Stories at the cemetery
America’s evergreen fascination with the dead is typically described as creepy, spooky or haunting. But sometimes people forget the deceased once lived enriching lives with interesting stories waiting to be told.
Hundreds of visitors swarmed the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery July 14 for “Stories at the Cemetery,” a free community event that shows Alaska history in a new light. Ten costumed actors portrayed 10 deceased Alaskans at their gravesites. Visitors listened to the stories told in first person by the actors.
Local residents Bruce and Audrey Kelly are among the main organizers who specialize in history and research.
Bruce, who portrayed Anchorage’s first chief of police, John Sturgus , began his act by highlighting the pleasantries of Sturgus’ life. Then Bruce’s demeanor grew somber as he described that fateful “dark February night” in 1921 while on duty downtown on 4th Avenue.
“Suddenly, somebody grabbed the gun from my hand. I heard a shot,” Bruce said as he portrayed Sturgus. “No one ever found out who killed me, and no one ever figured out why.”
Audrey said though she and Bruce have given tours of the cemetery for 10 years, this is only the third year of “Stories at the Cemetery.”
She worked for a number of years with well-known Anchorage historian, John Bagoy, who dedicated years of his life to marking unknown graves and educating the public on the rich history buried at the cemetery.
Bagoy’s extensive research notes and city records are the backbone of the event.
“We have some terrific people with terrific stories at the cemetery,” Audrey said. “John didn’t want any ghost tours — no jumping out behind anyone’s gravestone like it’s a scary thing. This is history that needs to be shared with the community.”
Among the crowd were students from UAA immersed in the unique event.
“It’s a really neat experience. I really liked the guy with the tea set that just wanted to be classy and have a good death. Sign me up for that!” Britny Herzog, UAA computer science student, said. The man was late gold rush entrepreneur, A.B. Cummings portrayed by actor Mark Robokoff.
Actor Ron Holmstrom drew crowds as he portrayed the late Otto Nakkola, one of 14 miners killed in the explosion at the Evan Jones Coal Mine near Sutton in 1937.
“There came this tremendous explosion. We tried to scramble out, but we heard this miner behind us screaming bloody murder. We tried to get to him, but the fumes and smoke were too much. I just couldn’t make it,” Holmstrom said in his portrayal of Nakkola.
Linda Benson, a main organizer and theatrical director, said the event is fully produced by she and the Kellys. Her role is to bring the stories to life with handpicked local actors who fit the parts of those portrayed.
She said that the actors are paid with donations given by the public.
Benson said new selections of people are portrayed each year. She joked she is worried that the event will run out of people with rich histories linked to Alaska to portray one day.
There are many past mayors and politicians of Anchorage buried at the Anchorage Park Memorial Cemetery, including Wally Hickel. Members of well-known Alaskan families, such as the Cuddys and Rasmusons —names familiar to UAA — are buried there as well.
“If 400 to 500 people go away with a little more knowledge of their town, I think that’s good to build Anchorage’s spirit,” Benson said.
The next “Stories at the Cemetery” event will be August 11 at 6 p.m. For more information, contact Bruce or Audrey Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.