By John J. McKay
It’s the end of an era. For almost fifty years, Mr Whitekeys has been part of the Anchorage cultural scene. He’s gone from a guy who plays the piano in a bar, to a local icon, to an artistic legend (by Alaskan standards). After Aug. 22, he’ll move on to the next phase of his career, whatever that is.
Whitekeys and some of Anchorage’s funniest performers have put on the Whale Fat Follies (under various names) since 1986. Over the years this multimedia extravaganza has included sexually frustrated salmon, tap-dancing outhouses, sourdough tales, Elvis impersonators, an ode to the mighty and majestic woolly mammoth, and more Don Young jokes than you can shake an oosik at. But the congressman for all Alaskans hasn’t been the only target of the Follies’ barbs. The show has been an equal opportunity insulter, poking sharp sticks at over a generation of prominent Alaskans of all political stripes.
I’ve known Whitekeys since he first got started and we sat down for lunch the other day to reminisce about his career, the show, and the future.
So, this is really it?
No one’s going to call you back to “do one for the kids?”
Well, this is the farewell tour; this is the last Follies that we’re going to do. And I’ve said before, the Rolling Stones have done six farewell tours. Elton John’s current farewell tour is going three more years. I just found out that KISS did their first farewell tout nineteen years ago. If I live as long as Keith Richards anything can happen, but there are no plans to do another one after this summer.
Where did it all start, the multimedia show. You had the club and you were bringing up great people like Jay McShan and the late Dr John. What made to decide to go in this direction?
It was self-preservation in a total catastrophe. It was the mid-eighties and the bar business was under total siege in Anchorage. They raised the drinking age. They shortened the bar hours. They enacted the toughest drunk driving laws in the country. A lot of that is perfectly justified and OK but if you’re in the business, you’re assaulted by totally game-changing rules year after year. With the drunk driving laws, liability insurance went up 600% in one year. The final step, that no one realizes even today, they changed the time zones in Alaska. In the early eighties, sunset was at 9:40 and people came to bars because it was getting dark. When they changed it, people were mowing their lawns until eleven and they weren’t going out. Everything about it was a disaster for the bar and restaurant business. We needed to find something to get people in earlier in the evening. We decided, “let’s do a show.” We’d run it for six weeks, from July first to the middle of August. And we never stopped. It was sold out and we kept extending it by two weeks until it got to be November and we decided, “let’s do a Christmas show.”
You’ve had some great people, Kim Clifton Moore, Jill Bess, Satchmo, and Sourdough Mike McDonald. Loosing Mike must have been a big blow since he was such an anchor from the very beginning.
Yeah, it was. But the thing I liked is that this wasn’t like doing a production of Macbeth where you say, “we’ve got the script and we need a Macbeth and we need a Macduff and we need the guards and you’ve got to say these lines…” We had this great advantage, because we were writing our own stuff, we could take advantage of who people were, what they did, and shape that into the show we were doing. When Jill came in, she’d done musical theater, we did satires of that. When Alice came in, she’d been a beauty queen, so we used that. And Satchmo did this killer Elvis impersonation. We took things that people did and built the show around that. We were with Mike for a long time and did things around the Sourdough, but when he passed away, we found some other people and used what they did. We didn’t try to recreate the exact role.
Do you think the show would ever have survived without Don Young?
Oh, not for five minutes. As hard as it is to believe, he’s going to outlast the Whale Fat Follies
For all the slapstick, you’ve kept it topical.
That’s whole point. If we weren’t doing that, we would have stopped this twenty years ago. It’s not an exercise in repeating the greatest hits. We do that, but we add new stuff to it all the time. If we weren’t keeping up with what’s going on out there, we would quit years ago.
Let’s jump back a little earlier, how did you get into the bar business in the first place.
There were these guys who bought a bar on Lake Spenard. It was called the Fancy Moose and they remodeled it. They were real-estate guys, not bar guys and they wanted to build a hotel on the property. They knew this was going to take permits, not just zoning permits, but from the FAA because it was in the flightpath of lake Spenard. They knew this would take several years and they wanted to run the bar to pay for the property until they were ready to tear it all down and build the hotel. They built the Flying Machine, which was an up-market disco, and they had this hamburger restaurant, the Red Baron, next door. The Flying Machine went great guns. It was a killer money maker from the get-go. The hamburger restaurant failed within four or five months. They opened a Mexican restaurant and that failed. The opened a bar and that failed. They opened private club and then another bar. They basically had this gold mine in one half of the building and the other half was tanking regularly. They were so desperate that they showed up and said, “hey, kid, you want the keys to a bar?” I wasn’t doing anything earth-shakingly important so I said, “why not? I don’t have anything to lose.”
But you weren’t just any kid. You were pretty well-known around town.
Well, sorta. I’d been around playing music for a while. I didn’t know anything about running a bar, but I’m a curious guy. When I was playing music, we’d go in in the afternoon to set up or rehearse and everybody was doing inventory or counting bottles. I’d ask, “why’re you doing that? What happens after that? What do you do with those numbers?” So, I had a handle on the things that people do in bars. I wasn’t just walking in, playing music, and walking out. I’d seen what works in bars and what doesn’t work in bars. That’s a big step.
What’s your final wisdom after fifty years?
You’re asking me for wisdom? There’s no wisdom at all because there’s no master plan. People always accused me in the Fly By Nightclub days of being this evil mastermind with this secret plan to dominate that world. No, what you see is what you get. I’m just a sleazy guy looking for a good time and there’s not any more to it than that. I’m a shallow guy. There is no wisdom and there is no wisdom around. You can look in any direction. You will find a lot of things, but you won’t find wisdom.