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‘Letters to the Editor’ offers dramatic self-portrait of Fairbanks

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Posted: Thursday, October 22, 2009 3:55 am | Updated: 12:50 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

The Fairbanks Drama Association production that opens this weekend has more than one author — about 120 of them in fact.

“Letters to the Editor” is an updated tribute to the people of Fairbanks and vicinity who have made the letters to the editor one of the best parts of this newspaper for decades.

Back in the early 1980s, Melinda Mattson recognized the dramatic potential of the letters when she produced the first version of this play. The play was one of the most popular ever produced in Fairbanks, and it won a series of state and regional awards.

She drew upon the words of wisdom from many of the great authors in our town’s history, from Joe Vogler and Joan Koponen to Kevin Harun, Eva Heffle, Ron Crowe, Cleo Hensley and the great Fred Stickman Sr.

The play featured a dozen actors playing some of the many characters who made life in Fairbanks exciting. The text featured political diatribes, personal essays and soulful observations about the beauty of Alaska, along with preaching and bellowing about wolves, Texans, guns, the pipeline, statehood, the capital move, the Alaskan Independence Party, the phone system, environmentalists and the weather.

I’m happy to report that on Friday, a revised version of “Letters to the Editor” opens at the Riverfront Theatre. The first act of the play is made up of letters used in the old version, while the second act features matters of more recent vintage from the Exxon Valdez to Sarah Palin’s campaign for vice president.

Among those whose letters will live on through this show are Glenn Hackney, Mellie Terwilliger, Julie Rafferty, Vivian Ames and Karen Parr.

Mattson, a regular follower of the letters column, has carefully selected gems from the last quarter-century to round out this snapshot of the past 50 years.

The cast of 12 includes Gene DeWild, a retired Fairbanks teacher who came back just for this show.

DeWild, the man whose name is on the theater at West Valley High School, lived in Austria until 1994 when he retired in New Jersey.

One of the letters he brings to life in the new version was a hit in the first edition of the play, with DeWild acting the part of the Swami who recites the “Alaska Dryrotta” by Dan Bloom.

“Go placidly amid the rain forest and the fog and remember what peace there may be in wood stoves,” it begins.

“Letters to the Editor” is the closest we’ve come to a dramatic self-portrait of Fairbanks, thanks to the many and varied authors who shared their thoughts on the pages of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

The play runs for three weekends, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8:15 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

For tickets, call 456-PLAY. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for senior citizens, military and university students and $14 for those under 18.

•••

FIRST LETTER: In editing this play, Mattson has had to trim the text with a vengeance as there is a great deal of good material to work with.

The first letter in the old version of the play is one of the gems she had to cut.

It was written by Ed Jern and published 17 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Jern said many old timers of his caliber were good hunters and “Life without liberty means death to a sourdough.”

•••

SCHOOL COUNT: The student population of the public schools is about 275 greater than last year, said Mike Fisher, chief financial officer of the school district. This Friday is the end of the official counting period. The district had expected an increase of about 200.

The average attendance of the first 20 school days of October, ending on the fourth Friday of this month, is used by the state for an official count. The final number is expected to be in the range of 14,400.

•••

NEWSPAPER TALK: Veteran journalist David Offer, who holds the C.W. Snedden Chair in Journalism this year at UAF, will speak at 7 p.m. today on “Hold the Obit: Newspapers Aren’t Dead.” The presentation is at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center.

If you have a column idea, contact me at cole@newsminer.com or

459-7530.

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