A love letter to the cultural hub at the corner of Fourth and D
I remember the first time I met Jerry and Sandy Harper.
I suppose a lot of people can say that; Jerry and Sandy were/are the kind of people you wouldn’t forget meeting for the first time. I was about ten or eleven years old and in downtown Anchorage with my mom — either to see a performance or tagging along with her to her job as makeup designer for the Anchorage Opera, I can’t remember which — and she took me to stop in at a new bookstore that had been opened by some friends of hers. My mom met Jerry when they performed together in Alaska Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Philadelphia Story” (which, incidentally, starred visiting actor Kate Mulgrew, who would, of course, later go on to be the first female captain of a Star Trek vessel and then Red the maternalistic Russian chef on “Orange is the New Black”).
I didn’t realize at the time just how central to my life — and to the arts scene in my hometown — these new strangers with the funky bookstore would become.
I was a teenager, and my memories are filtered through the hormonal haze of adolescence, so keep that in mind. Maybe none of this happened exactly as I say it did. But this is what I remember about what it was like to grow up at Cyrano’s.
What you might not realize, if you didn’t live in Anchorage prior to the late 1990s, is that Cyrano’s started out as a bookstore. The basement had what was probably, at the time, the largest selection of children’s and young adult books in the state, and I still remember the book I picked out on that first visit: “The Westing Game,” by Ellen Raskin, in a paperback that I think eventually fell apart after being re-read about 17,000 times. It was the first book I’d bring home from Cyrano’s but far from the last.
In the years that followed, I spent hundreds — maybe thousands — of hours at Cyrano’s. At first we started going just to browse and hang out. Then my mom started doing a family storytime on Saturdays, and either shortly before or shortly after that, she went to work for Jerry and Sandy — first just some shifts in the bookstore, but when I was in junior high school she went to them with a proposal that she was sure they would decline: to hire her as their manager. Surprise, surprise, they said yes, and when I was about 14 my mom became Cyrano’s full-time manager and Jerry and Sandy took their first day off together since they had opened the store.
Over those early- to mid-1990s years, Cyrano’s was in a constant state of growth and change. It was an exciting time to be there. The store grew, from one room and the basement to the better part of the east side of D Street. Weekend movies in the downstairs children’s area (I specifically remember going to see “Berkeley in the Sixties,” which to an eighth-grader with a soft radical streak seemed like easily the coolest documentary of all time) progressed to a short-lived movie theatre in one of the street-level rooms. The staff expanded. The café became home base for a popular local bakery. There were events and readings and collaborations with some of the other businesses on the block. Jerry and Sandy called Cyrano’s their “cultural mini mall.”
The store itself had a personality, if that can be said about a building. As it grew, hand-lettered signs directed customers to check out the next room (yes, really, there’s more! Have you been downstairs?). There was dust in some of the corners that was never going to come out, even if the vacuum cleaner had been newer and less terrifying. The occasional silverfish would wiggle out from between two paperbacks. The bathroom door in the last room needed an extra push if you wanted it to latch all the way.
There was never a dull moment, especially given the store’s location. There were occasional problems with the tenants in the apartments upstairs and frequent encounters with the folks socializing — loudly and in varying states of intoxication — out on Fourth Avenue. Jerry could be a fearsome and terrible force, and he had to be to deal with some of those situations. There were multiple break-ins and at least one fire that fortunately caused mostly smoke damage in the bookstore (my mother was so impressed when the insurance company sent a restoration team to individually wipe down every single book in the store). There was the occasional personal or professional drama on the staff, and one awful day when the beloved café manager went missing and was later found dead.
Most of all, there was community. Some of the employees lived upstairs or in the neighboring Loussac-Sogn Building, and you’d find them hanging out even when they weren’t on the clock. The bookstore had a loyal cadre of dedicated customers like my childhood friend Laurence’s dad, people for whom the staff stashed away stacks of recommended titles in the back room.
And I got to sit behind the counter with a book, some hot apple cider and maybe some of the café’s (really good if you picked out the creepy little shrimp) chicken gumbo and talk with all the fascinating people who worked there, who collectively seemed to know everything there was to know about books and culture, who put aside for me things they thought a teenage girl needed to read, and who patiently taught me how to ring purchases, search for special order titles, and wait on customers who came in asking for things like “this book I heard about on NPR… something about chairs? It might have a blue cover.” Every once in a while, my mom and Sandy would let me loose on a display in the front window, and I’d make multiple trips around the corner to Ulmer’s Rexall to buy extra supplies for a back-to-school or holiday-themed display featuring Cyrano de BEAR-gerac, the store’s droopy plush mascot.
