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.
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.
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.
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.”