Blues Central owner looks back at shift in Anchorage nightlife

Mike Dunham
Marc Lester

Frank Dahl drove the Alaska Highway to Alaska in 1972, leaving his farm roots in Wisconsin in search of adventure.

This weekend the adventure takes a new turn as Blues Central, the nightclub and restaurant he's owned since 1999, hosts its last patrons at a Saturday night jam session. Fixtures, equipment and even the photos on the walls will be sold starting at noon the next day.

On Wednesday, Dahl, who turns 69 in April, sat in a booth at the Spenard watering hole and talked about how the Anchorage bar scene has shifted over the years.

"You can't let people dance on the bar anymore," he said. "The culture has changed."

One big photo on the wall shows customers doing just that, dancing on the bar. Other photos, most of them signed, show famed performers who played the club or at blues concerts that Dahl had a hand in. B.B. King, John Mayall, Ike Turner, Big Bill Morganfield, The Oak Ridge Boys.

Other photos capture long-gone bars from Alaska's wild years: The ladies of the Penguin Club in all their leggy glory. A three-piece country band at the Alibi Club in 1960. The grand opening of the Malamute on Fourth Avenue in 1955.

"I started working managing hotels for Bill Sheffield when I got here," Dahl said. "Then came the pipeline era, and it was one rock'em, sock'em bar scene."

At one time or other he owned the Steak Pit in Fairbanks, Club Valdez, the Frisco Bar in downtown Anchorage, Iliamna Lake Lodge and other off-road properties. He retains ownership of the Pit Bar in Seward.

But Blues Central, which opened as the Chef's Inn in 1964, is heading into the sunset as Dahl prepares to spend more time with his horses near Tucson, Ariz. The State of Alaska, which has offices next door, has bought the property. Dahl said the immediate plans call for remodeling the bar into offices, perhaps adding a second floor. "But the option of tearing it down is always there."

Dahl said getting more sun was only part of the reason for selling his Anchorage bar. Constant meddling by lawmakers and layers of city and state regulations were also taking their toll, he said.

"Eventually you're looking at one more straw breaking the camel's back," he said. "The hospitality industry is the second largest private employer in Alaska and they treat us like dirt. We're low-hanging fruit, an easy way to show a knee-jerk reaction to constituents."

A case in point, he said, was the municipality's ban on indoor smoking at public facilities: "The ban has hurt us. We used to be full at lunchtime. No more. The people in the ads who say it hasn't hurt their business are just saying that to get some free advertising."

He admits that in the pipeline era, matters sometimes got out of hand: "There were too many crazy things going on. But now the pendulum has swung way the other way. Anchorage used to be a fun city. Not anymore. The pendulum needs to get back to the center. Otherwise, we're going to see more icons like Blues Central go away."

Above all, Blues Central has been a bastion for live music in Anchorage. Dahl said that when he took the place over, he counted 17 bars with bands in town, a number that's now withered to a handful.

Closing the place "was a bittersweet decision to make," he said, adding that he still plans to work with the Alaska Railroad for the annual Blues Train and promote other live music events. "I don't want to sound trite but I consider this to have been an honor and a privilege, to provide stewardship over Blues Central."

Among the high points has been meeting blues giants like B.B. King and Buddy Guy. He often took his guests on fishing trips.

"I'm good friends with Jim Belushi. We went fishing when he played here," he said, gesturing to a photo of Belushi jamming on the tiny Blues Central stage in 2003.

A local band, the Diamonds, plays on Friday night. On Saturday, the club will host one last big blowout jam session for several musicians connected to the place over the years.

At noon on Sunday, and again Monday, the doors will be open for anyone wanting to come in and buy the accoutrements that Dahl is selling off. Those items don't include the name or the liquor license, though that's negotiable.

"If someone had the fire in the belly, I'd love to pass the torch," Dahl said. "Blues Central has a tremendous fan base and those fans would follow it to a different site."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.