Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
The doors to four separate Anchorage-area nightclubs burst open simultaneously, throngs of deputy marshals and state police officers rushing in. The lawmen took in the scene, saw a “complete disregard of the new law,” and began arresting employees. Each club became eerily quiet. No one fought back as 36 employees were arrested. It was just after midnight, July 26, 1959. Had these bars violated proscriptions against prostitution? Were they drug dens? While these clubs were likely the site of a litany of crimes, the raid was an attempt to end one of the dreaded scourges of midcentury Alaska: B-girls.
B-girls, also known as hostesses or percentage girls, are women employed by a bar to coax, entice, or seduce men into spending more money. B-girls pretended to be patrons themselves, and thus were most effective and prolific in areas with more transient populations, such as ports or military towns. It is more difficult or simply impossible to pull off the subsequent con in a small-town bar primarily populated with regulars.
In an average B-girl scenario, a woman approaches an unwary patron in a bar and asks him to buy her a drink. For however long his finances endure, the mark, or target of a con, humors the B-girl with increasingly expensive drinks, even entire bottles. Instead of the actual alcoholic beverages, the B-girl drinks tea, unadulterated soda, water, or some other concoction that visually matched the expensive drinks ordered by the mark. So, as the victim becomes increasingly intoxicated, the B-girl remains sober. As the mark’s attention wavers, the B-girl sometimes empties drinks or bottles, paving the way for new purchases. If his money runs out, she makes her excuses and leaves. If he succumbs to his libations, he might be pitched outside while she moves on to ply her trade on another victim. For her labors, the midcentury B-girl was typically paid a salary and received a percentage of the amount spent by the mark.
B-girls were not necessarily sex workers. Some if not many were, but when properly executed, the con requires no physical contact with the mark. A significant aspect of the male outcry against B-girls was the sexual availability — false sexual availability — suggested by the scam. In simple words, the anger toward B-girls was partially based upon the fear that a woman might ask a man to buy her a drink under false pretenses.
The etymology of the term is somewhat contentious. Commonly considered an abbreviation of “bar-girl,” folk historian Peter Tamony claimed it instead derived from “beaded oil,” a drink that mimicked the appearance of whiskey without the performance costs of actual alcohol content. The B-girl of midcentury bar schemes is not related to the more modern B-girl and B-boy terms that emerged out of the early days of breakdance and hip-hop culture.
The practitioners of this specialized hustle appeared like Athena out of men’s minds after the 1933 conclusion of Prohibition. By the late 1930s, the term B-girl was in national use. By the 1940s, B-girls were considered a plague in all the major cities up and down the West Coast. And by the early 1950s, the tenor of discussions over B-girls had reached near hysteria levels, resulting in massive anti-B-girl campaigns in numerous American cities, including San Francisco, Miami, and Chicago. In 1954, a United Press feature, which circulated nationwide, optimistically claimed, “the B-girl racket ... has been on the wane for several years, thanks to crusaders and police officials.” B-girls likewise appeared in Alaska in the 1930s. But like many other fads, fashions and hysterias, the craze over their existence arrived later here, peaking in the mid to late 1950s.
Effective B-girls were highly sought after and well compensated in Anchorage. As with strippers and drag queens, club owners imported many B-girls from the Lower 48. In 1956, the average local B-girl took home an estimated $175 a week, roughly $1,800 in 2021 dollars, plus their percentage of drinks sold. Two years later, a State House candidate cautiously estimated that B-girls took home about $1,000 a month, roughly $9,500 in 2021 dollars.
In 1957, Anchorage Magistrate Burton Biss complained of Alaska construction workers with big bankrolls who “become prey for a horde of hostesses and B-Girls bent on separating them from their money in the shortest possible time.” In some cases, the mark was knocked out with a sedative and rolled for whatever possessions of value were at hand. Sometimes, the victim was beaten and dropped off in the darkness past the edges of town. But in the main, B-girls and the clubs that employed them were content with the profits from basic drink peddling.
Gubernatorial candidate Victor Rivers complained in 1958, “I know of one instance where a fisherman who just came home from the fishing grounds with his family’s entire income for the year went into one of those joints and was fleeced out of $4,000 (about $37,000 in 2021). The management said he drank it up in champagne. Some fisherman.” That same year, an Anchorage-based serviceman claimed a particularly successful B-girl enticed him to spend $1,200, roughly $11,000 in 2021, in a single night. Of course, post-hangover clarity fueled some of the complaints. At least a few of the supposed robberies were actually regret over poor decision making.
The first official response to B-girls in Anchorage came in 1956. That January, the Anchorage City Council debated an ordinance to ban B-girls within city limits. Division among the membership hampered the discussion. Some saw B-girls as a legitimate issue, while others saw it as more of a joke. And others were like Councilman Anton Anderson, who declared, “I think it is unnecessary to try to be moral legislators.”
One councilman admitted he did not know what a B-girl was. A second councilman replied that he only knew about “C-girls,” which made the first councilman ask, “What’s a C-girl?” Before the public debate teetered over into the profane, the conversation was thankfully deflected by an acknowledgment that the term “B-girl” would have to be legally defined for the sake of the ordinance.
