By Colin Roshak
Music and film have enjoyed a storied partnership. The first soundtracks were very simple. A pianist would improvise along with the action of the movie, which gave way to small instrumental ensembles and to full symphony orchestras in residence at massive theatres, often doing four or five showings of the same film each day. In the film industry today, great film scores are now a defining characteristic of many favorite blockbusters — and it all started with silent film.
This coming weekend, the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra revives the 1923 silent film “The Cheechakos” which was the very first film to ever be made in Alaska.
In the early days of movie making, Alaska was often sensationalized by filmmakers. Movie sets would be built in New Jersey and upstate New York to mimic the great Alaskan wilderness. Producers and directors wanted to capitalize on the exoticism and sensationalism of the last frontier. Classics like Buster Keaton’s “The Frozen North,” which was performed last year by the ASO, brought audiences in droves. “The Cheechakos” is a more authentic take on the early years of gold prospectors in Alaska and took the filmmakers to Anchorage, Girdwood and Seward.
When it was decided to actually film in Alaska for the first time, there was excitement about the project stretching all over the territory, which was still largely unpopulated. In fact, not long before filming began, Anchorage was home to only a few thousand and had few permanent structures. A small city’s worth of buildings were erected for filming, hundreds of volunteers participated in the larger scale shots and Alaska residents flooded from all over to celebrate the project.
According to ASO bass clarinetist, researcher and “Cheechakos” expert Chris Beheim, “This is the film that introduced Alaska to the world.” The film was restored in 2000 and in 2003 was accepted by the Library of Congress into the National Film Registry for it’s culturally significant role in the history of both film making and Alaska as a whole.
Now a permanent fixture of Alaska’s history, “The Cheechakos” could have very easily been lost over the many years since it’s premiere. Due to the fragility of old film, it’s not very often that a film so old is able to survive. “In film history, it’s estimated that half the films made before 1950 were lost,” says Beheim. Now restored and recently digitized, the film will forever be a part of Alaska’s story.
Silent film is in the midst of a small scale renaissance. Orchestras are looking to the future of concert programming by pulling from the past. “The Cheechakos” is one of three different movie nights to be performed this season by the ASO. It’s followed by another silent film night featuring movies by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and, towards the end of the season, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
“The Cheechakos” is an important part of Alaska’s cultural history. It captures the early days of gold prospecting, gives us a view into our past and introduced the world to our icy, fantastical home.
The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra presents “The Cheechakos” on Saturday, October 5 at 8pm in the Atwood Concert Hall. Tickets are available at CenterTix.com.