October 3, 2009

Soapy Smith retires! Thank you Jim Richards!

Jim Richards
courtesy of the Skagway News

Not the real Soapy Smith, but Jim Richards who has played Soapy for the last 36 years in the Days of '98 With Soapy Smith Show, Skagway Alaska. That's one year less than Soapy was alive. Jim has been instrumental in keeping the history of the real Soapy alive and prospering. Below are the online newspaper stories.

From the Anchorage Daily News.
Published: October 2nd, 2009 12:30 PM
Last Modified: October 2nd, 2009 01:07 PM
Link: Skagway News

Skagway 'Soapy' takes final bow after 10,000 shows

Jim Richards, a Skagway actor who portrayed the infamous Alaska Gold Rush con man "Soapy" Smith more than 10,000 times over 33 years in the town's tourist show "Days of '98," gave his last performance Sept. 17 for a packed house that included many locals. Making the occasion even more poignant was the fact that three weeks earlier, Richards suffered a stroke onstage and was rushed to the medical clinic. Five days later, he was back onstage. When asked after his final performance, "Did [playing Soapy] ever get to your head?" Richards replied, "They took an MRI of my head a few weeks ago, and there is some scar tissue in there." Richards had been easing out of the role for several years, and Jon Baldwin has been taking his place.

(Click image to enlarge)
Days of '98 Show poster
Jeff Smith collection

From the Skagway News
Published: September 25, 2009 • Vol. XXXII, No. 17
by Jeff Brady

Final bow for Jim ‘Soapy’ Richards

A packed house at the Eagles Hall Theatre on Sept. 17 witnessed the finale of the undisputed king of the frontier actors.

After a little more than 10,100 shows, Jim Richards is moving on from the role he perfected, that of gold rush con man Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith in the Days of ’98 Show.

Richards came to Skagway at just the right time, the mid-1970s, when the second gold rush – tourism – was in its formative years. Richards first played Slim Jim Foster, a banjo-playing member of the gang, in the original “Soapy Lives” show at AB Hall. When the first Soapy, Tom Biss of Juneau, stepped aside three years later, Richards took over the role. The following year, in 1978, he formed Gold Rush Productions with Dorothy Shaplin and Steve Hites, and they merged with the then-fledgling Days of ’98 Show at the Eagles. What resulted was a professional play about Skagway’s gold rush history that mixes music, dancing and comedy with the rise and fall of Alaska’s most notorious criminal. Richards eventually became sole owner, and the ’98 Show has had a long, successful run with him at the helm.

And for all of those 33 years – almost as long as his character lived on this earth – Richards has been Soapy Smith. Although he gradually eased out of the role over the past few years, allowing Jon Baldwin to play most of the shows, Richards still commanded attention right up to his last time on stage. And on Skagway’s Broadway, he still answered to “Soapy.”

“How ya fixed for soap?”

It’s a special day, as about 100 cruise ship passengers get a hint of what is going on.The place is packed, with locals filling the gaps in the rows, standing in the back, and filling the balcony.Not only is this the 266th and final show of the 84th season, but it’s a “monumental occasion,” says lead-off bard Michael Baish, a boyhood friend of Richards who gets the crowd warmed up with Robert Service poetry.

Then Richards strolls onstage with piano player Mark Radice to loud applause. He picks up his banjo, and announces that they will play a “syncopated tune heard on the streets of Skagway 100 years ago.”

“Yeah, Jim!” yells someone from the balcony.
But the man strums his banjo and stays in characters as the cast rolls right into the show, which is, they sing, “mostly true…partly true!”

After the opening number, Richards launches into the immortal soap pitch, created by Soapy on the streets of Denver, and perfected on his way up to Skagway. Richards is a master at manipulating his audience, probably better than Soapy ever was – except once.
To those who know, this is the moment where a stroke silenced him onstage just three weeks ago.

It happened on a Friday afternoon, Aug. 28. Richards says his mind was clear, but the words just would not come out, and the show ground to a halt. Richards was rushed to the clinic, as the audience got their money back. Baldwin filled in for the weekend shows, and Richards was home from the hospital and back in action the following Tuesday.
Cast members were amazed, and Richards made it another couple of weeks to the season finale.

“I’ve never heard him sound better,” Radice says later.
“He was soooo good,” says dance hall queen/director Margeaux Heaton, who will take over the show next summer. “And to think he was just in the hospital 2-3 weeks ago. I can’t imagine the show without him.”