At the same meeting, Anchorage Police Chief Thomas “Hank” Miller said, “We have knowledge of only one establishment in Anchorage which had B-girls.” There were, in fact, several if not dozens of B-girl operations within the Anchorage city limits and many more just outside, a reality elsewhere openly acknowledged. Later that year, a grand jury investigation found clubs with B-girls were pervasive in Anchorage. Chief Miller’s unequivocal quote suggests either corruption or incompetence. Coincidentally, he was forced to resign for an “indiscreet” act three months later. Other officers soon followed Miller into unemployment, including the subsequent interim chief.
On Jan. 24, the council finally banned B-girls within Anchorage. Per the ordinance, “It shall be unlawful to employ or allow any female to be employed in a beverage dispensary establishment for the purpose of drinking, dancing, or mingling with the patrons in such establishment.” In other words, strippers remained perfectly legal. However, said women could not directly entice patrons into buying more drinks.
Even then, B-girls operated as an open secret throughout Anchorage, both within and without city limits. In 1958, a local pilot estimated between 120 and 150 active B-girls scattered around the Anchorage club scene. Jimmie Sumpter ran several notorious Anchorage clubs over the years, including many infamous for their B-girls, like the Kit Kat Club, and Buckaroo Club. In the late 1950s, he was charged for a related offense and appeared in court with all 15 female employees, prepared to make a proper circus of the proceedings. Judge Buell Nesbett, future Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, fined him and kicked the lot out of his courtroom. Sumpter immediately paid his fine, and the lot went right back to work.
An October 1957 Juneau Independent editorial offered the most scathing take on Anchorage’s bar scene. Said the paper, “We wonder when Juneau is going to grow up big enough so that we can have all the charms of Anchorage. We look forward to when we can have teen-age hoodlums, B-girls, prostitution, gambling and dope.”
In 1955 and 1957, the Territorial Legislature took passes at B-girl legislation, but both bills died in committee. In 1958, heated arguments between Governor Mike Stepovich and the Territorial Board of Liquor Control derailed another effort to ban B-girls. The Board planned a series of public hearings in Anchorage and Fairbanks, which Stepovich considered beneath the dignity of the governor’s office. Said Stepovich, “I believe the one is morally objectionable and I’m not going to tour the territory sitting on hearings on B-girls.”
Helen Fischer of Anchorage sponsored a new anti-B-girl bill in 1959. As the debate began again, club owners and B-girls, those with the most to lose, spoke against the legislation. One Anchorage proprietor said, with more hope than accuracy, “I really don’t think they are going to pass the law. ... After all, are there not a lot of voters who want things the way they are?” The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner quoted an anonymous Anchorage B-girl, “The politicians are making a big issue over nothing. There is nothing immoral about supplying conversation for men. Besides, I think we are good for morale.”
The bill passed the House with only Robert Sheldon of Fairbanks against it. He argued that B-girls were simply an updated form of Gold Rush-era dance hall entertainers. As Sheldon noted, “Some of them are among our leading citizens and grandmothers today.” The bill subsequently passed the Senate, and on April 14, 1959, the governor signed it into law.
The law took effect on July 14 but was ignored entirely until July 26 in Anchorage, the first enforcement of the new law within the state. Three of the four raided clubs closed immediately, the Pink Garter, Open House and Guys and Dolls, all located just outside city limits. The fourth club, the Last Chance, fought to maintain its liquor license but finally closed in 1964.
The 1959 law did not end B-girls. Nor did the practice ever disappear completely in Anchorage or across the country. Instead, behaviors changed. Clubs and practitioners adapted to their legal restrictions. To this day, the descendants of B-girls are at work, especially in tourist destinations like the French Quarter in New Orleans. The heyday of the B-girl is largely forgotten, but their existence offers a window into a unique aspect of midcentury Anchorage life.
“35 Arrested in B-Girl Raids.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 27, 1959, 1,
“Anti-B-Girl Law Creates Varied Talk.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, March 19, 1959, 2.
“B-Girl Ban Fails, 3-2, as Mike, Williams Argue.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 6, 1958, 15.
“B-Girls Banned in City Area Establishments.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 26, 1956, 16.
“B-Girls ‘Fading Away,’ Survey of Drink Racket Shows.” Miami Herald, December 28, 1954, 2-A.
“Bill on B-Girls Ban Passed Despite Plea.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 14, 1959, 5.
“Biss Calls for Territorial Control Over ‘B-Girls.’” Anchorage Daily Times, September 13, 1957, 7.
“Council Votes to Bar B-Girls Within City.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 18, 1956, 9.
“GOP Hopeful Seeks an End to B-Girls.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 18, 1959, 9.
Kederick, Bob. “All Around Alaska.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 31, 1957, 7.
Kederick, Bob. “Rivers, Elwin Still Feuding Over Liquor.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 20, 1958, 1, 13.
Littauer, Amanda H. “The B-Girl Evil: Bureaucracy, Sexuality, and the Menace of Barroom Vice in Postwar California.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 12, no. 2 (2003): 171-204.
Nesbett, Buell. Interview by Claus-M Naske, July 26, 1982, Solana Beach, CA. Project Jukebox, University of Alaska Fairbanks. jukebox.uaf.edu/site7/interviews/453.
“Police Chief Resigns.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 14, 1956, 1, 9.
“Reno Club Gets Permit.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 16, 1958, 1.
Tamony, Peter. ‘B-Girl. Americanisms, no. 4 (1965): 1-4.