Chilkoot Charlie’s and the Bird House

 

Photo copyright Dale Shawgo.  Permission is granted by Shawgo to Growing Up Anchorage for non exclusive use only.

Photo copyright Dale Shawgo. Do not copy. Permission for use is granted by Shawgo to Growing Up Anchorage.

Of all the more senior men in my personal life, Skip Fuller is the one that I hold in the highest esteem.  He was my mentor.  He believed in me and never faltered in his support of me until the day he died.  In fact he made a point of calling me “son” when I visited him for the last time on his deathbed in Mesquite, Nevada.  I impressed him early in our relationship when I, having bought the Alibi Club (which was basically an old-style Fourth Avenue bar in Spenard) from him and his partner, Jack Griffin, stated boldly that I was going to triple his business.  He replied, “You may double it, but you’ll never triple it.”  I quadrupled it in the first year.

I understood something that Skip did not.  Although Fairbanks had the Malemute Saloon, Juneau had the Red Dog Saloon and even little Homer had the Salty Dawg Saloon, Anchorage had no bar with an authentic Alaskan theme.  All the bars were either trying to mimic outside operations, or they were neighborhood bars, nightclubs or strip joints.  A couple of high school friends and I had successfully owned and operated the Bird House Bar, another of the funky Alaskan themed bars, on the Seward Highway from December of 1967 to December of 1968, our first business venture, which we had purchased from the estranged wife of the original owner, Cliff Brandt.

One of my partners, Johnnie Tegstrom, had leukemia, a present from Uncle Sam for having worked at the nuclear test site on Amchitka Island for a summer.  Shamefully, the United States government denied culpability in this matter for decades, or until most of the living relatives of the afflicted had passed away.  Johnnie spent most of his time in cancer treatment in New York during our year of ownership of the Bird House Bar.  My other partner, Norman, whose father had loaned the three of us the money to purchase the place, was the managing partner and worked the bar during the week.  I was married to my first wife and selling life insurance for New York Life.  Each week, on Friday afternoons, I would drive to Bird Creek and take over the bartending chores from Norm.  Working the place by myself, forty miles out the Seward Highway, with no phone, until 5:00 a.m., I would stagger to the little shack we owned behind the bar and go to sleep.  At noon the next day I would reopen the place and run it straight through until 5:00 a.m. again, stumble back to the shed for the night and reopen again on Sunday at noon.  Norm was supposed to relieve me around 6:00 p.m. as I recall, but was frequently late, which was the cause of some aggravation because I then had to drive back to Anchorage and present myself bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in suit and tie for an 8:00 a.m. Monday morning sales meeting at New York Life.  I did this routine for a year.

Johnnie Tegstrom at the Bird House, 1967-68

Johnnie bartending at the Bird House, 1968

In late 1968 it was apparent that Johnnie was not going to live much longer.  Norm wanted to return to college to continue his education, so we put the Bird House up for sale and it sold immediately for twice what we had paid for it to an ex-school teacher, Dick Delak.  Dick successfully operated the bar until December, 1993, when he was killed in a commuter airplane crash near Hibbing, Minnesota.  I believe he was on his way to visit an uncle for Christmas.  After Dick’s untimely death, his wife, Susan, ran the bar until February 18th, 1996, when it burned to the ground in the early morning hours.  Though the fire department blamed the blaze on faulty wiring, I have been told locals thought it was arson perpetrated by a Bird Creek resident.  I bought back the Bird House Bar name and rights from Susan in 2002 and rebuilt the place as part of Chilkoot Charlie’s.  She had dealt with a number of suitors for the name, but sold to me because she believed I would do it properly.

There was an open area at the rear of Chilkoot Charlie’s where we had horseshoe pits and held a free meal every Sunday afternoon for many years.  Amazingly, the Bird House fit perfectly into that space.  Believe it or not, the old place had an extant as-built survey, as well as a scale model made by some Bird Creek fan, and, of course, there were photos and videos available.  The fact that I had worked the place every weekend for a year didn’t hurt either.  Having been everyone’s favorite little bar, I was determined to make sure that it was an exact replica, and it is, right down to the bumper stickers around the inside of the bar.  The crew at Chilkoot Charlie’s, with the help of architect, Jeffery Wilson, built the place and when our crew got the bar installed they excitedly recruited me from my office nearby to take a look at it.  When I noticed the bar angle was not right and needed more of a slant to it, Craig, my property manager, said, “We can’t do it, Mike.  If we raise it on the outside end any more you won’t be able to see inside and if we lower it anymore on the inside we’d have to tear the floor out and start all over.”  My immediate reply was, “Start tearing.”  To my great satisfaction, no one has ever criticized the reincarnation.  It is a virtual time machine, though the only thing in it that was actually in the old Bird House on the highway is the stove, singularly unaffected by the blaze.  Thus, the Bird House Bar had been the parent of Chilkoot Charlie’s and now Chilkoot Charlie’s is the parent of the Bird House Bar, under whose wing it is protected by a modern fire sprinkler system.

