There are good, caring, generous people in the world like David White, and there are the others: the brutes, the knuckle-draggers, the ogres. Roy Mayer was one such. He was too simple-minded to have a sense of humor or to carry on an intelligent conversation, but he was big—very big—and built like a tank, weighing nearly 300 pounds. When he walked through the door, he blocked out the light. What he lacked in intelligence and sensitivity he more than compensated for with callous, reptilian aggressiveness. He was a bully—a thug.
I have harbored contempt for cowards and a hatred of bullies since conception and contend that the two are interchangeable and mutually reinforcing.
Bullies do what they do because they are cowards, and at least some cowards do what they do because they are bullies. I quickly realized that Mayer, with only one thing on his mind—pounding on other people—was someone I didn’t need or want around. No matter that we had mutual acquaintances and he hadn't posed a threat to me personally. Yet.
Mayer worked around Anchorage as a bouncer in the late '70s, which gave him ample opportunity to beat up ill-fated customers under the guise of "protecting" a licensed establishment. When he was not so employed he would roam around Spenard’s nightspots, including Chilkoot Charlie’s, pounding anyone who got in his way with his ham-sized fists.
One night he provoked a fight in Koot’s when I happened to be only a few feet from the scene. After our doormen broke it up and hustled Mayer out the door of the club, I told them, “I don’t want that stupid son-of-a-bitch in here anymore.” I knew that was bound to present a problem for me when I encountered Roy elsewhere.
In January 1979, a new competitor arrived on Anchorage’s nightclub scene: an upscale disco named Bobby McGee’s, with a legal capacity of 500 customers. It was part of a chain operation headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona.
The flagship tenant of the financially-troubled International Marketplace on Tudor Road, a short drive from Koot's, Bobby McGee’s was a popular destination but did not present a competitive problem for us at Chilkoot Charlie’s. They closed their operation at 1 a.m., and the preponderance of our business was between then and the state’s official 5 a.m. closing hour. In fact, many patrons and staff from Bobby McGee’s arrived at Chilkoot Charlie’s after McGee’s closed for the night—a boon to our business.
It was a different story for Donovan’s, at the corner of Benson Boulevard and C Street. Frank Reed, Jr. owned that restaurant/bar, which was more of a direct competitor to Bobby McGee’s and rapidly losing ground in the battle with the Outside operation, “Outside” being the definitive word.
I encountered Frank at the Bird House Bar on the Seward Highway one afternoon, and he complained to me about “these fucking Outside operations coming in here and robbing business away from us locals."
"I’m not going to take it sitting down,” he said boisterously over one too many cocktails. And he sounded like he meant it.
I had been told that Mayer, now working as a bouncer at Bobby McGee’s, had some sort of familial connection with the owners, and that they were in turn connected with another sort of family in Arizona. There was a fair amount of talk about “The Mob” in those days, and there were in fact attempts made by that element to infiltrate the local industry’s topless dance clubs.
I was single at the time and dating a nice young lady by the name of Gaylene Brown, who I later discovered had been a school classmate and friend of my future wife, Shelli, at both Northern Lights Elementary and Romig Junior High School. One Sunday afternoon we were sipping on cocktails off to the left side of the main lounge area in Bobby McGee’s when who should walk in the door of the nearly empty establishment but Roy Mayer.
I rarely describe myself as prescient, but as Mayer marked my presence, thudded directly through the middle of the club and right up to the bar, I sensed trouble in the offing. I could almost see those tiny wheels furiously laboring away in Mayer’s melon-sized skull as he ordered and threw down a straight shot. He ordered another drink in a pint-sized glass while I watched him leering at us out of the corner of my eye, explaining to Gaylene that we were about to experience some real excitement of the dangerous, unpleasant, and thuggish kind.
Mayer left off his conversation with the bartender and strode over to the railing that bordered the lounge area, towering over Gaylene and me. After insulting my mother and my legitimacy, he asked, "Who the fuck do you think you are, 86ing me out of Koot's?" He made a less-than-polite comment to Gaylene and then doused us both with his drink. I immediately stood up, grabbed my drink in my right hand and looked up at the big galoot, who said, "You throw that drink on me and I'll fucking kill you!"
Splat! Without a moment’s hesitation, I sloshed the contents of my drink directly into Mayer’s face. Had it not been for the railing separating us he would have been instantly on me, but it took Roy some time to smash his way through seating and around the booth to get to me. By then I was in a position to defend myself, meaning simply trying to fend the guy off while rapidly back-pedaling and trying not to fall to the floor, which would have meant a trip to the hospital at best—to the morgue at worst.
