Story last updated at 6/19/2014 - 2:31 pm
"Would you like to go to Bradfield Canal to do a story on Chuck Keen's motion picture, 'The Timber Tramps?'" owner-editor-friend Bob Pickrell asked.
It was midsummer 1972, and Juneau's Chuck Keen had rounded up a number of famous actors to come to the remote valley scraped out by the Bradfield River about 75 miles north of Ketchikan.
On an overcast day, Ketchikanites Bob and Arlene Pickrell, their daughters Candy and Penny, artist Mark Wheeler and I boarded the Ketchikan Air Service Beaver with Terry Wills as pilot. Forty-five minutes later, we saw the milky blue waters of Bradfield Canal and the river flats at its head. We landed in front of Sykes Logging Company's camp, where the filming was headquartered.
Dick Sykes of Wrangell and a crew of loggers began harvesting timber here in 1966. Millions of board feet of spruce and hemlock were yarded from the hillsides, bundled into rafts, and towed by tugs to Wrangell Lumber Company and Alaska Lumber and Pulp in Sitka.
Things came to a sudden halt when Sykes became entwined with legal complications in 1972, so the camp was inactive. What better place to film a logger's movie! There were trailer homes, cabins and a cookhouse to accommodate the cast and production crew. Above all, the logging equipment could be used in the movie.
The cameras in Bradfield Canal, Wrangell and Juneau were recording takes of the first full-length movie produced and financed in Alaska. In 1965, Keen formed Alaska Pictures Inc. in Juneau. Previously he had filmed a series of documentaries in Vietnam, some Alaska shorts, and a feature with Juneau talent "Jonico and the Kush-ti-ka."
In 1970, Keen began his campaign to produce "The Timber Tramps." He was a friend of John Wayne who often visited Southeast in his yacht, the Snow Goose. Keen hoped to interest the superstar to play the lead. As he waited for an answer, he tackled a tough project: raising $1.5 million.
Juneauite Dick Garrison put up $50,000 to get the action started. Keen approached Frank Murkowski, at that time President of Alaska National Bank. Murkowski put his right-hand man Dick Cavin on the project. After seven months of negotiating, Keen had his money.
It was a hot cloudless day in Bradfield Canal when we climbed into a "crummy" - the vanlike vehicles used to transport loggers - to be driven 20 miles up the logging road to the day's filming place. To my amazement, there were few people around. Many were dressed as loggers. We muttered among ourselves, "Which are the loggers and which are the actors?"
I learned that only those actors in the scene were at the site. The others were back at camp.
Pickrell, as editor of a free, monthly newspaper named The New Alaskan, asked me to write a story for the September 1972 issue. (Thanks to Bob for letting me combine his and my stories for this article). With paper and pencil I headed out to talk to the actors that were waiting for their parts. First I found Leon Ames, a film actor since 1933, who patiently talked about movies and his acting career, but it took Stash Clements to tell me the plot.
I learned that the phase "timber tramp" referred to a good logger who moved from camp to camp as the challenge presented itself. Clements (who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as a tough jockey in "Salty O'Rouke") briefed me.
Matt, the timber tramp, and Corey, the heroine, were engaged 20 years ago but she married a logging camp operator instead. Her husband died, and she tried to keep the operation afloat. She hired old friends including Matt from Washington and told them to bring a crew. The excitement takes place when the "bad guys," via sabotage, try to keep the camp from succeeding.
Today, 42 years later, most of these Hollywood actors are no longer familiar to many people. That is, except John Wayne who wasn't interested. The star was Claude Akins as the tramp. Previously he was in "Skyjack" but had not had a starring role until after this movie. The four loggers were Swede (Tab Hunter); Redwood "Rosie" Rosenbalm (Roosevelt Grier), Haulback Jack (Clements) and the Deacon (Leon Ames). Eve Brent (who played Jane in some of the Tarzan series) appeared as Corey. The "heavy lead" (i.e. the bad guy) was Hal Taylor, a heavyweight fighter of the '40s, turned movie actor.
The sawmill owners were Cesar Romero (The Thin Man, Vera Cruz), the madam - Patricia Medina, Shug Fisher (who played Shorty on the "Beverly Hillbillies"), Stubby Kay (Guys and Dolls), and Kid Chissell. At the time we visited, most were familiar names and we were excited to meet them.
How did Keen find Hollywood actors? Keen and his wife Karen poured through "Players Academy" catalog. "It was almost like ordering from Sears," Karen said. Meanwhile the Hollywood grapevine was effective and the appeals of Alaska and the story line about loggers "had the pros coming to us," she added.
Soon filming began. A bar fight was shot in Wrangell and many old timers remember watching the fake windows come shattering out of the frames. Scenes were taken in Juneau, but for the Pickrells, Wheeler and me, it was the Bradfield segments that we learn about.
With money, contracts with name Hollywood actors, and the ability to use the Skyes logging camp for many of the scenes, it was time to head to Bradfield Canal to see how movies were produced.
This is the first part of a two-part series. For the second part, pick up the June 25 issue of the Capital City Weekly or visit us online at www.capitalcityweekly.com.