Jerry Harper

The University of Alaska Anchorage named its black box theater after Jerry Harper, who operated Cyrano's Off Center Playhouse. This story was reprinted from the May 24, 2005 edition of The Northern Light by Paul Bryner
Photo of Jerry Harper from the Rasmuson Foundation website
Photo of Jerry Harper from the Rasmuson Foundation website

A Final Goodbye: Black Box Theater Renamed to Honor Cyrano's Harper

One month after the death of Jerry Harper, a premier director and actor in the Anchorage theater scene, hundreds of friends, artistic collaborators and fans gathered at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium, May 10 to pay tribute to Harper’s life and artistic vision.

Harper, who operated Cyrano’s Off Center Playhouse and acted as artistic director of the Eccentric Theater Company, died of cancer, April 8.

In tribute to the founder of one of Anchorage’s most highly esteemed venues, a wide variety of performance styles were on display, ranging from Irish step dancing to klezmer music and capped off by a video tribute which included rare footage of Harper’s television appearances in such shows as “M.A.S.H.,” as well as statements from prominent local artists and writers.

Jerry was interested in creating a legacy,” said Kim Rich, author of the memoir “Johnny’s Girl.” And not just a legacy for himself, but for the rest of us.”

At the end of the night, the black box theater in the UAA Fine Arts Building was renamed the Jerry Harper Theater in a dedication ceremony led by Chancellor Elaine Maimon.

The black box seemed like the right place for a tribute,” said Fran Lautenberger, professor of theater. “It’s the place where a lot of our students have their first experience of theater, perform for the first time.”

Since its inception in 1992, the theater at Cyrano’s has been an important venue for students from UAA interested in acting and design.

I’m 22 years old and I’ve been able to do things some people never do in their lives,” said Stuart Matthews, a UAA theater major who has performed in several shows at Cyrano’s. “I’ve been paid for acting. I’ve been able to work in one of the best places in town. I have Cyrano’s to thank for that.”

Harper’s friend, Marilyn Buckley, emphasized the crucial role that theaters such as Cyrano’s play in educating performers and audiences alike.

Unless people are challenged with ideas, they become stunted and worse, they don’t even know they are stunted,” Buckley said. “They become self-righteous, complacent and cynical.”

Throughout the evening, speakers recalled Harper as a joyous, caring and sometimes mischievous presence.

Cyrano’s co-founder and UAA alumnus Todd Beadle recalled an instance where Harper forgot his lines during a production of “American Buffalo.”

Jerry tore into a long, improvised, stream-of-consciousness monologue,” Beadle said. “He was like a derailed train. And at the end of it he plopped down into a chair, pleased with himself, looked at me with his one good eye and smirked, challenging me. Just try to follow that.”

David Edgecombe, professor of theater, recalled Harper’s performance in UAA’s production of “King Lear.” In order to make the right dramatic impact as Lear, Harper insisted on going through with a scene in which he carried actress Lindsay Lamar down a high staircase.

Jerry had a glass eye so his depth perception wasn’t so good,” Edgecombe noted. “But he never dropped Lamar.”

Tom Skore, chair of the theater department, expressed satisfaction that the dedication of the black box theater to Harper was achieved so soon and with little bureaucratic red tape. The dedication was announced shortly after Harper was hospitalized.

The prospect meant a great deal to Harper, Skore said.

My one regret about this is not having learned more about [Harper] while he was alive.”