Taking the Glacial Plunge:
Lazer Vaudeville tours
By Cindy Marvell
Like many jugglers, I have flown over Alaska en route to numerous performing gigs in Japan. I have looked down on snow-capped mountains dazzling in the sunlight or floating in eerie silhouette under a green moon. Naturally, I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to fly into Anchorage or Juneau.
Finally, it happened. Last March, I flew into Anchorage with Lazer Vaudeville for a month-long tour of 6 different cities and towns. Our presenters were members of local arts councils working in conjunction with performing arts centers, universities and school systems. Some of our contacts had seen us showcase at a booking conference in San Jose, CA, some had heard about us for years, and some we traced down over the phone.
When first approached with the idea, everyone wanted a juggling-laser show in January. Great idea—it’s so dark and cold that audiences will flock to the theatre just to get inside. Bad idea—we’ll have to travel by van and we’re not that crazy. So, when enough dates came in for a March-April stint, we decided to take the glacial plunge.
To help presenters finance the costs, we applied for and surprisingly received a touring grant from Westaff. Since this organization usually funds tours around California and the Pacific Northwest, an Alaska tour was a bit of a novelty. The grant called for some educational outreach in the form of school shows. We threw in some workshops as well since we would spend about four days in each town.
You wouldn’t guess it by my itinerary, but I’m a native New Yorker and for weeks I couldn’t stop picturing the troupe broken down on the side of the Alaskan highway, freezing our fingernails off in a rented van while the elements roared around us. I’m a fan of the Iditarod but would be just as happy visualizing the dog mushing team in, say, Glastonbury.
As for my touring partners, Carter Brown would be in his element. He thinks he is going to climb Mt. Everest someday and he gleefully stocks up on fleece fabric, thumbless mittens (in case your thumb freezes off, I guess) and face masks (we might as well be touring Saudi Arabia like we did last summer). Our in-house cigar box legend, Jeffrey Daymont, has shaken off his Illinois childhood and acts like he is from his adopted Los Angeles. He spends most of the trip tiptoeing around glaciers in ordinary sneakers. As for myself, all I can think of is Saskatchewan in December—at 40 below, our last Arctic excursion.
To increase the climate shock, our schedule calls for us to fly in and out of performances in southern California. Alaska Airlines stepped aboard as a sponsor and waived our excess baggage fees. After a juggling reunion with Jack Kalvan and performers at LAX, the flight into Anchorage was enough to give even the most obsessive juggler blissful and admiring pause. Outside the airport, the brisk, clear air was enough to make us want to ditch the 14 road cases (downsized from the usual 26) and head for the wild.
After loading the van, a process requiring several modifications, we did get as far as the Tony Knowles trail along the arctic coast before nightfall. By that time I had a migraine and was in danger of being voted, like the rookies in the Iditarod, least likely to make it out of Anchorage. The next day, however, we were back in the van, driving to Homer, an artsy town a mere 10 hours away. On the way, Portage Glacier gave us our first true taste of the arctic and Ninilchick, a quaint Russian village, gave us a sense of local history. As for the Eskimos, the igloo park at the folk museum in Anchorage was the closest we came to glimpsing that native Alaskan lifestyle.
By the time we reached Homer, every mountain range I had ever seen had been upstaged, downsized, and just plain dwarfed by comparison. From our hotel room, we can run out on the beach and see bald eagles. I just couldn’t quit yakking about eagles, musk ox, sea lions, whales and eagles. Maia Robbins-Zust, our videographer/set designer, spotted dall sheep on the cliffs. Since she was not always on our tours it was special that she could travel with the company in Alaska.
While setting up for our first school show in Homer, Alaska’s own State Anthem was played. The Big Dipper adorns the state’s deep sea blue flag. Traditionally, Alaskans refer to the rest of the America as “The Lower 48.” As if to underscore the state’s vastness – about half as big as the other states combined – we got a BIG response during the evening show and loads of media coverage throughout the tour.
It was a mere 12-hour drive to our next stop, Talkeetna. As we approached, we saw banners left over from the “Northern Exposure T.V. series. Here on the outskirts of Denali National Park, Mt. McKinley looms in the distance on clear days. The town is very spread out; many live in cabins and haul their own water. Snowmobiles, often with dogs aboard, are a common sight. We were lucky to stay at the Roadhouse, a historic cabin-style inn frequented by both touring performers and mountaineers bound for glory.
After our first night, it began snowing; since there were already 8-foot drifts, nobody commented on the addition. We could don cross country skis at the Roadhouse, glide for two “blocks,” and be totally OUT THERE on the arctic frontier, juggling snowballs.
