The Days of ‘98 Show cast of 1990. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE DAYS OF ‘98 SHOW
Portraying famous Skagway villain Jefferson ‘Soapy’ Smith onstage
By ALYSSA DE ANGELUS
A man dressed in a tailored three-piece suit zips through the dark aisleway of the theatre. His gold poke rocks back and forth in a horizontal motion and he carries a gusto of emotions on stage in his tightly-fisted hands.
In one fell swoop, the man in black stomps his feet together, his eyes scan the crowd and his gaze fixes squarely on an audience member. That ironclad stare could only be described as shrapnel piercing through human flesh, merciless as a deadman’s shot from a 45-70 lever action rifle.
The man was harsh yet seductive, dangerous and intoxicating. He had a devilish smile and a sugary-sweet tongue and he dressed his booming opportunistic thoughts with a thick banded wild west hat that kept the lawless at a comfortable distance.
As three ladies perform synchronous one-legged jumps, a shadow is cast stage right. As the whipping sounds of molting feather boas quiet, the stage clears until a shadow roughly the size and shape of a tall, handsome Georgia native with the piercing stare is all that remains.
His knuckles shuffle empty booze bottles around a small wooden table until his liquored voice rises with dignity for a four-page monologue about the business of hygiene in Skagway’s gold rush days.
But the trademark of this confidence man, the end-all be-all of his very existence, was the purse of gold he kept in his shoulders. The weight of greed stiffened him and the notion of wealth and power inflated his chest.
Though the man of mystery stood on stage, the spitting image of Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, he couldn’t possibly be him. Soapy was never drunk enough to sing in public.
You don’t ask, you tell
Climbing inside the mind of a notorious gang leader was dangerous, but The Days of ‘98 Show actors TJ Besler and Bill McCarthy live for the challenge.
Ten minutes before the show begins, audience members unknowingly interact with doppelgangers of historic Gold Rush figures selling tickets for the show at the box office on Broadway. Glasses are worn casually and colloquial language is interspersed in conversation until the five-minute warning quickly transforms a boardwalk-bound alias into a vaudeville entertainment piece.
For 55-minute bursts three or four times a day, five-six days a week, a community of professional actors perform a musical history about Skagway.
McCarthy has been playing Soapy Smith in The Days of ‘98 Show for three seasons. He still remembers the day he auditioned for the part at the Ripley Grier building outside of Penn Station in Manhattan. A week and a half later McCarthy recalls pacing the floor of his apartment in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for hours at a time, hoping to graduate from line memorization to sculpting a notorious character.
“Soapy is not your run-of-the-mill wild west outlaw,” McCarthy said. “He’s not a Bat Masterson, he’s not a Doc Holliday, he’s not a Wyatt Earp. Maybe opportunity-wise he’s one of them. You know, he’s cut from a different cloth.”
The trick is a demanding presence, said Besler – who is a newcomer to playing the Soapy character – but no two Soapy’s are the same. Vocal physicality, height difference, body type, character interpretation, stride, it’s imperative to use one’s unique strengths to bring out the best possible version of the role.
McCarthy’s broad shoulders allow him to instill fear from a purely physical presence and Besler’s faux-Georgian southern draw helps him lean toward Soapy’s more charming and intoxicating side.
“Both are valid, both are successful,” Besler said.
With 406 shows on the docket for the 2018 season, the cast strives to keep their performances fresh. A word of advice from a veteran director like Michael Baish can go a long way.
“‘Just remember as Soapy Smith you are in control and you can do anything,’ and what that does is it frees you as an actor because you speak so much and you do the show so much that sometimes it can become a little bit on autopilot and you have to catch yourself,” Besler said.
“What he’s [Baish] saying is that I can mess up and that as long as I am in character as Soapy Smith, messing up the audience buys into it. It’s the moment that I drop that character, they don’t buy into it.”
A complex villain
Former college roommates from New York, Jonathan Baldwin and Jonathan Hays, bought the rights of The Days of ‘98 Show in 2010 from previous owner Jim Richards.
