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'Whale Fat' comes back

Mike Dunham
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

The "Whale Fat Follies," a musical, multimedia spoof of Alaska life and politics, opened at Mr. Whitekeys' Fly By Night Club in July of 1986. The press release announced that it would run through Aug. 16.

Instead it became an ever-evolving staple at the club, returning with fresh material each year for two decades before it closed in 2006. The Fly By Night Club became the House of Rock and then Tap Root. Whitekeys continued to perform, but "mostly below the radar," he said.

About five weeks ago, talking with Tap Root management, he proposed reprising the show for a limited run. Word started to spread and, before he knew it, Whitekeys was recruiting a cast, rehearsing the numbers and updating the material.

"It's been five years," he said over burgers at Arctic Roadrunner last week. "In 2006 there was no Barack Obama, no Sarah Palin or Lady Gaga. No Anthony Weiner."

On Tuesday -- in the same location where the original "Whale Fat Follies" debuted 25 years ago (3300 Spenard Road) -- Whitekeys will revive the show. It's scheduled to run Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays through Aug. 10.

We'll see.

KIDDIE SHOW

"Mr. Whitekeys" was born Douglas Haggar -- the name he still uses to collect his Permanent Fund dividend check -- on Feb. 25, 1947, in Ohio. He grew up in Phoenix, "drag racing, listening to Wolfman Jack and playing in bands."

And, like every other kid in Phoenix, watching "Wallace and Ladmo" after school on KPHO-TV. "It was like 'Rocky and Bullwinkle,' " Whitekeys recalled. "It was a children's show, but most of the material was really for adults."

Between cartoons a screwball troupe included a dysfunctional superhero, a miserable clown and a story lady who always twisted the endings. Then there were Ladmo's outfits: long, loud ties and top hats, a look later adopted by Whitekeys.

The show ran from 1954 to 1989. Whitekeys theorizes that had something to do with the rash of theatrical rock groups that came out of Phoenix, including the Tubes and Alice Cooper.

After a stint at Duke University ("I got a degree in psychology, I think"), Whitekeys came home, did odd jobs and met odd characters.

"Every time we turned around we were hearing some story about Alaska. It was too incredible to be real," he said. "I thought, if one-tenth of this stuff is accurate, then it's the weirdest place on earth -- and I gotta go there."

In 1970 he and a buddy drove up in a second-hand van painted with cartoon poodles. His buddy left quickly, but Whitekeys found Alaska to his liking. Everything but the bar scene, that is.

Drinking was a serious endeavor in those days. Alaskans imbibed strenuously and earnestly while growling about the unfairness of life, love, employers and government. Some saloons were less known for their entertainers than for what murders had recently taken place there.

"I kept noticing that people were not leaving the bars happy," he said.

By October of 1970 he was playing at Chilkoot Charlie's, fronting a pick-up band (the bass player was also the bartender). Instead of rehashing ballads and weepers, the trio whipped out up-tempo rock tinged with honky-tonk. Whitekeys made a name with his sarcasm, good-natured insults tossed at patrons and witty -- sometimes lightly smutty -- lyrics tossed into parody songs.

Starving to hear live something like the insolent rock they were getting from records, Anchorage teenagers -- "kiddies," he called them (the drinking age was 19 in those days) -- lapped it up and packed into what was then a tiny, narrow tavern.

They weren't always sure who they were listening to.

"We ran the same photo of three guys in the ads every week, but with different names," Whitekeys said. The "Nameless Three" were billed as "Rudy Palmtree and His Exotic Fruits," "Mooster Whitekeys and the Cheechako Nuts" and "Borax Pete, Marshall Good and Joshua Tree."

Marshall Good was a character from the Wallace and Ladmo stable, a terrible Western actor forever in need of a loan. But "Whitekeys," with "Mooster" altered to "Mr.," is the name that stuck.

DANCING SPAM

In 1974 he left Chilkoot's and played a giant, antique pipe organ accompanying silent films at Uncle's Pizza. He called that "a hugely fun gig."

Then, with various bandmates, he played various bars around the state before moving to Seattle, where he played at a bar in Ballard. While there he met a man who had bought property on Lake Spenard with the idea of building a hotel. It would take years of permitting before building could start, and the property currently held two bars, one of which kept going out of business every few months. He offered Whitekeys the ill-starred establishment.

"I expected to go out of business in three months," Whitekeys said. "But the customers wouldn't cooperate."

"Whitekeys is something like a cult figure to a lot of people," wrote Daily News editor Howard Weaver at the opening of the original Fly By Night Club in November, 1980. "It's long been clear that if Alaska was going to find an indigenous troubadour, Mr. Whitekeys was the best bet. His irreverence knows no bounds."

In 1984 he relocated the club to 33rd Avenue and Spenard Road. Funny songs about Alaskan foibles -- from motor homes to snowmobiles to combat fishing -- had long been part of his repertoire. With whacky slides by photographer Tom Sadowski, those songs morphed into the full-blown "Whale Fat" show, billed as presenting "the Alaska which has been tastefully overlooked by every other Alaska show in history."

Locals flocked to smirk and laugh at the silliness drawn from real life in the north -- including misprinted ads and street signs, send-ups of politicians and hilarious depictions of dancing Spam and outhouses. (Spam, the canned meat from Hormel, was a popular menu item at the club; Whitekeys sometimes called his band "The Spamtones." Hormel's lawyers took offense more than once.)

Material was often recycled from show to show and seasonal variations like "Christmas in Spenard" rotated with the follies format.

Election years brought special editions that made pitiless fun of candidates and pundits. The shows quips and barbs were repeated throughout the community and served as a kind of relief valve for voters in danger of taking politics too seriously.

PRIVATE SHOWS

Whitekeys said he hasn't been idle for the past five years. "I've still been out there abusing Alaskan audiences, but at private parties, conventions, non-public events." Like Jay Leno's appearance at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson a year and a half ago, the party for Alyeska Resort's season ticket holders, the Iditarod Banquet and, he said with a straight face, "The Association of Corrosion Engineers Convention."

He's also managed weekly appearances on KTUU-TV, a monthly column in Alaska magazine and DVDs taking a comic view of Alaska.

An avid birdwatcher, he's been serving as the president of the local Audubon Society. "It's amazing how many people come up here for birding," he said. "The worst thing about these rehearsals is that I'll miss the biggest event of the year on Sunday -- the Potter Marsh-a-thon Birding Smackdown."

He'll be rehearsing with a new cast that includes Bridget Sullivan, who was most recently part of the Bette Midler revue at Tap Root and, before that, had the title role in the 2008 production of "Evita" co-produced by Alaska Theatre of Youth, and Kelly Lee Williams, most recently seen in "Tommy" at Mad Myrna's.

"Kelly has everything I look for in a male performer for my shows," said Whitekeys. "He's an incredible singer, a fabulous dancer, deadly funny and he looks good in a dress."

In the Arctic Roadrunner's parking lot, he showed off the pair of huge new high-definition screens that will be part of the show. "I got the two-pack at Costco," he said.

And he displayed a feathered hat adorned with giant moose nugget shapes. For someone best known as a musician, Whitekeys has a certain artistic flare. In years past he collaborated in shows with local artists like Bill Sabo and David Edlefson. He studied art at Duke, he admitted, shaking his head at the idea. "All those art classes, and here I am making moose nugget hats!"

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.


By MIKE DUNHAM
mdunham@adn.com
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