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View from the Top - Mr. Whitekeys

Boss

Mr. Whitekeys

Mr. Whitekeys

© 2012 Chris Arend

Mr. Whitekeys came to Anchorage in the early 1970s. On his first day in town, he got hired to operate a jackhammer, which he’d never done. On his third day, he saw a newspaper ad for a piano player at Chilkoot Charlie’s. “I figured I could be every bit as good at playing the piano as I was at running a jackhammer,” he recalled, “and I got the job.”

Keys spent the ‘70s playing in Spenard-area bars and creating advertising campaigns for local merchants. His team’s highlight was Chilkoot’s motto, “We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you!”

In 1980, he was handed the keys to a defunct hamburger restaurant that became Mr. Whitekeys’ Fly By Night Club. The nightspot was all about the entertainment business: “We became the only bar in Alaska that did not hire musicians to sell more alcohol—we sold alcohol to support the musicians,” he said.

“When we closed in 2006,” he says, “the entire town believed I’d retired.” But he only wanted to get back into full-time entertaining. “Now, I get to play stupid songs for a few hours and go home when the show is over. I don’t have to degrease the kitchen or clean the bathrooms. The audience can make all the mess they want, and I don’t care!”

VIEW FROM THE TOP It’s easy to be on top in Alaska because the bar isn’t all that high—you can be on top in Spenard and only be standing on the second rung of the ladder. I love the entrepreneurial spirit of the Last Frontier. You can succeed without having any kind of training or aptitude in any field. Where else can you buy a box of earring wires, gather a bucket of things that came out of a moose’s behind, and immediately find yourself in the fine jewelry business?

BON TON ROULEZ The whole point of my job is to have a good time. I get to laugh my way through my working day. There really isn’t any lofty artistic motivation or complex business plan—I just get to combine the things I enjoy: blues, jazz, rock and roll, photography, a snotty joke and the opportunity to turn rudeness and bad taste into the fun things they used to be.

MUSIC FIRST The Fly By Night Club was all about giving entertainment the chance to be center stage. Over the years, we got to hang out with blues pioneers Memphis Slim and Brownie McGhee, Kansas City jazz pianist Jay McShann, Zydeco musicians Queen Ida, Rockin’ Sidney and Cleveland Chenier, plus other giants like Mose Allison, Gatemouth Brown, Ben Sidran, The Red Clay Ramblers and Dr. John. It was like having the entire history of American music pass right through Spenard.

PROGRESS ALASKAN STYLE The neighborhood has changed a lot since we opened the club in 1980, and the biggest change is probably that the audience doesn’t throw nearly as many beer bottles at the stage as they used to.

POLITICS & COMEDY The only reason any of us live in Alaska is because we can’t make it anywhere else—and our politicians are no exception. We just give Alaskans what they like most—vicious political satire set to a happy, toe-tapping beat!

View from the Top is compiled by Peg Stomierowski

This article first appeared in the June 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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