If they weren’t smiling when they arrived, the more than two dozen people who turned out to see Moose Jaw Seims Saturday night were grinning when they left.
Throughout the Alaskan’s recitation of Robert Service’s “Grin,” Moose Jaw — whose real name is A.J. — challenged the audience members at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center to grin the loudest.
It took a little coaching to get the audience going, but the promise of a free copy of his book — “Yarns of Alaska: The Ballads of Moose Jaw Seims” — got many of the attendees vocal and smiling.
“If you’re feeling kind of groggy and you’re licked beyond a doubt,” Seims said in a booming voice.
“Grin,” the audience chorused back with smiles on every face.
But it was Shelley Harvey who won the prize.
Harvey cheered grin before Seims even started the official competition. She attended the show with a group of friends to celebrate her birthday, and won the book for her jumping-the-gun enthusiasm.
“It was fantastic,” Harvey said of the show with a smile. “I loved it.”
Getting the audience to grin isn’t a new technique for the performer.
Seims, who integrates Robert Service poems and his own original works about Alaska into his performances, came up with that audience participation strategy nearly 20 years ago when he was performing at the Kenai Merit Inn.
“We actually had a cabin set with the log walls and everything,” he said.
He wrote an hour-and-a-half show to perform on that set, and decided he wanted to keep the audience involved.
“That’s where I started doing the grin stuff,” he said.
He had just come back from Outside, where he went to acting school.
“My plan was to go to Los Angeles and become a big star,” he said.
But his plan changed, and he returned to the Kenai Peninsula where he grew up.
“I decided I would go back to my love of Alaska,” he said.
It was a natural fit to share that love and his skills as a performer for audiences in Kenai.
But after a summer as Moose Jaw, Seims decided it was time for a real job.
He spent about 20 years working various jobs in towns throughout Alaska.
Then last January, he decided to plunge back into theater full-time.
“I started an acting academy in Wasilla, so I teach acting and do plays and stuff there,” he said.
He also travels around the state performing as Moose Jaw, something he’s done on-and-off since inventing the character decades ago. And in July, his first book was published.
The new path brings him full circle in many ways. It means he and his childhood best friend are pursuing similar dreams.
Before he was Moose Jaw, Seims was a Sterling teen who attended Soldotna High School and graduated in 1983. He and Joe Rizzo were like twins, he said. Their names ran together because it was rare to find one without the other.
“People would call us Joe and A.J.,” Seims said.
The two took different journeys, but they stayed in touch and often crossed paths.
Saturday night at the visitors center, Rizzo worked the lights for his old friend. And now they are both helping introduce another generation to theater. Rizzo teaches in Nikiski and runs the local Triumvirate Theatre, and Seims has the new AJ’s Alaska Acting Academy.
Seims’ performances aren’t the only tie he has to his local roots. His first book came out in July, with a little help from Peninsula friends.
Nikiski graphic designer Chris Jenness designed the book. Daryl Pederson, a Girdwood photographer who grew up on the Peninsula, took many of the photos. And now it is on sale at stores in and around Seims’ hometown.
The book compiles much of Seims’ original work, including a piece called “Fair Gendered Loneliness” that won the Fur Rondy storytelling competition a few years back.
Saturday’s performance included a recitation of that poem, other original works and a slideshow of Alaskan images set to another poem. Sam McGee and Dan McGrew made guests appearances as well, featured in two of the three non-original works he performed.
“I did probably more of the Robert Service than I normally do,” he said.
Service was an early influence in Seims’ style.
Early in his exploration of theater he worked with Larry Beck, a famous Alaskan Robert Service bard.
“I’d always had a love for Robert Service,” Seims said.
Even his own pieces have a sense of rhythm and rhyme reminiscent of the northern bard’s work. But he adds elements that are particular to his Peninsula roots too, such as a piece about the ups and downs of salmon fishing, and the biggest fish he almost caught.
“Alas that great king gave up our great fight,” he lamented.
What keeps his voice booming with those northern tales?
The same thing he asks his audiences to contribute.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said with a grin of his own. “I enjoy it, I love it.”