Story last updated at 11/25/2009 - 12:04 pm
Divided by islands and water, Southeast Alaskans are also united-by the Xtra Tuffs in the hallway, the ability to filet a salmon and their support of and participation in the Monthly Grinds.
At a Grind, you may see a one-act play, a barbershop quartet and Sitka novelist John Straley reading an original short story accompanied by the band Fishing for Cats.
"You never know what you're going to get," said Ted Howard, Sitka coordinator, sound man and Fishing for Cats member.
The Monthly Grind originated in Ketchikan as an evolution of the annual First City Folk Festival. As the festival grew from one night to two full days, organizers realized there was enough local interest and talent for a monthly show. They also tweaked the format into that of a variety performance with few limitations outside of time.
"We really wanted to have an event that was a cross section of the community-not just people who played folk music," said Peggy Hovik, one of the original Grind coordinators. "It was totally grassroots, right down to the tickets."
Local artists designed tickets and posters, and they named it the Monthly Grind with the idea that it would be a small coffeehouse affair.
Instead, the Ketchikan Monthly Grind quickly outgrew the 50-person capacity Main Street Theater and moved operations to the Saxman Tribal House. There they routinely sell out of the 260 tickets allotted per month as they have for the last twenty or so years.
According to Hovik, the first Grind was in 1989.
"It will be disputed until the end of time, and it all has to do with babies," said Hovik. "We remember these things according to where our babies were."
When Jeff Budd moved from Ketchikan to Sitka, he brought with him the idea for a Monthly Grind. "I knew the people in Ketchikan really enjoyed it, and this seemed like a town that would enjoy it too."
"It was something to do in the winter," said Howard. "There really wasn't any other venue. There were no coffee houses then-especially none open in the evening," added Julie Schmitts, another Sitka Grind coordinator, sound tech and performer.
It debuted in 1994, and in January, Sitkans will celebrate the 100th Monthly Grind. Rumors hint to the presence of many celebratory kazoos.
Held at the Sheet'ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House, the 250 tickets usually sell before the day of the show. Also sold out beforehand are the 500 tickets to the November Maritime Grind at Centennial Hall which coincides with Sitka WhaleFest.
In March 2007, Sally Burch played at a Ketchikan Monthly Grind with fellow members of The House Band.
"We got hooked," Burch said. "That night we started talking about how we could make one happen."
In September of 2007 in the Craig High School auditorium, she and fellow coordinators produced the first Island Grind. With an average audience of about 170 people, participants came from Hollis, Thorne Bay, Naukati and other communities on Prince of Wales Island.
Artists in Juneau and Haines also have produced a few Monthly Grinds.
Though the Grinds in the different towns are not affiliated, they are inspired by the Ketchikan Grind and follow the same basic format: a host introducing a few scheduled acts, each 5-15 minutes long with an intermission or post-show homemade dessert buffet and coffee. The five dollar ticket price is refunded at the door to anyone who brings a homemade dessert.
At some point it became a competition with the desserts judged anonymously. In Sitka, judges award three first prizes with one or more often awarded to Jane Eidler, who reportedly has never repeated a recipe. In Craig, an additional award goes to the dessert that best matches the theme.
And theme ideas are infinite. Craig recently held a Night of the Living Grind; Ketchikan's upcoming Grind is hosted by hospital employees and is expected to be filled with scrubs; Next for Sitka is the Beatle Grind.
They are all seasonal, running from September or October through April or May. Shared goals are to be affordable, family-oriented, non-political and alcohol free.
At five dollars for adults and one dollar for children, the tickets are affordable. Money that isn't refunded for desserts is used on space rental and coffee supplies, but over time, small sums accrue. After saving Grind money for two years, coordinators in Craig presented two middle school and two high school students with tuition scholarships for the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. The Sitka Grind donates about 2,000 dollars each year to a multitude of local arts groups.
In Ketchikan, Monthly Grind coordinators dream of a grant for a traveling Grind that could use the ferry system to reach more communities.
"It's sort of a 'Prairie Home Companion' idea," Hovik said.
In addition to goals, the Grinds share similar obstacles. Most coordinators juggle Grind organization with a full-time work schedule.
"We're always looking for people to help," said Schmitts. "And we're trying to get some young people producing," added Budd.
Considering the difficulty of assembling artists from all over Prince of Wales Island, coordinators of the Island Grind in Craig are considering a quarterly format. They would like to bring in performers from other Southeast communities as well.
Despite the obstacles, the Monthly Grinds persevere in a few Southeast communities due to the sense of community they impart and the multitude of volunteers donating time and goods. (Enough volunteers, in fact, every word of this story could have been filled with names thanked during interviews.)
Schmitts sets up the stage and loves seeing new performers.
"I feel my job is to make them comfortable," she said. "I want to help them relax because the audience is going to be great to them. They have no idea."
"There are so many creative people," said Hovik. "Everybody brings a whole new idea to it."
The format helps too.
"There are some regulars that people enjoy hearing, and we try as hard as we can to get new faces up there too," said Budd. "The other trick is, if you don't like it, wait 10 minutes, and it'll be over."
Jessie M. Waddell is a freelance writer based in Sitka. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.