It was, in short, the perfect place to escape from the general awfulness of adolescence.
Jerry had inherited the building from his stepfather, and he had also inherited a lease agreement with the Anchorage Police Department, which had a substation in the part of the building that sat right at the corner of Fourth and D. From the time my mother went to work for Jerry and Sandy, I’d known Jerry was looking forward to the end of the lease and the plans he had for the space. After the police department finally moved out, I remember walking through the stripped-down building with Jerry as he described to my brother and me how the theatre was going to look: seats here and here and here, the stage here, dressing rooms downstairs here.
My brother and I exchanged dubious glances as we tried to express some kind of enthusiasm. We didn’t see what he saw. (For a guy with only one eye, Jerry sure the hell had vision.)
But then things started to come to life. Paint and seats and new walls transformed the torn-up room into a black box theatre. And then plays started to come to life on the stage that we couldn’t imagine but that Jerry saw so clearly.
I worked on one of the first plays — a full-summer production of “The Fourposter.” The stage manager, Abby, was a girl just a year older than me, and if I recall correctly, she was also the tech staff. My friend Kip and I were the entire stage crew. I sat at the bookstore counter while my mom was working and used markers to color in some copies of the black-and-white poster to hang in high-traffic areas.
We had four shows a week, all summer long, and every night our call was preceded by a tense question: “How big is the house?” Jerry’s rule was that as long as the audience was bigger than the cast, the curtain would go up. (Figuratively speaking, anyway, since Cyrano’s never had a curtain.) This might have resulted in some canceled shows but for one factor:
“The Fourposter” has a cast of two.
And yes, there were nights when we played to a house that small.
At the end of the summer, Kip and I knew the words to every single American standard on the pre-show playlist (I can still nail “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “In the Good Old Summertime”), had drunk our weights in Cranberry Lemonade Fruitopia, and were paid in bookstore credit, which was honestly probably better to us than cash at that point in our lives since neither of us yet had a driver’s license and the subsequent need for gas money.
It wasn’t the last time I’d spend long nights backstage (or onstage) at Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse. Jerry asked me to stagehand another two-person show, “Henry and Sarah,” a year or so later, a run that included a road trip to Valdez, where we stayed at the Village Inn, to the great delight of myself and my friend and fellow stagehand Jennifer (the no-relation Village Inn on Northern Lights being the No. 1 top hangout of our high school social group). When my mom was cast as Ouisa in an Arctic Moon Theatre Company (later Once A Year Theater Company) production of “Six Degrees of Separation” at Cyrano’s, I tagged along to the first read-through and ended up cast as Tess, her daughter, which is easily the most cathartic, therapeutic casting possible for a teenage girl because Tess literally spends basically every one of her scenes rolling her eyes and/or yelling at Ouisa, four shows a week.
The big box bust
When I was 16, I started picking up a Saturday shift in the bookstore. It was my first real job and I was bananas proud of it. I made five dollars an hour, which in 1995… was still not very much money. But it was enough to justify opening my first checking account, which I funneled directly into clothes from Jay Jacobs and Value Village, mainstream alternative and Broadway soundtrack CDs from the Sam Goody store in the Anchorage Fifth Avenue Mall, cheese fries and coffee at Village Inn, and, significantly, right back into Cyrano’s (aided by my employee discount).
Ultimately, my career at Cyrano’s would outlast my mother’s. Not long before I started working in the bookstore, Anchorage’s mid-’90s big box store boom started, and Borders Books and Music landed on the corner of Dimond Boulevard and Old Seward Highway. It was followed soon after by Barnes & Noble in Midtown. The one-two punch decimated Anchorage’s local small bookstores. I believe I was the last new employee brought on; in the year that followed, the staff gradually dwindled, whether though attrition or downsizing or some combination of both I’m not sure. My mom left to manage a small creative agency. And by the summer of 1996, it was mostly just Jerry and Sandy in the bookstore. But I was cheap, and I think they liked having me around, so I stayed for a while.