“Greed is what brings them here, greed is what keeps
them here, and greed is what sends them home broke.”

Richards admits, he loves delivering that line.
The unrestrained climate of gold rush Skagway allowed Soapy Smith to prey on unsuspecting cheechakos and then rise to power.

Richards said he still loves playing the “John Fay scene,” in which Soapy takes advantage of an opportunity to put down mob rule by a vigilante committee after the Rowan-McGrath murders.

“Soapy was at the pinnacle of his power, and absolutely had control of everybody,” Richards says. “People were too involved in the gold rush, and nobody opposed him.”
But the power was short-lived and came crashing down on July 8, 1898, when his gang robbed a gold prospector in broad daylight. In the last part of the play, as the vigilante committee grows in strength, Soapy tries to explain himself with each drink from the bottle.

“I’ve been better for Skagway than…” Soapy says, trailing off, a conflicted con man, torn between good and evil, and done in by the carelessness of his own power.

“Did it ever get to your head?” the actor is asked later by the reporter.
Richards laughs, “They took an MRI of my head a few weeks ago, and there is some scar tissue in there.”

And so, unlike Soapy, the actor knows when it’s time to move on.
“You know, it’s been real fun, but I’m ready (to retire),” he continues. “I’m way past ready.”

Richards admits he could have done a better job in the PR department, and says it’s great to be able to hand over the show to someone like Heaton.

“It’s been hard finding someone to take over,” he said. “Margeaux knows the ropes. She’s been involved in basically everything for the past six years, and she’s got some good help.”

“I play Soapy’s…. well, not his mother.”

Jim Richards (Soapy) sings “Moonlight, the Yukon and You” to Margeaux Heaton (Belle) during Richards’ ’98 Show finale after 36 years on the Skagway stage. Heaton will take over ownership of the show next year.
photo by Andrew Cremata

Heaton says the prospect of taking over the ’98 Show is “very scary,” but she is also “thrilled.”

She said it was first offered to her three years ago, and then it progressed from the talking stage to something serious this past summer.

“I’m honored that he would trust me with the tradition,” she said. “I want to take us in the direction we need to go. I think I have the energy and the drive.”

She’s already working the ships, and talking to other local tour operators about pairing up for next summer.

“The sky’s the limit,” she says. “But Jim will help. He’s still trying to con me.”
For now, she will head to Juneau for six weeks of rehearsals for a different show. Heaton will be in Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Leading Ladies” in November.

“We’ll build a sweet little nest, somewhere in the west,
and let the rest of the world go by.”

As Belle Davenport, Heaton sings that song right before her man walks down the street to his death.

For Richards, the westward stroll will take him back to Hawaii with his wife Terri, who has helped him keep the show going these past few years. They’ve been working on a home during their winters on the big island for the past decade, and it’s time to finish it.
But Richards says he will be back in the spring for a couple weeks to assist in the final transition.

The show ends with the traditional “Alaska’s Flag” which Richards belts out for the last time. And then there is a long – very long – standing ovation.

The cast gives Richards a shirt from his first stage gig, “Soapy Lives”, and then Charlotte Jewell presents a large bouquet of flowers from Richards’ former partner, Dorothy Shaplin, and their kids Brooks and Jimmy in Sweden.

He asks us later to print the inscription. How can we refuse Soapy’s last request? After all, he even controlled some of the press in this town for a time:

Well Soapy the day finally came
When the Shell Game comes to an end
You stood here how many times
And repeated always the same old lines.
Dancers, Actors, Writers and Musicians
Directors, Ticket Takers and Light Technicians
Public faces, well known faces
Watching you go through the paces.
Show after show, year after year
Oh, all the stories, we could laugh till tears
Now that you’re feeling just fine
Write them down so we’ll all remember the good times.
Wish I could have been there, Brooks too
Plus a whole lot of others I’m sure
You’ll be missed on stage in the theatre
For we know Jim that nobody did it better.
Wishing you all the best,
Dorothy, Brooks and Jimmy

The Smith family is forever grateful.
Thank you Jim!


1 comment:

  1. Thanks Jim Richards!! I still have the playbill from 1992, wich I believe was the 3rd time I saw you as Soapy. You have inspired me to fall in love with the character since a little girl! Your acting as Soapy will be greatly missed.


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