Juneau Celebrates Territorial Legislature’s Centennial

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It’s well into the evening, and members of the Alaska legislature are spread around a cavernous room. Giant American flags are hanging from the walls, and the place is abuzz. That is, until someone strikes the gavel.

SPEAKER: The House will return to order. Our next order of business is the second reading of bills, resolutions, and memorials. Mr. Chief Clerk.
CLERK: House Bill 2, by Rep. Shoup, entitled an act to extend the elective franchise to women.

Those two aren’t real political figures — they’re actors recreating the inaugural meeting of Alaska’s first elected body. And the true-to-life legislators sitting before them are just there for a bit of dinner theatre as part of the Centennial Commission’s anniversary celebration.

The commission spent six months planning for the celebration, but the reenactment only came together in the last few weeks. The men — and one woman — cast had just a couple of rehearsals to develop their characters and to learn about one of the territorial legislature’s first acts: granting women the right to vote. Odin Brudie plays Rep. Charles Ingersoll of Ketchikan, and he says it’s been a little crazy trying to get the whole performance together.

“Fortunately we have a well prepared script, and none of us are totally off book. Which would be next to impossible to accomplish in short order,” says Brudie. “But we’re situated at desks and sort of orating from our materials, so it works pretty well.”

He says it’s a trip to be able to reenact the proceedings in Juneau’s old Elks Club, where the first legislature met. Even the floors are still the same. And Brudie says it’s been a fun learning experience, too.

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“I really didn’t know anything about this inaugural territorial legislature and the import of their first order of business, taking up the right of women to vote,” says Brudie. “It’s been fascinating.”

The audience seems to enjoy it as much as the actors do. Sen. Gary Stevens is the chair of the centennial commission, and when I catch up with him, he’s beaming.

“Well, this is such fun,” says Stevens. “I mean, for a retired history professor, it doesn’t really get any better than this, you know, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the territorial and state legislature.”

Stevens says the centennial has also been a good time for him to reflect on where Alaska was and where it is now.

“The first speech made by the speaker of the House was against federal oversight — federal overreach and taking too much control away from Alaska. And the speaker was talking about how, in 1913, how important it was that Alaska get its fair share. Which is exactly what we’re talking about today,” says Stevens. “So, things haven’t changed a lot, have they?”

And if there’s one thing that definitely hasn’t changed, it’s that there’s always work to be done. About halfway through the reenactment, all of the members of the House of Representatives in the audience get up from their seats and head to the door for an 8pm floor session. They have some gaveling in to do themselves.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the actor in the reenactment as Phil Smith. Rep. Charles Ingersoll was played by Odin Brudie.