The building – which shares a space with Skagway Eagle Aerie #25 – has itself been supported by the hotel frames of Soapy’s former living quarters, the Mondimen Hotel. Hand-me-downs of stage photos stuffed in boxes and old gold rush artifacts furnished the rooms. It wasn’t long before decades of Soapy Smith photos, both of volunteers and paid actors, were plastered on the walls leading into the theatre.
Once the gambling room was polished and the theatre was in pristine condition, the script was reevaluated for historical accuracy. After multiple script readings and external research Baldwin found positive qualities in Soapy that were not accounted for in previous versions of the show.
Years ago, Soapy’s great granddaughter carried his diary to Eagle Hall in a plastic bag and flipped through pages about his boating adventures with Baldwin in the lobby area. Many pages talked about his trip to Denver and his consequential sea sickness, providing a window of understanding in Soapy’s less-than-glamorous facets of life as a legendary conman.
“Getting the audience to understand, whether they agree with them or not, that’s the philosophy,” Baldwin said.
Romance was another side of Soapy that few people were privy to; historical documents make mention of a girlfriend of the Skagway gangster, though her name is never mentioned. To portray the romantic side of Soapy, the character Belle Davenport was created for The Days of ’98 Show, making the fictitious relationship between Davenport and Soapy one of the most difficult scenes to authentically present to an audience as an actor or actress.
“It’s hard to believe that he loved her in the way we understand love,” Besler said. “That there wasn’t something in it for him to some extent.
“He cared about her in his way. You can’t let Soapy give up too much authority because there are certain things he would not let get away with.”
Baldwin says that he prefers to leave some elements of Soapy’s life up for interpretation, that an actor should be free from opinion when they are emitting character and allow audience members to reach their own conclusion.
“You’ve got to tell this story like you are telling it to kindergartners,” Baldwin said. “The only thing that you need to do is speak to the audience and tell the story. Don’t try to act, don’t try to be something, just embrace that story and tell it like you believe it.”
“It’s interesting because the history books, if there is anything on him, they see him as kind of a delinquent or like a murderous outlaw or something he might not be, but the town is what really makes Soapy’s legacy interesting,” McCarthy said. “Did you see how people cheered [during a shooting reenactment on July 8] for Soapy that live in this town? They see him as a hero.”
Conman in the mirror
Soapy was immortalized the day a clumsy skirmish of shots were fired at Sylvester Hall and became a well-maintained legend in Skagway.
Preserving a legend, however, always comes at a cost.
The art of storytelling, and some say the ultimate sacrifice for the craft, is when the line between reality and fantasy is crossed.
When a character becomes the individual, rarely do they come out unscathed on the other side.
Many say this was the case for the great Jim Richards – that his 33-year-old stage relationship with Skagway’s notorious gang leader continued for so long that 10,000 plus shows transformed him from a regular guy into the reincarnation of Soapy himself.
Only once, the late summer of 2009, was Richards faulted for breaking character on stage.
His perfect illusion could only be destroyed by the unpredictable beast of nature.
On Aug. 28 Richards walked on stage to recite his lines. When Richards opened his mouth, however, nothing came out. A stroke had silenced him and the audience was aghast.
Despite weeks of critical care in a hospital Richards returned on stage for a strong finish.
Many reporters used to ask Richards if the role of Soapy had ever “gotten to his head” and Richards never failed to use the opportunity as a way to make light of his incident.
“They took an MRI of my head a few weeks ago, and there is some scar tissue in there,” Richards said in a 2009 issue of The Skagway News.
Though the town is no longer a collection of beat up saloons and dirt-cheap ramshackle housing, the colorful cast of characters from the Klondike Gold rush remain. And in the dead of night, when the tourists fade into the distance on their cruise ships and the bustle of streets are no more, a vague whisper from saloons tip off where the restless go to enjoy themselves and where the haunted might follow.