What working at Cyrano’s lacked in compensation, it more than made up for in cachet (and, again, that employee discount). There were certainly better-paying jobs for teenagers in Anchorage in the mid-1990s, but there weren’t many that were much cooler than working at the indie bookstore downtown. With the exception of the handful of friends who worked at the candy store in the Northway Mall (where they had leeway to give out free samples when the manager wasn’t around) and the few who managed to get paying music gigs, I felt confident I had one of the more awesome jobs in my peer group.
I worked Tuesdays and Thursdays that summer, taking the Route 2 bus from my house in Midtown because I still hadn’t gotten around to getting my driver’s license although I’d been of legal driving age for a year and a half. I’d wait outside for Tim, the café manager at the time, to unlock the door, and when he was late (which happened more often than I would ever admit to Jerry), I’d walk down the street to the Fourth and E Grocery to get a Snapple and a packet of Pop Tarts.
I ate a lot of Pop Tarts that summer.
I opened and Jerry closed, but he still came in not long after I did. I got to see him at his friendliest, his grumpiest, and his most imposing. I know there were days I exasperated him (I hope he never told anyone about the customer who was looking for a book by Kurt Vonnegut and I was genuinely confused because I was thinking of Kirk Douglas; I WAS SEVENTEEN, OKAY?), but there were also days when I made him laugh, and those were the best days. One morning I showed up to work and Tim wasn’t there to let me in, which wasn’t unusual. What was unexpected was the scene I encountered: a line of police tape cordoning off the area around the store, a crime scene van, and a small army of APD officers going in and out of the building. Terrified, I took my morning walk down to Fourth and E, and then I came back and stood on the street near the store, not sure what to do. I can still feel the relief and sense of safety that flooded my body when I saw Jerry come rushing around the corner. He was the one who let me into the store and told me there’d been a murder upstairs. We opened as usual, and I don’t recall being terribly troubled about it once he arrived; even though Jerry was visibly rattled, somehow his being there made me feel like I didn’t have anything to worry about.
At the end of the summer, I decided it was time for my Cyrano’s career to come to an end. I’d spent the rest of my time that summer helping launch a weekly high school page for the local newspaper, and we’d developed a succession plan that would have me taking over as editor in December. Already the check for my weekly column was as much as I made in a day at the bookstore. After spending most of my free time in my teenage years at Fourth and D, I was ready to move on to new experiences.
You can go home again
I didn’t spend much time at Cyrano’s in the years that followed. I went away to college, then moved to the East Coast for a few years. I’d come in and say hi sometimes when I visited home, but not always.
In 2005, as I was preparing to move back to Anchorage for graduate school, Jerry passed away. There were a lot of things I wished I could have said to him at that time, which is what usually happens when someone dies and you haven’t seen them in a long time, or even if you’ve seen them every day, and I’ve tried to say some of them to Sandy in the years since, and I’ve tried to say some of them in this post. And honestly, lots of them have been said much better by many other people.
In short, Jerry and Sandy made a difference in a lot of people’s lives, and mine is one of them.
It was a little over ten years since the last time I walked out of Cyrano’s as an employee that I walked back in with a completely new role (ironically, with the same paper that started taking up my time when I left my job at Cyrano’s): arts critic.
Even though I grew up in the theatre and started my music education at a young age, I always suffered from a touch of impostor syndrome when reviewing local music and theatre performances. This was both most and least true at Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse.
On the one hand, I grew up at Cyrano’s. I’d performed on its stage, worked behind its scenes, and been there as both the theatre and the company took shape (literally; I watched the construction). I knew Jerry and Sandy, their passion, and their vision.
And on the other… I knew Jerry and Sandy, their passion, and their vision. I grew up at Cyrano’s, where I was just a kid watching as they skillfully built this crazy thing that has become a community institution. I was pretty sure I had no business evaluating their work product.
Ultimately, whatever play I was sent to review at Cyrano’s, I always found myself thinking of Jerry and the love he had for the theatre, and I think (or hope, at least) I tried to bring some of what I knew about him to the reviews I wrote. I never knew Jerry to be unnecessarily delicate or hold back when it came to his assessment of art, and I’d had the opportunity to spend a lot of time watching him both as a performer and as a director. So in those moments when I felt doubt creeping up, I’d try to channel that part of him and think “What would Jerry have said about this show?” I don’t know how successful I was, but I do know it was always an honor to be welcomed as a critic in the theatre he and Sandy built, and I hope I lived up to the responsibility.