Mike and Jeff with model of The Bird House

Mike and Jeff with model of The Bird House

While bartending at the Bird House Bar during my year of weekends I met my future partner in Chilkoot Charlie’s.  He was a lawyer named Bill Jacobs, who owned a condominium at the base of Mount Alyeska and travelled back and forth from Anchorage to ski on weekends, regularly stopping to imbibe at the Bird House Bar.  Norm and John and I had frequently discussed the idea of figuratively putting the Bird House Bar on a flat bed truck and hauling it to Anchorage, where all the people were.  Bill and I became friends and I convinced him of the idea of creating an Alaska-themed bar in Anchorage.  Bill made an arrangement with his mother, living in Chicago, to borrow $20,000 and the hunt was on for a location.

Bill was practicing law and I was feeding my family by selling life insurance while looking for a bar that suited our purposes.  I had also made an arrangement with another friend to purchase a half block of property in downtown Anchorage with fifteen rentals on it, I being the resident manager.  Bill and I were involved in probably ten different potential deals, some of course more appealing than others, and the very first one was the Alibi Club on Spenard Road, owned by Skip Fuller and Jack Griffin.  I was not sure at the time that it was the best location and I felt they were asking for too much money.

Meanwhile, I was tired of selling insurance and a lot of people had suggested to me that I should become involved in radio or television, mostly because of my voice.  In those days, broadcasters had to take a pretty simple FCC test and be licensed before they could go on the air, so I went to the old federal building on Fourth Avenue and got licensed.  Next, I applied for a job as a disc jockey with local radio station KHAR.  I vividly remember Ken Flynn was the station manager and he had me go into a little booth and read a couple of advertisements over a microphone.  One was an ad for Volkswagen.  When I was finished he said, “I hate it when some kid walks in straight of the street and sounds better than I do!”  Then he hired me.

Selling life insurance for New York Life, I basically set my own hours, so, though I was working on the downtown apartments, trying to put another bar deal together and crawling under the buildings of prospective purchases through the reeking fumes of space heaters placed to prevent the plumbing from freezing, I went in the mornings to KHAR each day to learn how to work “the board.”  My teacher was Ruben Gaines.  This chance meeting was one of the most important in either of our lives though neither of us could have possibly guessed it at the time.

Ruben was the consummate raconteur, and a truly gifted and professional writer and entertainer in every sense of the word.  They simply didn’t “make ‘em any better, man!”  I marveled at his abilities.  He had a program called Conversations Unlimited, in which he entertained Alaskans every day of the week for half an hour during prime drive-home time with his storytelling, wit and social commentaries, mixed with easy-listening music fore and aft.  His theme song, I nostalgically recall, was Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”  Ruben had different established characters in his stories, including Doc, Mrs. Malone, Six-toed Mordecai and, of course, Chilkoot Charlie, a titan sourdough reprobate Ruben dreamed up during a long, rainy winter in Ketchikan in the late 1940s.  Ruben would bring these characters to life for his audience, and when he put himself into their different personalities he virtually become them.  The character I remember most vividly being personalized was Doc, the crusty sourdough, for whom Ruben would greatly protrude his lower lip to produce the appropriate vocal personality.

Ruben had also worked a spell in Fairbanks before settling in Anchorage.  While working in Fairbanks, he and another talented radio guy, sportscaster Ed Stevens, would brilliantly broadcast “live” major league baseball games.  Of course, there were no satellites back then, so Alaskans had to wait several days for tape recordings to arrive, and calling the states was expensive.   Ruben and Ed would receive the play-by-play information about a game from a buddy in the Lower 48 by telephone and would then “broadcast” the game as if it were live, including the excitement one would expect from the announcer, the sound effects of the ball being hit, the crowd roaring and all.  People in the Bush never knew the difference between Ruben and Ed’s broadcasts and the real thing.

Each morning I sat watching Ruben produce his magic and not long after something monumental happened.  Oil was discovered on the North Slope and a state auction raised $900,000,000 from the sale of leases at Prudhoe Bay.  It was a colossal amount of money in 1969, though today the state’s budget is well over ten times that much each year.  As Bob Dylan so aptly noted in his popular song, ” . . . the times they [were] a-changin’,” and given the changing circumstances, I figured I would visit Skip Fuller again to see if the Alibi Club was still for sale.  It was, but the price had gone up, like the price of everything else.

