ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Every February, hvac workers here may find their favorite adhesive in short supply.

But it's not an attempt to keep out the cold or even the threat of terrorism that sends many area residents flocking to the local hardware or home-improvement store for duct tape.

It's the Duct Tape Ball, an annual charity event organizers proudly bill as "wacky and tacky." Since 2000, about 300 duct -tape-decked Anchorage residents have gathered once a year to stick up for what they call the world's most versatile product. Wearing duct-taped tuxedos and top hats, they congregate in a historic

downtown Anchorage theater. To date, the event has raised more than $250,000 for Anchorage-area charities. This year's ball was held Feb. 7.

As strange as this may sound, organizers say it makes perfect sense: Alaska is the world's No. 1 per-capita consumer of duct tape, according to Nance Larsen of the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau. Larsen says more than 9,000 miles of the ultra-sticky stuff were sold there during 2002.

"Duct tape is a staple here," she says. "There is not a garage that does not have it."

Still, how exactly did duct tape go from the tool chest to the fashion closet?
 

From function to fashion

According to Anchorage resident Melissa Anderson, the move from function to fashion began about five years ago. On their annual camping trip, Anderson and a group of female friends were sitting around a campfire, brainstorming about better ways to raise money for local charities.

"We wanted to have something different to draw folks out," Anderson recalls. "We wanted (our fund-raiser) to be elegantly tacky."

Looking for inspiration, the women rummaged through their backpacks. The one thing almost all of them had was duct tape. And what symbolizes Alaska more than duct tape?

"You see it used for everything," Larsen says. "You could use it to repair an airplane fuselage or make a ball gown. ? It truly is a very purposeful tool."

The idea stuck. In February 2000, the women rented the 4th Avenue Theatre in downtown Anchorage and promoted the first Duct Tape Ball with the slogan "It's wacky, it's tacky!" Students from a couple local schools created duct-tape sculptures and made decorations for the theater. To advertise the event, the women covered a 1987 Subaru Hatchback with tape and christened it "The Ductmobile." The 3M Co. provided 2,600 rolls of duct tape - more than 466,000 feet - to help attendees in creating their costumes.

More than a hundred residents showed up wearing duct-tape boas, dresses with duct-tape fringe and cowboy hats with duct-tape bands.

The women raised $75,000 for the Special Olympics and decided they had the makings of an annual event. To give ball-goers some assistance in coming up with costume ideas, they started adopting a theme for each year's ball.
 

A duct-tape jungle

Last year, the theme was Hollywood, with participants encouraged to stick together "Alaska-style for the glitz, the glamour and duct tape." Attendees entered the theater like celebrities, on a duct-tape-covered silver carpet. Many stopped to wave to "fans" or pose for photographers.

The theme for this year's ball was "safari chic," and organizers turned the 4th Avenue Theatre into a duct-tape jungle, with 450 vines, and dozens of shrubs, trees and even a few monkeys.

Todd Scott, a duct-tape sculptor from Canada, created a rhinoceros, gazelle and even a flock of flamingos covered in hot pink-colored tape. Attendees wore everything from full-length gowns and tuxedos with duct-taped zebra stripes to leopard-skin shawls with duct-tape spots.

Anderson says it just shows how unique the event truly is. "I mean, how many places can you buy a duct-tape pink flamingo," she says.

All Scott's creations were auctioned off for this year's charities: Kids' Kitchen, a local food bank, and Help Give Us School Supplies, (HUGGS), which provides educational materials to underprivileged children. The event raised $30,000.

Anchorage management consultant Jim Palmer has attended every Duct Tape Ball. This year, he spent more than two hours getting ready, adding tape to his wife's dress and putting duct tape on the lapels of his tuxedo.

"It's so tacky, it's fun," he says. "Each year it gets better and better."

Anderson says it seems the longtime attendees wear the most duct tape. But for anyone considering taping the light fantastic for the first time, Anderson has a suggestion: Whatever you're going to wear, don't buy it in your regular size.

"Duct tape definitely shrinks your clothing," she says. "Duct tape is not very giving."

For the second straight year, the ball was sponsored by Henkel Consumer Adhesives Inc., formerly known as Manco Inc. Henkel donated more than 190,000 feet of its colored "Duck" brand duct tape for the event. The company also brought in Jim Berg and Tim Nyberg, also known as The Duct Tape Guys. Berg and Nyberg have written six books celebrating the polyethylene-coated sticky stuff, including The Ultimate Duct Tape Book and Duct Shui, a guide to achieving inner peace and harmony through duct tape.

"It's people having a lot of fun being creative and with an everyday tool," Henkel spokeswoman Valerie Stump says of the ball.

So far, no Anchorage companies in the industry most associated with duct tape have gotten involved in the ball, although Anderson says organizers would love to work with them.