of “Jungle Book,” “Oliver,” “Mary Poppins,” “Annie,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Robin Hood,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Wizard of Oz” and “Peter Pan” — many performed two different years — the curtain closed on SoEl’s sixth-grade musical tradition.
“We all recognized that we could never do this alone,” Lindman said. “In order to do it we had to do it as a whole. Soldotna Elementary took on this identity of a school of the arts. Kids from the young grades were always looking forward to the time when they could participate in the musical. That definitely became our school identity.”
It’s a shame it’s gone, he said. And it’s a particular shame that Anderson, so integral to the creation and long continuation of the musical program, also is gone. He died May 7 after a lengthy illness.
Anderson, just like the musicals, is etched into the hearts and memories of the SoEl community from the late 1970s on through to the late 1990s. And in June, there will be an opportunity for those memories to have a reprisal, with a celebration of Anderson’s life held from 2 to 4 p.m. June 8 in the SoEl gym. It’ll be a walk down memory yellow-brick road, too, with remembrances of the musicals, including photo displays and video clips of the shows, as well as reprisal performances from Anderson’s fellow teachers and his former students. It is open to the public.
“Some people keep to themselves and when they die, they die. But there’s this memory and it’s a memory that isn’t bigger than life, it’s a memory of Tom as he was in life, that is so powerful and hangs with us,” Draper said. “Otherwise we might just say, ‘So long, buddy, see you soon.’ But we all feel he is so special and he deserves something more than that to be done.”