Not wanting to miss the potential bonanza of owning a bar during a boom period, Bill and I bit the bullet, borrowed the pre-arranged $20,000 from his mother for the down payment and closed the deal.  Now owning the bar, I had to finalize my ideas on a name and specific Alaskan theme for the place.  It came down to two ideas and I kept a pad by my bed and woke up frequently in the night writing down ideas about both.  One had to do with a much-maligned local variety of salmon—the pink, or humpy.  I had scales of ideas about Mr. and Mrs. Humpy.  You do not have to think long about the idea to realize what fertile ground it is and, of course, sooner or later someone was going to employ the name, and did.  The other idea was Chilkoot Charlie’s.  I was torn between the two names.

Mike, the original Koots greeter

Mike, the original Koots greeter

I had a young married couple living in the six-plex on East Sixth Avenue.  The husband’s name was Mel Bownes.  He was a schoolteacher and I really liked him and his wife.  When I would go around to collect the monthly rents they would sometimes invite me in for dinner.  They lived in a very large apartment on the ground floor that had originally housed a gambling operation.  As a side note, a tenant at another time in this unit, Joe Hendricks, now Alaska’s most senior big game guide, tried to start the fireplace one night and almost burned the place down because the second floor had been built right over the first with no flue running through from the top of the first floor to the new roof line.  I either failed to warn him or was as ignorant as he, probably the latter.  There was a picture over the fireplace that had hinges on the upper edge so it could be lifted up and behind it was a hidden safe installed in the days when the apartment building had housed a gambling operation.

One night while I was having dinner with Mel and his wife I presented my dilemma to them.  Mel hesitated not a moment and said, “What, are you crazy?  Call it Chilkoot Charlie’s!”  How could I turn down the forcefully presented suggestion of a guy, who was providing me with food and wine, and not only was a tenant, but had been a customer at The Bird House Bar and was a life insurance policy holder of mine to boot?  It was a done deal.

We opened Chilkoot Charlie’s on January first of 1970, New Year’s Day, and the worst night of the year for any bar, but in the tradition of old Alaska, Skip threw a welcome party for us, inviting all of his loyal patrons and friends, and we grossed an incredible $464.50 that first night.  Skip said, “When you sell a place you want to make sure the new guy can make it, and you’ve got to allow for him to do it in the way you structure the deal.”  He also said after the party, “Hang onto your money.  You won’t have another night like that for a long time.”  We grossed $7,534.43 that first month and ended up the year with a gross of $158,775.  Cliff, my manager, and I had so much fun with our zany outfits and our three piece band, The Rinky Tinks that first year, and business took off so fast, it was like hanging onto the bumper of an accelerating vehicle while trying to keep your legs moving fast enough to keep up.  Toward the end of that first year, Skip said, “This place is going to pay for a lot of mistakes.”

25 comments

  1. Bruce Poitry says:

    Thanks Mike for bringing back some great memories!!!
    My wife & I started going to Koots in the early 90′s as work friends to watch and listen to Tommy Rocker. Then started dating and kept going to dance, see Tommy & just enjoy the people. 20+ yrs and 2 kids later and we have Koots to blame for it all!! ;-)

    • Mike Gordon says:

      Bruce–

      We’ve often talked about having a party and inviting all the married couples that met at Koot’s and were later wed. Maybe we should get off our lazy duffs and just do it!

      Mike

  2. Einar Tveit says:

    I lived on Seward from 1968 to 75. The Bird House was always a pit stop In both directions. Remember Ted Stevens license plate on the wall with the panties and bras, paper money, business cards, and what have you, from all over creation.In the spring we would chase stewardesses, when the airlines had their competitions at Alyeska. They often would come to the bar after the races.I was sad to hear the place burned down. Tons of good memories from those days

    • Jana Ariane Nelson says:

      Thank you, Einar, for joining us and enjoying these stories!

    • Mike Gordon says:

      Einar–

      It is a shame the old place burned down but the one at Koot’s has been open now over ten years and it is an EXACT replica. Stop in some time and have a pickle!

