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An Alaska tinseltown star's unlikely role in mushing history

Helen Hegener

How Alaska’s very own movie star filmed one of the state’s most historic and famous mushing events:

Ray Mala, the first Alaskan and Native American film star and the focus of Lael Morgan’s 2011 book Eskimo Star: From the Tundra to Tinseltown, the Ray Mala Story is in the news again with efforts to add a star in his name to the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. An article for Alaska Dispatch, Alaska’s Fight for a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,  details how fans and supporters of the Alaskan movie star are redoubling their efforts to have his name added to the well-known Tinseltown landmark.

Referred to in his heyday as the ‘Eskimo Clark Gable,’ due to numerous prominent roles in major Hollywood films, Ray Mala also played a role in mushing history. During the 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the “Great Race of Mercy,” 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs relayed diphtheria antitoxin several hundred miles across Alaska, from Nenana to Nome in just five and a half days -- a record which has never been broken.

During the relay, many Americans were transfixed by the story as it unfolded almost in real time via the marvelous new invention of radio. The story gripped the imagination of the entire nation, both the mushers and their dogs were portrayed as heroes, and the story received headline coverage in newspapers across the United States. The famous newsreel of the Serum Run to Nome was filmed by none other than Ray Wise Mala, then only 19 years old.

Because it was too dark for photos when the antitoxin arrived in the early morning hours, Mala borrowed a camera, then staged and filmed a re-enactment later that morning of the final musher, Gunnar Kaasen, arriving and delivering the antitoxin to Dr. Curtis Welch. Sale of that valuable historic footage to Pathe News brought Ray Mala to the attention of Fox Studios in Hollywood, where he eventually landed a job as cameraman, and later became a film star in his own right.

Pathe News footage filmed by Ray Mala in 1925 (two videos, parts one and two):

Helen Hegener is an author and a documentary filmmaker specializing in long distance sled dog races and the men, women and dogs who run them. This post originally appeared on her website, Northern Light Media. It has been republished with permission.