Talkeetna might have seemed remote, yet we discovered in the course of teaching workshops that juggling is a regular activity for many of the students. Some are wearing T-shirts from “The Green Light Circus,” a troupe that has cast a wide net in the region. Tales of past performers who have toured here–notably The Flying Karamazov Brothers and Fred Garbo—abound.
After our final show, we repaired to the local pub to gather information about Fairbanks, our next destination. The drive to Fairbanks, however, took us through Denali on a relatively clear day and offered unforgettable views and jump-out points, including a dog run I took a human trot on just to get the full experience.
Once in Fairbanks, we are greeted by ice sculptures outside our hotel, which offers a unique service: you can sign up to receive a wake-up call from the night watch-person should the northern lights emerge. Another interesting feature around town: parking areas have electrical outlets in place of meters since plugging in is a common necessity in the colder months.
The next day, Fairbanks lived up to its reputation with gray skies and snow. We started out early for our first assignment: a school show at a military base outside the city. On the way, we passed “The North Pole,” just the kind of tourist trap your mother warned you about.
While setting up and waiting for some military help to pull our van out of the snowy loading area, we heard the term “pneumonia” bandied about. Here, it seems so common that it could be Alaskan for “head cold.” Since I acquired one of these in Talkeetna, I missed the chance to go dog-mushing “for real,” leaving the fun to my partners. By the evening show I was reasonably recovered, and a good thing, too—we sold out completely and backstage there were T.V. interviews going at every turn. Afterwards, our presenter and board members treated us to a lovely dinner complete with photos of the northern lights in a house overlooking the city.
Daybreak: time for another 12-hour drive, this time to Valdez. The mountains and gorges kept getting more spectacular, and “extreme” skiers proliferated as we approached the town. Hopping out of the van, we climbed a roadside drift and were drawn towards the most enchanting dreamscape I had ever seen, one right out of a C. S. Lewis fantasy. A woman on skis passed by us and dropped right into the valley as if she had done it every day of her life, and she probably had. As for us, back to the van…and into Valdez.
Here our accommodation was a sun-soaked B & B. Most of the time I found myself over dressed while high-schoolers passed by the 6-foot snowdrifts in T-shirts. Banners around town announced our public show at the Civic Center, a very well constructed performing arts center with lots of wood obviously influenced by local shipbuilding techniques. A sunset walk on the pier introduces us to Valdez in all its glory, snowy mountains reflected in crystal clear water. The water we saw in Alaska-whether river, stream, lake, or seaport, was clear straight through to the bottom, making it equally clear to us what the world has lost through industrialization. Thinking about such matters used to make me inordinately proud to be a juggler-an artist who dabbles in the air without polluting it. Who would have thought that such an innocent pastime would lead to rampant diesel emission, not to mention a zillion kilowatts of stage lighting. Oh, jugglers may be passing strange, but human life is stranger as it passes.
Our presenter hoped to sell out the Civic Center since this has not happened since the Pickle Family Circus came through years ago. As it turned out, her wish was our command. The excitement of the workshops and school shows carried over and, sure enough, every seat was filled for the uproarious final show.
Since our last two stops, Kodiak and Juneau, are inaccessible by road, we got a respite from the van and took to the air again. Kodiak, a storybook island of craggy bays, snowy mountains, and sea lions, boasts the second- largest fishing port in North America. The Rouse corporation, which developed the seaport malls in America from California’s Pier 39 to New York’s South Street Seaport, has yet to discover Kodiak. This means no street performers, but our visit did coincide with the Whale Watching Festival.
We were greeted at the airport by posters advertising our show and a very friendly arts council. Many areas in Alaska have strong Russian influence, and Kodiak boasts a historic wooden Cathedral complete with blue and gold onion tops. Easter perks in Kodiak included a decadent brunch and some special sea kayaking with our hosts.
Juneau, our last stop and a common destination for cruise ships in summer, proved the warmest climate yet and gave us a fantastic finish to the tour. Our residency here coincided with the Alaska Folk Music Festival, and some of the musical enthusiasts could be spotted in our workshops. 15 minutes away loomed the Mendenhall glacier in all its receding majesty. Where else can you cavort barefoot on a sandy “beach” while watching kayakers weave their way among the icebergs and waterfalls? By now it was late April, but in winter the place becomes a natural ice skating rink. The unparalleled experience gave new meaning to the word “kaskade.”
Perhaps this is what made our final show in Alaska smooth as an ice crystal and more exhilarating than a flight–seeing trip. Our next show would be in Los Angeles, but no one was in a hurry to leave this land of awesome spectacle, natural magic, and surprising warmth.
Kaskade European Juggling Magazine