I can’t have cocked it up too badly, because in 2015, when a writer dropped out of an ambitious project Sandy had cooked up to celebrate Anchorage’s centennial, my phone rang. It was Sandy, asking if I would take his place. Which is how I ended up walking into Cyrano’s in yet another role: playwright. Weirdly, it was far less stressful than reviewing plays there. At least if the audience hated the play I’d written, I could blame it on the actors.
(I insisted on writing a role for my mother just to be safe. And also because she told me to, and sometimes when you get older it turns out that nepotism is a two-way street.)
Most of the places I hung out as a teenager look different in today’s downtown Anchorage. The mall is still there, of course, but Jay Jacobs and the music store are long gone. Ulmer’s Rexall went out of business and the space became Cook Inlet Books, which managed to lure away longtime Cyrano’s fixture Wayne Mergler. Cook Inlet eventually went under and now there’s a salon there. Fourth and E Grocery is a Hard Rock Café.
I moved away from Anchorage (again) this year, and even though I hadn’t been getting to the theatre much in the last few years since my children were born, Cyrano’s is one of the things I miss. I knew anytime I walked into the lobby, I could count on Sandy to be there, asking about my brother in New Mexico, plugging the next show, dropping hints about how lovely it would be if my mother happened to make a lemon meringue pie sometime. The children’s book section was my special haunt when I was a young teenager, before it was downsized as the store shrank, and I spent hours down there reading and shelving and organizing. Sandy still talks about how much I loved David Kirk’s Miss Spider books. A couple of years ago, I mentioned to her that my then-toddler daughter was obsessed with singing “The Wheels on the Bus.” The next time I saw Sandy, she gave me the very copy of Paul O. Zelinsky’s exquisite “The Wheels on the Bus” pop-up book that she used to read to her own grandchildren when they were small. (Sandy, if you’re reading this, it continues to be a favorite, and we have kept it in very good condition!)
I expected to miss Cyrano’s, but I didn’t expect to miss the end of its life at Fourth and D. Sandy retired as the director of the resident theatre company two years ago, and the new leadership has decided to relocate out of the original Cyrano’s building and into the former home of Out North Contemporary Art House (another building full of memories for me, where I used to take dance class when it was Alaska Dance Theatre, and where I went to storytime as a very young child when it was the Grandview Gardens library, and located just across the street from the former home of the newspaper where I got my start and where I am now a part-time remote executive and yes, for being a decent-sized city, Anchorage is a very small town).
Recently, there’s been a public movement in Anchorage to preserve the historic 4th Avenue Theatre, located a few blocks down the street from Cyrano’s. That’s another building that figured largely in my childhood; during construction of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, the Opera and the Rep both moved into the former movie theatre, and my brother and I spent long hours prowling the back hallways, racing cars down the lobby banister, and admiring (BUT NEVER TOUCHING, MOM, I PROMISE) the scenery and props backstage.
OK, one time I did sit on a prop chair for “La Cenerentola” that had a large “DO NOT SIT” sign on it, but what did they expect when they put that there and then let little kids hang out unsupervised?
Come to think of it, that “Cenerentola” incident might have happened at the old Sydney Laurence Auditorium, not the 4th Avenue. In which case, never mind, and let us never speak of it again.
I loved my childhood at the 4th Avenue Theatre too, but for some reason the idea of it changing doesn’t give me that deep pang of nostalgia and wistfulness that I felt when I read the news about Cyrano’s moving. Maybe it’s because the 4th Avenue has already sat vacant for so many years; maybe because there are already people lining up to promote its value to the community. Ultimately, though, I think the difference has most to do with the people behind it. I never met Cap Lathrop, but I was around to watch Jerry and Sandy build something at Fourth and D that changed theatre in our community. And while that impact unquestionably lives on, it’s hard to think of it living on in another location.
I have no doubt that the current leadership of Cyrano’s Theatre Company is doing what it believes is best for the growth and sustainability of the company. In addition to being incredibly well respected in Anchorage’s local arts community, the new producing artistic director admitted to “mixed feelings” about the move. It can’t have been an easy decision. I hope it’s the best one for Cyrano’s, for Jerry and Sandy’s legacy, for live theatre in Alaska.
And even if this is what’s best for Cyrano’s, even though I’ve moved away and don’t expect to return to Anchorage for good, I’ll miss the “cultural mini mall” at Fourth and D.
Even the dust.
Even the silverfish.
Also, Mom, maybe you could bake Sandy that pie now.