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He's baaaaack: Mr. Whitekeys and 'The Whale Fat Follies' return to Spenard

Linda Billington
Loren Holmes photo

You can blame "The Whale Fat Follies" on Alaska Time.

Honest.

Admittedly, that's just part of the story. You can also blame Spenard's most notorious and long-lived satirical musical revue on several occurrences in the early- to mid-'80s. The economic crash sparked by falling oil prices. The state hiking the drinking age from 18 to 21. A mandated reduction in the hours that bars could be open. The exodus of young, single guys who'd come north to work on the pipeline. All of these combined put the financial hurt on local saloons.

But the unappetizing icing on this particular cake, according to Mr. Whitekeys, was the onset of Alaska Time, when the four time zones that encompassed most of the state were consolidated into one.

"They put them together so commerce would flourish with the East Coast," he said.

The result, in Anchorage at least, was that folks who'd been flocking to bars when it got dark at, say, 9:30 p.m. in spring now stayed outside until 10:30 or 11, he said. Ergo, fewer butts on bar stools at local watering holes.

Those watering holes included Mr. Whitekeys' Fly By Night Club, "a sleazy little rock 'n' roll bar" that, after its initial incarnation on the shores of Lake Hood, fetched up at 33rd Avenue and Spenard Road in 1984. Two years later, Whitekeys recalled, "the bar business had gone to hell," for all the aforementioned reasons.

His club needed a lure that would bring folks in well before dark. "So we decided, 'well, let's do a show. Like the old Little Rascals show.'"

He already had some material from years back, when Mr. Whitekeys and the Oosik Music Company rocked out on the bandstand at Chilkoot Charlie's. Just for fun, now and then they'd throw in something off the wall, like a song satirizing an aspect of Alaska's weirdness. One summer, they strung those tunes together and called the result "The Mount McKinley Rock Opera."

Some of those numbers became the core of the first "Whale Fat Follies," along with a rudimentary slide show and a roster of performers featuring Whitekeys on keyboards, singing actress Kim Clifton-Moore, drummer "Sourdough" Mike McDonald and bass player Jesse Barksdale. Jim Henderson did double, and occasionally frantic, duty running the two slide projectors and occasionally racing onstage to morph into auto dealer Cal Worthington or another character.

That first show, Whitekeys said, was "a totally primitive version of what we do today." No more than half the songs were accompanied by slides. Fancy lighting effects were nil.

But that wasn't the point. The point was to fill the bar for the six weeks of the show's run, starting on the Fourth of July. It worked so well, however, that the run stretched into late October, when the "Follies" immediately begat a holiday version, "Christmas in Spenard." Which, a few months later, begat a spring show, "I Heart Spenard" (later "Springtime in Spenard"). And then, once again, came "The Whale Fat Follies," followed by the first fall show, "The Freeze-up Follies" (in election years, "The Ballot Box Follies").

"What wound up happening," said Whitekeys, "was, we created this sleazy, cheesy monster. We got to the point at the end (where) we were doing these shows back to back. You're writing and rehearsing one show during the day and performing another at night. We did that for 20 years. It was nuts."

Jim Kerr was in "I Heart Spenard" and therefore was privy to the insanity of those early shows. His part included juggling (a long ax, a bowling ball and a can of Spam), playing mandolin and drums and even handling some of the lighting.

"I was never bored," he said. "I was always running to do something else."

He wasn't the only one. Whitekeys, Kerr recalled, combined the roles of performer, tech wizard and club owner, often simultaneously.

"He'd be running all the lights with his feet, playing all this material, and then there'd be an emergency at the bar," and he'd have to handle that, Kerr said. "I don't know how he did it ... It was flying by the seat of our pants."

The performers, except for Whitekeys, changed over the years, and new numbers popped up in every show, but the raucous, frequently raunchy humor remained, as did some of the songs. Crowds still hollered at the peculiarly Alaskan striptease. They still clapped, cavorted and conga-lined to the Alaska Railroad harmonica tribute. And they always, always howled at references to Alaska's lone U.S. House member back there in Washington, D.C.

"We would've been out of business long ago if not for Don Young," Whitekeys said.

The mix of old and new works for Springsteen and the Stones, so why not for "The Whale Fat Follies"?

"The 'Follies' is like any concert you go to," he said. "If you don't do some of the original greatest hits, the audience boos and stomps out, and if you don't do some of the new stuff, the audience boos and stomps out."

Whitekeys sold the Fly By Night in 2006 but brought the "Follies" back to its old venue, now the Tap Root Public House, for a summer run in 2011. Then "Christmas in Spenard" returned as well. (The summer of 2013 was barren of "Whale Fat," though, after a cast member's illness caused the run to be canceled.)

The current edition of "The Whale Fat Follies" runs Mondays-Wednesdays until Aug. 20. Taking the stage with Whitekeys this time around are actor/singers Bridget Sullivan and Cameron Morrison, with Justin "Beaver" Somaduroff on bass, "Mudflats" Morgan Welch on drums and Joey H.D. Murphy wielding the slide projectors.

This time, although many favorites will return, a bigger-than-usual chunk of the "Follies" will be new -- ripped, as they say, from the headlines. Of late, those headlines have been remarkably potent fertilizer for the show's crop of crazy.

"Sheesh," Whitekeys said. "Look at the front page every day. There's everything from Pebble mine to legalizing dope to ... gay marriage is in there. Stuff is flying at you from every direction."

That's why, although the "Follies' has traditionally been Whitekeys' least political show ("because it's summertime and there's all this... fishing and camping and all the Alaskan summer stuff"), this year's edition is tilting more toward biting political satire.

But Whitekeys was quick to insist that "we're doing this from the humor standpoint. We're not doing it to stab a political point of view."

Anyway, "I have no political point of view, because I'm too poor to be a Republican and too smart to be a Democrat. I saw that on a bumper sticker somewhere." Well, maybe it was a bumper sticker. "I'm not even sure about that."

Not that it matters. In "The Whale Fat Follies," as frequently in life, "the joke is king."

• Reach Linda Billington at lbillington@adn.com.

The Whale Fat Follies

When: 6:45 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, June 11-Aug. 20

Where: Tap Root Public House, 3300 Spenard Road.

Tickets: $6-$22 plus service charge, available at centertix.net