On he came, closing in for the kill, until he finally had me against the west side of the building. Miraculously, I had backed into a fire exit door equipped with a panic bar. Accidentally impacting the panic bar hard with my rear end, I found myself standing alone in the parking lot, waiting for my tormentor to reappear at any moment. By then, however, the staff of Bobby McGee’s had been able to restrain Mayer. I stood there, shaken but exhilarated, until the restaurant employees gave me the all-clear signal. I grabbed Gaylene and we got the hell out of there.
During his bar-hopping around town, Mayer made it known that he was not done with me. I made a point of avoiding places where I thought I might encounter him, partly because a couple of days after the incident at Bobby McGee’s, Vern Rollins, an outlaw friend of mine and the person who later bought a stake in the Hogg Brothers Café, took me aside and, alluding to the alleged connection that Mayer had in Arizona, cautioned me against taking any action against him. He was obviously worried I might.
I said, “Listen Vern, I didn’t start this problem and I don’t intend to pursue it, but I’m not going to let Mayer push me around—or put me in the hospital—and I’ll do what I have to do to protect myself.”
That fall, when I opened the October 16, 1979 issue of the Anchorage Daily News over morning coffee and saw the front-page headline "Arsonist's Torch Destroys Bobby McGee's," I was as shocked as everyone else—though I had been more or less warned by my conversation with Frank Reed, Jr. at the Bird House Bar.
In the article, reporter George Bryson noted that the arson appeared to be a follow-up to a failed attempt made two weeks earlier.
Bryson went on to say that since the previous July, the developers of the center had been facing foreclosure proceedings by the Alaska National Bank of the North. The developers included Jack and Joyce Moore of Seattle, owners of Alaska’s Qwik Shop stores; Terry Pfleiger (1943-2016), an Anchorage realtor and friend of mine; and Robert Anderson, who had recently moved Outside.
The next day the paper announced that fire inspectors said there was going to be a “massive manhunt” for the arsonist. The Daily News reported that the damage to Bobby McGee's was estimated at $3.5 million, and there were three categories of high-probability suspects: disgruntled employees, similar businesses in Anchorage trying to eliminate competition, and owners of the building or the business trying to defraud their insurance company.
“’I can guarantee that some people are going to be upset with us before this thing is over," said John Fullenwider, chief inspector for the Anchorage Fire Department: "We’re going to go after him…this was the largest incendiary fire we’ve ever had in the Municipality of Anchorage."
As it turns out it was not a disgruntled employee or a hard-pressed developer attempting to defraud his insurance company, but the owner of Donovan’s, Anchorage scion Frank Reed, Jr., who was arrested along with his accomplices. Reed was charged with the arson as well as conspiracy, a gun violation, and using an explosive device. His trial became a lengthy series of plea bargains, convictions, appeals, overturns, exonerations, partial exonerations, and changes of venue.
Interestingly, the charges also involved an attempt to burn down Donovan’s itself on December 31, 1979—more than two months after Bobby McGee’s had been burned to the ground. The entire legal drama lasted five years, bringing shame and near financial ruin to one of Anchorage’s most notable families.
Back when I attended Anchorage High School in the late '50s, there was no more prominent family in Anchorage than the Reeds. They were a wealthy, community-minded, pioneer banking family and the patriarch, Frank Reed, Sr., served as chairman of the Anchorage Charter Commission. At the time of his arrest Frank, Jr. was a prominent Anchorage stockbroker who the Daily Sitka Sentinel said, “was worth as much as $100,000 before Donovan’s restaurant encountered financial problems." That's around $390,000.00 in today's dollars.
It took two trials, but Reed and another man, David L. Smith, were ultimately convicted on charges related to the burning of Bobby McGee's—however they were acquitted of attempting to burn Donovan's.
One night, years later, I encountered Frank Reed, Jr. in Chilkoot Charlie’s. His arrogance was undiminished by his time in prison. After our short conversation, I reflected that bullies and arsonists (the deliberate sort—not the mentally disturbed arsonists who can’t help themselves) represent different shades of cowardice. They first pick on people they perceive as unable to defend themselves and the latter resolve their problems illegally, at the expense of others because they cannot face up to their own failures.
When cowards run up against unexpected resistance they detour to the next victim, as Mayer did when I threw a drink in his face and Vern later reported to him that he was barking up the wrong tree. And a businessman who burns down his competition is, I suspect, capable of doing just about anything. Having once gotten away with arson, who knows what the next unacceptable inconvenience—or resolution for it—might be.