      Mike

  3. Chrysti says:

    Thanks Mike for the great story! I had no idea of your connection between the two bars, let alone all the history behind them. I only knew of you from Chilkoots, think I met you once or twice. When I was younger, my parents often took us on drives along the Seward Highway, fishing trips or whatever, we always stopped at the Bird House. It was the craziest place I’d ever seen as a young person. The epitome of Alaska in my mind. Once I was of age, I was a frequent reveler of Koots. Had many a fun time there. I remember standing in line for two hours to get in one night because I won a ‘golden ticket’ on the radio to see Pauly Shore w/ MTV filming there – on a 10 degree night, standing there in a mini-skirt no less. Hilarious when I think back. Great memories of both places! I moved out of state a few years before the Bird House burned down, and was sad to hear what happened. Very cool that you did right by it, recreating the experience in the back area of Chilkoots. I will make it a point to see it next time I come back for a visit. Question – can one still ‘call the Ptarmigans’? :)

    • Mike Gordon says:

      Chrysti–

      That day when Pauly Shore showed up was, and still is, the busiest day we ever had at Koot’s. As for the Bird House Bar…the ptarmigans still roost right outside the window!

      Mike

  4. Sam Warner says:

    Great Story Mike! I speak of Koots often… the Bird House as well. They were great times in my life. The older I get, the more I like to remember those days. I remember my first shift on the long bar… I didn’t realize how many shots the patrons would buy me… I passed out while counting my bank, and of course Rocky took full advantage of the photo op. I will never forget the crew… Cousin Alan, Rocky Fuller, Nick Danger, Baby Huey, Dirty Dick… even Special Ed… It was a great time! Bouncing back and forth for years to come between Koots and the Midnight Express… I will never forget the fun we had! Thanks Mike, without you there would be a lot less stories to tell… actually… there are quite a few I can never tell!!!

    • Mike Gordon says:

      Hi Sam–

      As I’m sure you’re aware, I share the issue of having a few stories I can’t tell either. I’m glad I brought back a few fun memories for you. Oh, yea, Special Ed. Remember Line Drive?

      Mike

  5. Jodie says:

    This story made me cry, though I was underage, I snuck in many times and remember many of the people there as I didn’t really drink. I remember that floor so well and even that cigarette machine on the right. And of course the out door area, all before the upper floor was open. I remember being told to be careful in the bathroom as there were booby traps to scare the ladies but never saw them. And many times going dancing later when I was legal in the 80′s but by then it was more commercial. I can’t wait to see the Bird House when I go back to visit as the Bird House was the first bar I ever drank in. Thanks so much for this history and the web page, I will be coming back often.

    • Mike Gordon says:

      HI Jodie–

      I appreciate your comments, though I never thought a tale about Koot’s and the Bird House Bar would make anyone cry.

      Mike

  6. Kathy Northcutt says:

    Thanks for the memories Mike. Enjoyed the content and your raconteur style. I will always feel a connection to those days at Chilkoot’s

  7. Jim Woodard says:

    This brings back some great memories- the ram horn full of talcum powder and the fake trap door to the women’s bathroom hooked up to the buzzer in the bar. Hope they are still there! Spent some great nights there playing foosball with Sonny, Lanier and Gary Swanson.

  8. What absolute fun those days were — and how refreshing to again “see” J. Tegstrom and Norm. Thanks Mike for reviving this period of time and staying, somehow, forever young.
    jan

  9. Connie Walker says:

    Boy, do I remember both of those bars. One summer evening our friend Robert suggest we go for a drive which ended up at The Birdhouse Bar, when it was out the highway. What a weird place with that slanted bar and bras, panties, and dollar bills plastered on the ceiling. And Chilkoot Charlie’s was such a famous place that I once wrote a story using it as a hangout for the Hell’s Angels.

    Great story.

    • Mike Gordon says:

      Hi Connie:

      Thanks for your comments. Incidentally, the Hell’s Angels were “86ed from Chilkoot Charlie’s.

  10. eldermusician says:

    Oh, the sadness of it: all the great times I missed !! Thanks, Mike, for another delightful story. You can keep writing all you want, because you have a committed reader here. g

  11. Jana Ariane Nelson says:

    Mike, this brings back so many memories! I remember stopping by the Bird House in 1968 .. I think Norm was behind the bar, but perhaps it was Johnnie. I loved the floor covering you had to wade through – peanut shells, if I recall. AND the autographed ladies panties plastered all over the walls. What a crazy bunch we all were! :-D

    • Mike Gordon says:

      Jana–

      Glad that you liked it! Thanks for providing the website!

      Mike

      • CHRIS FOWLER says:

        THANKS MIKE, DAVE GREENFIELD DOWN IN AUGUSTA WILL ENJOY THIS…THE OL BIRDHOUSE BEING A GARAGE, PROGRESS I SUPPOSE….HIT FRANKLIN STREET IN JUNEAU IN 63 AND BEEN BAR HOPPING EVER SINCE….CHRIS

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